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.

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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.

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