Posts Tagged ‘0.7% GDP’

The future of Big Aid

A friend and colleague has challenged me to respond to this post on IIED’s blog that reported on a debate asking whether “development aid has a future”?

Much as I might be up for a bit of blogosphere wonk-warring, I find it hard to disagree with the main points made in the post. In fact, if I wanted to be facetious for a moment, I might suggest that maybe the panellists had been reading this blog:

Of course that would be facetious since none of those posts of mine were particularly original thinking, and you will find many similar thoughts expressed by others both in and outside the blogosphere. And, yes, many of us find it hard to contemplate throwing the (development) baby out with the (aid) bathwater, because most of us are swimming in that same bath water!

But I do find it ironic that just when big Aid is enjoying some of the highest levels of political support it has ever received, the entire model is under question perhaps as never before. Many countries classified by the World Bank as low income are expected to follow Ghana and graduate to middle income status in the next decade. Aid is believed to have played only a very small part, if any, in this success, but may well have made many millions of lives better in the mean time.

“What is aid for?” asked Scrivener. Apparently it’s not to help the giver win big commercial contracts. My guess is that most private donations for development are motivated out of compassion and simple altruism, and yet when our governments give money often politicians seek to justify it in terms of self-interest. Are they just responding to a right-wing vocal minority or is this what we expect of our leaders?

In light of the above points I would recast Scrivener’s question into three parts:

  • Why do people/institutions/governments give money?
  • What can we reasonably expect to achieve with that?
  • How will these motivations and ambitions change in a rapidly changing world?

Big, awkward questions all, tailor-made for ducking by politicians. Like all such challenges, I suspect we won’t really get a chance to find out the answers till a big (climate-driven?) crisis comes along and yanks us out of the status quo. So actually it may well be the third question which ends up driving answers to the first two.

Fat cats make good accountants

Amidst all the kerfuffle arising from the  revelations last month about supposed ‘fat cats’ of Aid gobbling up too big a portion of DFID’s budget (and that led to the line by line review of DFID’s budget I blogged about yesterday), I have yet to read any analysis of why this has happened. Those stony hearts on the right want simply to reduce the aid budget, whilst those on the left lament that more money should go to the intended recipient countries.

I’ll give you the answer in one sentence: many would be contractors from developing countries do not generate reports to high enough standards nor keep good enough accounts to keep busy aid bureaucrats confident that money is being well spent. This, of course, is a sweeping generalization, and ignores elements of culture (sharing a common culture can greatly increase ones sense of confidence in a contractor). I have no doubt that many people and organisations in developing countries are capable of this, and the fact that at least one Indian company apparently got a big contract is testament to that. However, in the least developed countries (often the biggest aid recipients) this capacity is likely to be lowest.

The Daily Fail may well rage at these ‘fat cats’ of Aid, but imagine their scorn if they were to read reports written in mangled English by people for whom this is not their first language, and/or who just did not get good enough schooling in writing proper English. (A skill which is quite distinct from analytical thinking and empathy with poor people that are two of the most important abilities in doing practical development work.) And this whole storm in a teacup would quickly be recognised as such if it were instead discovered that significant corruption had occurred in DFID-funded programmes. If there is one person the Daily Fail hates more than a fat cat it is a corrupt foreign official!

If, as seems apparent, the proportion of DFID funds spent on UK-based consultants is going up, then I would suggest one simple reason: DFID’s own budget is rising quickly while staffing levels have been reduced. In such a situation DFID’s remaining staff will naturally look for good ways to get rid of big chunks of money at once. As I have previously noted, I think this is a false economy: at some point larger transaction overheads (as a proportion of funds disbursed) will have to be incurred if you are going to achieve high quality results in countries where government capacity is low.

For this reason, although I disagree with their reasoning (e.g. see Terence Wood’s demolition of Lord Ashcroft’s ill-informed ‘golden taps’ diatribe), I actually agree to some extent with the aid critics. DIFD should drop its misguided focus on the entirely artificial target of spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid and development, and instead simply seek to generate the best development outcomes that it can. If DFID can demonstrate that a budget increase will effectively deliver more good and the British Treasury can afford it, then it should spend more, but if not then it should not spend money just because it has it in the department budget (the standard donor failing). If development aid is a ‘race’ then it is not a sprint to 0.7% of GDP; it is a marathon, and the finish line is elimination of widespread poverty, which despite significant progress in recent years regrettably remains a distant target.

My conclusion from two years ago still stands:

“Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.”

Do we need more Aid?

Lots of hand-wringing this week in New York about poor progress towards the benighted Millennium Development Goals. (Texas in Africa has an excellent post about exactly who is doing the hand-wringing.) It is good to see top level acknowledgement (from the very top!) that business as usual in the aid industry is not going to solve the problem. However, the old 0.7% of GDP argument is rearing its head again, with the UK promising to up its donations to that figure by 2013 at the same time as implementing a whole raft of reforms about how it provides aid. Do I think this is sensible? No I do not, and here’s why.

There is a huge gap between a successful pilot project and a wide scale programme of intervention. When an intervention is scaled up in this way a savvy donor will lean on upon the government of the beneficiary country to ensure that someone good is put in charge of the new programme. This person may well be very able and impressive, and sitting in comfy aircon offices in the capital, it can be easy to be beguiled by these people – after all, they’re our chosen partners. But, the person in charge is not the person on the ground implementing the programme. They will likely be of much lower calibre, and working in a management system that is mildly dysfunctional at best. In actual fact all the donor’s hopes are vested in a bunch of pretty junior employees who are a long way from the supervision of the donor’s chosen champion. Even if the beneficiary government wanted to overhaul their civil service, they would be greatly constrained by the talent pool available.

In my experience the closer one is to a project, the more one sees the problems, when from the outside it may appear all is well (and this applies as much to our projects as any others). Some of the biggest problems are at the sharp end, in actual service delivery; here capacity is at its lowest (development speak for incompetence is at its highest) and management skills almost non-existent. Yet the donors by and large trust these local government officials to deliver key projects and services, and just suck up the all the reports of ‘success’ which are sent to them.

It is true that part of the blame lies with recipient governments. Donors can do little to clean up corruption and improve management practices – these things need to come from within. A lot of responsibility lies with donors who are maddeningly inconsistent both between themselves and over time (witness DFID’s back-tracking on general budget support) with conditions upon grants and loans often subsequently relaxed. They ignore basic issues like sustainability.

However, the rest of the aid industry (especially aid advocates) are also often guilty of mistaking local success stories with the next silver bullet and making wild extrapolations. Take, for example, the Guttmacher Institute’s estimate of $180 million for the annual cost of providing effective maternal health care to every Ethiopian women who wants it. (HT: Owen Barder) Now I’ve never worked in women’s health issues in Ethiopia; maybe there really is that capacity in the health system (Ethiopia does have a reputation for more efficient implementation of aid projects), and maybe the Guttmacher Institute have really researched the issue to its utmost limits, but I hope they will excuse me if I am just a little bit sceptical because I don’t see any capacity like that where I am.

The development sector is not just a pipe into which if you pour more money one day, more impact will come out the other end the next day. Where ‘absorptive capacity’ does not exist the additional funds will either go unspent, be wasted on unnecessary overheads, or be stolen. NGOs such as the one where I work continually have to battle to convince donors as to our absorptive capacity (not entirely unreasonably), and yet donors appear happy to continue to pour in more money into government systems which manifestly have considerably lower management capacity.

Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.

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