Archive for the ‘Donors’ Category

No no no

I sincerely hope this comment was taken out of context:

“The problem of providing rural water around the world hasn’t been cracked,” said Philippe Dongier, World Bank country director for Tanzania. “You could say, ‘if that’s not going to be sustainable, why should we build it?’ But that could be said all over the world.”

That’s from Tom Murphy’s investigation into the World Bank’s $1.4bn failed water project in Tanzania. Alas I reckon Tom’s journalistic standards are likely to be better than the World Bank’s sustainability policies.

It’s with this kind of rubbish that international aid agencies shoot themselves in the foot. And yet they express bewilderment at the growing opposition to official aid by various right wing groups in donor countries.


Humble gratitude

“Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right.”

So said I a couple of days ago. Something worth remembering, especially for those of us who work for NGOs and are fond, as I am, of bashing donors on a regular basis. Unfortunately always easier to remember when you hear others complaining than when launching into one’s own remonstration.

Thank you.

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.

Aid as democracy enabler?

Whilst on the subject of disagreeing with Angus Deaton*, I re-read Chris Blattman’s commentary recently. Blattman made an interesting point about aid supporting the emergence of democracy in post-conflict situations such as Uganda and Liberia where Blattman has worked. The basic sense of his argument, that aid money helped those countries get back on their feet having chosen a proto-democratic path, seems clear enough. Clearly the link is not automatic: recent events in South Sudan show that just having lots of aid money around does not ensure a steady upward path, but I am more than happy to buy the basic idea, that, other things being equal, aid would help and potentially help quite a lot with the transition.

This line of reasoning can easily be extended. Just as the presence, even if largely wasted, of a big aid programme can provide cover for small local NGOs to do good things (I’ve seen cases of this), so maybe the promise of aid money can provide some cover to would be democratizers. I.e. at the margin, the presence of Western donors with deep pockets might plausibly increase the attractiveness of democracy to poor country elites (obviously the same cannot be said of the Chinese). Probably impossible to prove, but it is one of those enticing thoughts that you can see politicians grabbing on to.**

On the negative side of the ledger, the incentive value of lots of aid money would be paradoxically lower when accompanied by strong anti-corruption measures. But on the positive side such an incentive could be seen as the first step on a whole ladder of rising levels of cash support for good behaviour such as I’ve mused about before. It’s never going to happen, of course, and even in the case of democracy, I am sure all parties would deny the cash offer was anything as grubby as a bribe. But if Deaton is concerned with the theoretical undermining of the social contract caused by aid, then this is a nice theoretical riposte.

Next week, back to the messy real world in which bribes are paid all the time, even if they’re not called bribes …

* On the subject of international development aid. He can keep his intellectual authority status on other bits of development economics.

** I guess the Neo-Cons under Bush did exactly that!

Messy reality beats philosophy

Catching up on my listening as well as my reading included enjoying the Xmas time edition of Development Drums that was an interview with Angus Deaton in the wake of his recent book the Great Escape that, amongst other things, severely criticises international development aid. I would recommend a listen to the whole thing*, but here is a grossly simplified summary of the key exchanges (which start from about 40mins in):-

Deaton: Aid should be spent for the benefit of poor people, but not in poor countries, as, in the long run at least, aid spent there will always undermine the social contract (we elect you and pay our taxes, we expect half-decent leadership in return).

Barder: What about Anti-RetroViral drugs (ARVs) used to fight AIDS? Surely that is a massive improvement to millions of poor peoples’ wellbeing that was achieved through aid?

Deaton: Well, yes, so I would allow that kind of an exception, but I would announce that this programme of support will expire in ten years time,  allowing time for the people to force their government into funding it instead.

Oh dear! Two very obvious problems with this solution:

  1. It won’t work. Aid dependency is far too entrenched. The donors would be blamed not the local political leaders. That might fit with Deaton’s philosophical argument, but isn’t much use in the real world.
  2. Why 10 years? Why not add on another 10 and make it 20 years? I’ve got a few more exceptions I can think of … Where, in other words, do you draw the line when back on the slippery slope? You will always find someone with a well marshalled argument to draw the line that little bit lower.

