Posts Tagged ‘altruism’

It’s Our Money

How much should donors get to have a say in how their money is spent?

African activists fighting for the rights of homosexuals have issued a strong statement opposing David Cameron’s threat to cut aids to countries that mistreat homosexuals that I blogged about yesterday. A common theme that cuts through both the initial Ugandan journalists’ response that triggered my post, my own thoughts, and the activists’ statement is the question of what say do donors have in such matters. I want to talk about some generalities first, and then get back to specifics on this issue.

Firstly, international aid is a voluntary act by donors. Depending upon your point of view, it may or may not be entirely altruistic, but it is not an obligation under international law or any such like. (Conceivably this could change under a climate change agreement, with rich countries compensating poor countries for all the CO2 they’ve already omitted, but expect the rich countries to fight this one tooth and nail.)

This voluntary nature means that the donors really do get to decide how and where they want to spend it. That is how the world works. Sensible donors will give due attention to how they can be of most assistance, and try to structure their aid accordingly. Those donors that do not may be stupid and/or complete hypocrites, e.g. Bush’s restrictions on PEPFAR money usage, but it is their mistake to make.

Advocates of good aid (including me!) understandably get frustrated when they see donors trying to get too demanding about exactly how their money should be spent, especially if it is spent badly. However, one thing that I’ve picked up repeatedly from non aid cogniscenti, is that developing countries (and their advocates in donor countries) ought to show a little bit of gratitude from time to time for receiving some of the donor country’s taxpayers’ money. We too can easily slip into a position where it sounds like we have presumed that developing countries are entitled to aid (as opposed to simply deserving), and, by implication that we, their advocates, are entitled to help spend some of that money. (I suspect I have been guilty of such multiple times on this blog.)

Thus, even if they are counterproductive, some donor conditions are to be expected. For bilateral government donors these are likely to be substantially determined by the views of their own electorate. They are often intolerant of corruption, and so anti-corruption measures are often a strong part of aid conditionality (for all the good that they do). Human rights are another classic example of the intrusion of developed country politics into the international aid business.

And if you do not like the conditions then just turn down the money! In cases of bad aid conditionality it is often not only the donors who are at fault, but supine recipient country governments who have become substantially dependent upon aid. (Even where it makes up only a small proportion of the budget, aid often pays for a big proportion of training workshops, junkets and other in-kind benefits off which local civil servants feed voraciously.)

Back on to David Cameron’s threat:

  • The BBC news piece says that this came out of a review of the “future relevance of the Commonwealth”, which suggests that at least some level of consultation went into this.
  • The threat certainly reflects the views of a large chunk of the British electorate. Ignoring this issue may have ultimately generated an even bigger backlash against all aid.
  • Donor clarity on the nature of conditions attached to aid is a good thing. (See here and here for my previous musings on this.) Viewed from this light, Cameron’s threat could be criticised for still giving too much wriggle room.

On the debit side:

  • At least some activists clearly do not want this threat, and consider it counter-productive. They make some pretty compelling points. If I were Cameron I would give a lot of weight to this consideration.
  • Forces a culture clash when maybe one could have been avoided: on average as countries get richer homophobia seems to wane.
  • Homosexual people may suffer more from having aid withdrawn than from abuse by their government.

These are some serious potential downsides that I had not considered fully before I read the activists’ response. But if you ask me would I like my tax money to go to a government that locks up people just for being gay I would say no. No matter how you might try to qualify the original question by adding riders about pragmatic solutions and appropriate cultural relativism, it’s hard to avoid the simple moral clarity of the original question.

This leads me to a clarification. I don’t claim to know the finer points of the UK government position, but I do not believe this should be about foisting our views on other people. I do not believe we should be asking people in developing countries to like gays just because we’re giving them some aid money. Neither do I think we should be asking such countries to pass equal rights regulation similar to what we have in the UK; without broad civil-society support this would be empty legislation, unenforced and probably unenforceable. But I do not think it is unreasonable – unwise maybe, but not unreasonable – to ask such countries not to actively persecute homosexuals.

Thus, I return to my original stance, with a slight adjustment. All in all I think this is probably a fight that was best not picked. Now that it has been picked, however, I find it hard to disagree with. That said, if I were Cameron, I would make strenuous efforts to take on board the views of local activists (maybe some support the threat?), and at the minimum seek to ensure this threat did not set back their own position and efforts any further. Maybe, for once, a bit of diplomatic obfuscation around the exact nature of the conditionality might not be such a bad thing.

Beating up on Evil Inc (CSR reprised)

Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes“Negative vibes man, always with the negative vibes.”

J’s first aid blog forum on CSR is officially closed now, but I felt compelled to post again on this subject. As Sam Gardner put it: “the negativity of the academia and practitioners oozes from my screen.” I think that’s unfortunate.*

The basic complaint, reiterated in many postings, is that corporate donors always want something out of the relationship too, that in the end it’s all just marketing, and that there isn’t an altruistic bone in the corporates’ bodies. Duh! All donors want something out of the relationship. USAid even go so far as to demand marketing plans from NGOs they fund. (Apologies to all regular readers for mentioning this twice inside a week!) Calls to draw the line apply, in my mind, equally to all donors. In my experience, at least the corporates are more honest about the nature of the relationship they want.

