Over the past two days I have blogged about the contrasting trust relationships we NGOs have with communities and donors, how important they are, and yet how frequently they fall short. Both, however, are wonders of mutual respect and cooperation compared to the relationship we have with government.
I think it is hard for anyone in my position to be openly and completely honest about their relationship with government. To be sure there are positive elements; there are genuinely good people in government – well-meaning and able – and we do reach out to each other. Some government policies, moreover, can be truly enlightened to the benefit of ordinary citizens, although regrettably implementation often falls somewhat short of ideal.
Sometimes government objections are reasonably founded, or based upon miscomprehensions which are readily appreciated and not unreasonably derived. However, it can be hard to spot those amongst the general tide of basic intransigence; the default attitude that they should impede your proposals unless given a reason not to, rather than the other way around. New ideas and new approaches are greeted with suspicion: this is not the way things are done around here!
Deciphering exactly what is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, if you are experienced (not just generally, but with the specific culture in which you are working) and working closely with local partners, then these problems should be minimised. Thereafter you are in a world of political shadow-boxing and doublespeak, in which few things are exactly what they mean, and your real task is to decipher the real issues, and what perverse incentives may lie behind the words chosen. Then you need to respond in kind, with a tip of the hat to the justification originally supplied by the official(s), but also addressing what you hope is the underlying cause. Liberal application of per diems can often work wonders!
But finally, many obstructions are raised because your project threatens a little off-the-books sinecure or maybe bigger vested interests. A few per diems will not solve this problem. So instead we have to resort to the same nonsense; allies are sought, reassurances are given, half promises made, attention is distracted with a big workshop which conveniently glosses over the proposed transfer of power from bureaucrats to ordinary people.
Little of this will be news to anyone who has spent much time in the aid industry, and it regrettably fits all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of life in the “third world”. But where is the trust in this relationship? Donors expect us to work in partnership with government, though, contradictorily, they also fund civil society groups to add dissenting voices to otherwise untrammelled government propaganda dressed up as participatory consultation exercises. I hate it when we find ourselves having to resort to sleight of hand and political trickery. Mostly we only use it on the littlest of things, for it is no way to handle strategically important issues; these need to be properly thrashed out.
The aid industry is founded upon noble ideals, but its practice can be anything but. Is the local MP the people’s popular representative or a venal kleptocrat? What do you do when the answer is both? We want the government to coordinate but may deliberately fail to give them all the information they need. We want the government to enforce its laws but get frustrated when they do so in perverse ways. Self-righteously proclaiming oneself the saviour of poor people and riding roughshod over officious objections in their name is no solution, but then neither is following the path of negligible impact which many government officials would prefer you take.
Having the trust of local government is a vital badge for most NGOs engaged in development work, and we wear it proudly. But sometimes I wonder if it stands for anything more than a few inane platitudes from the guest of honour at our last workshop. I cling to the belief that it does, and the good, comparatively trusting relationships we have with the genuinely concerned and committed government officials is the basis for something nobler. I just wish that belief were not swamped in a thicket of dissimulation, from which the precious virtue of trust seems to have been all but extinguished.