Surprisingly Barder never explicitly tests Deaton on those two points, but he does tie him in a few knots with other thoughtful probing, before Deaton remembers that a big part of the ARVs success story was achieved by lobbying (especially by the Clinton Foundation and their army of bright, young things) in rich countries to get Big Pharma to reduce their prices, i.e. it satisfies his requirement about where aid money should be spent. That wouldn’t, however, entirely get him off the hook, as I suspect many of those reduced cost ARVs are still being paid for with donor money.

All of which is a bit of a shame, because apart from that Deaton makes a number of very good points, and much of his criticism of international aid is valid and insightful. But, as many academics are wont to do, by keeping his argument (in this case) strongly rooted in philosophical (some might say ideological) foundations, he fails to grapple with the messy politics and complexity of the real world. Also ironic, as, according to Owen Barder, Deaton is known for careful treatment of data.

* And British listeners can enjoy a nice little audio pun at the end!

Throwing away soft power

“[Justine Greening] believes that the aid budget is not just about alleviating poverty, however important that may. It is also about easing the passage for great British commercial firms in emerging markets and ensuring the resources are more carefully marshalled.”

That from a sycophantic interview with the UK Minister of International Development in the Daily Mail. Alas it is all part of a pattern: Canada, Australia and Norway have all recently folded their international development departments back into their foreign ministries. (Without having ever been particularly close to bilateral aid action, I am not sure that such organisational restructuring, in and of itself, is such a bad thing, but the message in terms of how aid is treated is not good.)

This change in strategy may be not only nakedly self-serving, but also self-defeating. Despite all the hype, Chinese aid is not always as popular as is sometimes made out due to their habit to force their own commercial conditions on to things. (Roads get built by Chinese companies, employing Chinese labour etc.) While the choice was between Western moralizers and Chinese leeches I felt there was still a reasonable contest of ideas. But subjugating aid to self-interest in this way seems tantamount to hoisting the white flag.

Hat tips: Alex Evans and Peter B

Why I write what I write

Happy birthday to me! Or, more accurately, happy birthday to this blog, which started with an opinionated post entitled Sustainability 3 years ago today. The blog has proved at least as sustainable as your average aid project, with 240 odd posts written since then, about 80 per year. Combined verbiage is over 110,000 words, and page views cruised over 30,000 some time ago (including email and RSS subscribers roughly doubles that). I reckon the average post is read by a modest crowd of about 250 people. As to why you read it, only you can say, but I can tell you why I write it, or more particularly, why I choose to write about the things I do.

Two dominant themes have emerged and slightly surprised even me with the frequency that I have chosen to write about them:

  1. I blog rather more about general development issues than I do about conservation specific ones.
  2. I spend an awful lot of time complaining about donors.

Both are outcomes of this blog’s basic premise: to put across the view from the coal face of implementing an actual community-based conservation programme on the ground in the tropics. Working in this context it is impossible to escape the critical fact that just about every single other stakeholder that one deals with is far more interested in economic development than they are in conservation. If you do not learn to sing to this tune pretty quickly your project will be one long and probably unsuccessful struggle.

It is also the context in which you live your life; when the electricity cuts out it affects you. When a government official is not interested in joining you in the field because they would prefer to be back in the office collecting bribes it affects your work, quite apart from all the direct impacts of poor governance on biodiversity conservation (elephant poaching, illegal logging etc). It becomes apparent pretty quickly that most solutions to conservation problems in the tropics have precious little to do with biology, and a lot more to do with basic economics and governance issues.