Marc Bellemare reduces everything to the bottom line, and it is hard to disagree with his analysis, but I don’t think it tells the whole tale. By analogy we might as well reduce all humans to biochemical gene propagation machines (à la Richard Dawkins) and contend that there is no such thing as true altruism. As with natural selection, one simple mechanism can lead to such incredibly complex and varied outcomes that simply taking the reductionist approach at all times obscures the wood for the trees.

I can also relate to the sense of hypocrisy that development and conservation folk may feel when some corporate spokesman stands up and says “We are donating this … bla, bla … consistent with our values … bla, bla.” Like what “values” exactly? It’s just the bottom line, innit? But I think this makes the opposite error of seeing only the wood and not the trees. For corporations are not monolithic, indivisible organisations solely and remorselessly dedicated to the bottom line. They are made up of people, many of whom are likely to be far from evil. These gene propagation machines feel better about themselves (maybe leading to better gene propagation?) if they think they are contributing to something good and worthwhile. In short CSR is good for HR.

Most (all?) of the bloggers bemoaning the evil corporation and its cynical CSR programmes are from the West, the same West which is responsible for invading other countries, all sorts of unfair trade rules, refusal to acknowledge responsibility for pushing the world to the brink of eco-catastrophe, and other assorted evilness. And yet when said bloggers engage with people from developing countries, I assume they hope that their would be beneficiaries do not react simply as if they represent everything that the West stands for, but kinder, more agreeable individuals. We should offer the same readiness to engage to corporations. Beating up on then as evil personified will get us nowhere.

* The honourable exceptions were Dave Algoso’s excellent, balanced post, whose central point I have merely expanded, and others by Lu and Emily.

Paternalism in Development

Bill Easterly bizarrely posits feminism as the anti-thesis of paternalism, arguing that paternalism in development is a bad thing, and because he is against paternalism, he must be some kind of feminist. So I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest that a bit of paternalism is almost essential in many aid projects. Hopefully no-one will interpret that to mean I am an anti-feminist.

First the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. (Feminism can thus be viewed as a countervailing force to some aspects of paternalism, but that is only part of the story.) Paternalism also comes with a strong current of hubris, and misplaced paternalism explains many of the failures of the past 50 years of international development aid.

But … whilst respect for the knowledge and skills of the community is a minimum requirement for effective development work in any remote, rural community, we must also recognise the following:

  1. Said poor people want to become richer people, and to live lives more like ourselves.
  2. They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.

(These arguments hold much less water in poor urban communities who are more exposed to what a modern economy looks like.)

Hence these poor rural communities are often heavily reliant on us advising them and acting upon their behalf, often advocating to other elites what we perceive to be their interests. (A strong trust relationship with the communities we’re supporting is a prerequisite.) And if we’re not doing it you can be sure the various local and national government authorities will be doing so, often, unfortunately, with worse results.

Does doing this make me feel uncomfortable – yes it does! Is there an alternative? Yes, but it involves so much capacity building that it would take a generation before the community are really ready to take on the necessary roles, during which time next to no development would take place. (You can guess which option the poor would go for, though they certainly appreciate the capacity building too.) So in practice we have to make paternalistic decisions on behalf of the communities we support on a fairly regular basis. Sceptics are entitled to call us out for our hubris – indeed I think such questioning plays a vital role in keeping our paternalism in check – but practical alternatives are thin on the ground.

A good example of this in current conservation practice is the desire for full free, prior and informed consent before initiating land or resources based projects such as REDD+. The principles are incredibly important, but there’s a limit to how much you should sensibly invest in such a process before you need to move forward with a project. Anyone who claims a community was 100% fully informed before such a decision was made is deluding themselves; either they’ve over-simplified the situation, or not everyone understood, or (most likely) both.

Two more points bear making. Firstly, I suggest that it is next to impossible for a charitable donation between two people, or groups of people, who do not know each other not to be inherently condescending and tending towards paternalistic. So, if we do not want to dump the whole aid thing altogether, and thus cannot avoid one of the key downsides of paternalism, I think we should also celebrate the potential upsides of a certain degree of limited (!) paternalism.

Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?

I now look forward to all the contrary comments from those who disagree with me …

When not to feed a starving child

A while ago I blogged about how I conceived of a certain Logic of Compassion which linked immediate humanitarian assistance, to which – I implied – no-one could object, and the much longer term focused work in which I am involved. But now Linda Polman, in her polemic War Games (The Crisis Caravan in North America), which I’ve just finished reading, is suggesting that it might not always be a good idea to feed a starving child or help that victim-of-war amputee.

