Expectations management is a big part of any community development work; no project will make everyone rich over night, but just like rich world dieters in search of no-effort weight loss, that’s what many poor people will hope for.
Donors also need their expectations managed. All donors are ambitious for what they can achieve with their money, and when applying for funds we frequently have to over-promise what we can do with the budget. (I’m still sufficiently naïve and green behind the ears that this generates considerable stress when, unsurprisingly, we struggle to meet the ‘stretch’ (!) targets we set ourselves.) Bigger INGOs, perhaps, suffer less from this as donors can feel more confident in the decision to give them money anyway, but they still appear more than capable of dreaming up ridiculously grandiose project concepts.
Most donor money, however, does not get spent through NGOs but through direct engagement with the recipient government. This can give donors something of a challenge as they struggle to come up with enough good ideas on to which to unload their barrel-loads of cash. Given their failure rate, you can be sure that their definition of success is pretty low.
I was reminded of this sorry state of affairs by the recent posts Aid Thoughts hosted on the Malawi agricultural inputs subsidy programme. These provided an interesting counterpoint to the prevailing view of the programme as a big success, and a home-grown one at that, although the degree of donor opposition appears uncertain. Both posts suggested the positive assessments of the programme might have been a bit simplistic and did not necessarily ask all the right questions. I don’t know enough about the detail of the situation to comment in more detail, but the queries posed in the posts all seemed worthy of attention, and the sustainability of such a large budget outlay certainly does concern me.
However, I wonder to a certain extent whether Aid Thoughts’ contributors were asking the right questions? If you’re a donor with a huge pile of wonga to push out the door, then something that soaks up a big chunk of it whilst doing a reasonable amount of good is going to look pretty attractive, especially one that reaches a large number of rural poor, doesn’t appear too leaky or to have many immediate down sides, is relatively simple and, best of all, is championed by the recipient government.
For those jaded donor bureaucrats going for the least wasteful option might seem like a pretty good criterion for choosing what to support. Expectations of achieving good – who needs them?