But in many ways, when it comes to implementing any actual conservation programme, all of that is of secondary importance. For if you have a well designed programme (admittedly a big if), then your principle constraint will be how much money donors give to you and under what conditions. So whilst moaning about arcane details of ever-changing reporting requirements issued by your (least) favourite donor might not seem quite as inspiring as all that glorious biodiversity, if you want to have any chance of saving that biodiversity then dealing with such things becomes critical. And if, by extension, you want to improve the rather disappointingly poor success rate of conservation projects in the tropics, then persuading donors to mend their ways might just be one of the most important jobs you could do.

As it is, most of my time I spend focused on more immediate issues, but occasionally I write a piece for this blog in the hope that someone, somewhere with the actual power to change some of these things is paying attention. The not-so-glamorous life of a conservationist in the tropics.

Wherefore art thou Aid?

Nancy Birdsall and William Savedoff have an excellent piece over at CGD about one of the hidden pitfalls that lie in wait putting into practice a Cash on Delivery aid programme. In it they describe how targets, often a good thing for benchmarking performance, can fatally undermine implementation of COD. The problem boils down to this: if the donor government expects to disburse $2m through a COD programme and the recipient government expects to receive $2m through said programme, then it can be very difficult to deviate from that even though in practice one would expect variance either positive or negative, with negative deviation being the trickier but more likely scenario.

One can understand the recipient government’s situation; they would surely always want to get the full $2m even when, according to the agreed formula, their performance only merits $600k. But, what I find particularly disappointing is the tendency for the donor to want to disburse the cash any way. There are explanations of a sort: the donor has budgeted that amount, so returning it to their home treasury can mean reduced budgets in future, and maybe the desk officer find themselves in a tricky situation in their relationship with the beneficiary government, which is most easily resolved by giving in, and handing over the full amount. But none of these are very satisfactory. Pressure to disburse can be resisted with a little bit of backbone, and donor governments seem able to cope with varying budgets for things like unemployment benefit, so surely ought to be able to cope with aid budgets that fluctuate?

In my opinion the real issue, and one which fatally undermines so much of official development aid, is that the whole international aid system is constructed around the needs of the donors, not the recipients. Hence the desire to push out the $2m regardless. If we can agree that COD aid is at least an idea good enough to be worth trying, why are we trying to shoe-horn it into a rigid budgeting framework that will not support it?

The problem is that it is the act of giving which has come to be celebrated, not the outcomes of that giving. Politicians get the media coverage they crave when they announce the donation, not when (if?!?) the programme delivers on its promises. Why else the ridiculous focus on aid budgets reaching 0.7% of GDP?

If we wanted to design a system to actually deliver useful benefits to poor people world wide, rather than to reward donors, we would never come up with the system we have now. Cash on Delivery seems like an eminently sensible step in the right direction, but I fear that the required wholesale reform of the aid system is unlikely to occur before market forces and economic conversion over time remove it much of its original raison d’être, as has happened recently with the cessation of British government aid to India.

But in the meantime, if the mainstream media, in developing as well as developed countries, could learn a little self-restraint, and refuse to report any announcements of aid, just maybe we might start to have a chance …

M&E – a top-down imposition

Yesterday I promised you some reflections on Prichett et al.’s working paper on improving monitoring and evaluation. They correctly identify that rigorous impact evaluation works too slowly for most management purposes, costs a lot (putting it beyond many project implementers), and is often highly context specific so not readily generalizable (the standard critique of randomized control trials).

Their proposed solution is to insert a second (lower case) ‘e’ that stands for experiential learning: MeE. In particular they propose that project managers should have considerable freedom to adaptively manage their project, and moreover should be encouraged to try different approaches to see what works best, thus avoiding the problem of over-specificity that I highlighted in the quotes I pulled out in yesterday’s post. They suggest that this will give much more like the real-time information that project managers need, as well as exploring more cost-effectively different project designs, than establishing a separate RCT for each one. (Which may not be sufficient any way, as which design is optimal may be context-specific.)

It is an excellent paper, and their proposal has a lot to recommend itself if you work for a big development agency. But, I cannot see it working very well at the small NGO end of the market where I operate. The problem is not really specific to experiential learning as to the whole gamut of impact evaluation as it applies to project design and management amongst small NGOs. If I think about the best small NGOs I know and have worked with, several features are often apparent that reduce the incentives for impact evaluation:

  • Small NGO types tend to be ‘doers’ rather than ‘thinkers’ – given the choice we will nearly always invest more money in implementation than M&E.
  • Many small NGOs have fairly modest aims which do not need sophisticated M&E to assess.
  • Other small NGOS are of the nimble innovator types. They may be iterating too rapidly for it to be easily captured in M&E, and do not have resources to iterate in such a systematic manner.
  • Such NGOs have the capacity to learn very rapidly internally for relatively little investment of time and effort; there is no big institutional ship to turn around. Instead, for these small NGOs new learning leads rapidly to more impact and the potential for more learning.
  • In contrast clearly analysing and communicating these lessons can involve a significant investment of effort that does little (except perhaps to support fund-raising) to deliver better results on the NGO’s chosen impact bottom line.
  • Thus generating new learning and achieving greater immediate impact can be much cheaper for such NGOs than disseminating lessons already learned.

Donors and small NGO partners obviously have a role to play in helping offset this tendency (which is not always 100% healthy), but, as I have remarked before, there seems to me to be an inherent contradiction in the calls both for bigger/better M&E and nimbler project implementation in an attempt to mimic the rapid success of internet-era start-ups.

The contradiction becomes more apparent when one realises that while business may regularly monitor all manner of variables that are relevant to their business (e.g. page hits as well as sales), they always have an instant answer when you ask about their ‘impact’: it’s the size of their profits. No construction of the counter-factual required there!

I also suspect that few aid beneficiaries care much about what any impact evaluation may or may not say so long as they are getting good results out of the project itself. Thus it becomes clear that much M&E, and certainly impact evaluations, are essentially a top-down imposition by donors understandably keen to know the results of their funding, and at odds with the bottom up approach many people in development advocate.

So the real question is: does the donor and wider-development community get value for money from the impact evaluations they demand? This is a question that Prichett et al. raise several times. The answer seems to be related to the challenge of scaling up, a relentless pressure in a lot of conservation and development work that I have repeatedly queried (e.g. see here and here.) I.e. impact evaluation and Prichett et al.’s experiential learning is all about learning how to move from a successful pilot to national programmes and similar projects in other countries.

Here I return to the internet start-up analogy. Did Google get where it is as a result of an impact evaluation? No it grew organically! If you want more bottom up development, which this blogger does, maybe the solution is less evaluation and more of a market-based approach in which successful implementers are simply invited to replicate their successes along the lines that I suggested yesterday?

Now before I chuck the whole M&E set overboard, a few basic points need to be made in return. Firstly, and most obviously, claiming ‘success’ is easy when all you need to do is check your bank balance. Determining which pilot projects are successful is not always so straightforward – although not always as difficult as might be supposed – and essentially requires some kind of impact evaluation. Indeed the converse problem often arises of a new fad rapidly gaining popularity far faster than evidence of its efficacy: the micro-lending boom comes to mind. And as those classic RCTs around improving educational attainment in Kenya show, sometimes it’s not so much about what is successful, but what gives the most success for your money. Indeed, Pritchett et al. lament the demise of project ‘valuation’ and computation of value-for-money metrics by large development agencies.

I conclude that idealists who want all their development to be 100% bottom up are living in cloud cuckoo land. Even if we dismantled the whole international aid industry, governments still regularly engage in this sort of thing within their own countries, often under pressure from their own electorates. So if the people want development aid then the paymasters are going to need to some evidence on which to base their decisions. Most of all, what this humble blogger would really like to see, is donors actually paying attention to these things, instead of continuing to commit large chunks of funding to projects and programmes they know are doomed. Better to over-fund something that has a decent chance of success than flush your money down the plughole of the utterly unfeasible.

Are donors getting value for money from the impact evaluations they demand? Only if they act on the results!

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