The basic argument goes roughly like this: as Amartya Sen pointed out, there has never been a famine in a democracy, and in most famines there is enough food, it’s just in the wrong place and/or too expensive for most local people. Ethiopia has received large amounts of food aid in recent years, but it has also fought one of the most pointless wars of all time with Eritrea over the town of Badme. All aid is, in one way or another, fungible; feeding the starving Ethiopian children absolves the Ethiopian government of its responsibilities in this direction, allowing them to spend more money on arms instead.

Polman goes much further, suggesting that humanitarian aid is frequently manipulated by autocratic regimes and rebel forces. This makes it next to impossible to maintain strict neutrality, and it is extremely naïve to attempt to do so. The poor themselves have also deciphered the perverse incentives at work: amputees will discard their local prosthetic limbs in the hope of getting a better one from the US, then discard that one since now no-one will feed them for free.

Like Matt at Aid Thoughts, I am a little bit wary of Polman’s reliance on anecdotal evidence, but find her basic argument quite compelling. However, that kind of work is at the extreme end of the aid/development spectrum (albeit a pretty huge wedge), and the complete opposite of the long-term capacity building and community support work that I do, so I don’t feel very well positioned to comment.

If my foundation is so poor does that make the Logic of Compassion just a house of cards? Not really, but I think it does highlight a critical concern that is often missing from development and conservation planning: it is all very well to identify a problem, but you need to identify a solution and be confident of being able to achieve it before charging in. Governance standards in the target area will be a key constraint on the viability of any proposed solutions. This is something that could easily be forgotten when calls are made for urgent humanitarian assistance.

Furthermore, in responding to a humanitarian emergency, finding out exactly what help is needed is always going to be a top priority; unfortunately this too easily translates into establish a country/field office first then work out what to do. The overheads are incurred first, and then the programmatic expenditure follows afterwards, which means there had better be some programmatic expenditure to justify all those up-front overheads, and hence the clamour for everyone to get funded.

All of this presents us with a real moral maze. Starving children, if  left unfed, will die. Do we want this on our consciences? Who is to decide which starving children to feed, and which do not deserve feeding? In so far as I can draw any conclusions, it seems to me that these essential moral dilemmas will never go away while there exist unprincipled dictators and warlords prepared to take advantage of this situation, but the humanitarian assistance community could do a helluva lot better in banding together to combat the worst manipulations *, and I pity them in dealing with the hordes of happy-clapping DIY aid enthusiasts who really would be better off just staying at home and donating some money.

* Maybe / hopefully things have improved since the examples that Polman cites. Like I said: I wouldn’t know since I work at the opposite end of the aid spectrum, but stories from Haiti, e.g. this, don’t fill me with much confidence despite there being people who really do want to do better.

SNAFU redux

When I first conceived of my previous post it had a rather different character than it ended up: a testament to the immediacy of blogging, and how one’s thoughts can take one in unexpected directions. Lindsay’s original post, which is far better than any of my analysis, had a powerful tinge of sadness about it. What are we doing when everything is so ****ed up?

I’ve never seen a war up close and personal, thank God, so can only rely on others’ reports, but one very powerful theme is that war is almost never noble or honourable, but is a terrible, ugly, de-humanising, tragic event. All adjectives that could be used to describe the sort of extreme poverty from which the aid industry seeks to rescue people. For the foot soldier forced to fight a war, some of  their biggest problems stem from blinkered generals fixated on a particular strategy (how many ‘big pushes’ did the Western Front see in WWI?) without due regard for the realities of the situation on the ground, and so it goes in development too. SNAFU. Of course, war and development both also have their heroes, who, against all odds, actually manage to achieve a truly worthy feat, and these heroes are rightly lionised.

My family and friends from my old life praise me for what I’m doing; the nobility of the sacrifice etc. But how noble exactly are we? Or are we just a peculiar bunch of adventure seekers practising poverty one-up-man-ship? The grim I-told-you-so satisfaction of the grizzled veteran who sits there and can say:

“Once again the donors and the recipient country government have ****ed it all up. There’s no chance of really doing what they expect, so we just have to try our best.”

What’s point of that? Because the donors would get someone else if you didn’t take the job? Because that someone else would be worse at it than you would be, so better you do it? Doesn’t seem very noble to me.

Fighting the system sure takes some courage, and it can take many forms, even, dare I say it, a blog. But what I find so sad and disappointing is that clearly the aid system could be so much better, and clearly a great many people within the system know and understand that, and yet the status quo seems to change so very slowly. Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty, advance tropical conservation, or to claim your pay cheque?

Here’s wishing for a nobler international aid system!

Are you feeling patronised?

No-one likes to depend upon charity hand-outs. The poor are often “wretched” perhaps because they’re also reduced to the begging bowl. This is a universal problem for all sorts of charitable endeavours; a British homeless man’s pride must be as battered as that of many Least Developed Countries. I suppose after a time one gets numb to many of the indignities. (Another symptom of aid dependence?)

I was lucky enough to be born into a reasonably well-off family in a rich country. I’ve benefited from the odd freebie, but, by and large, I can assert with pride that I have achieved my successes mostly under my own steam, and earned my comparative riches through my own hard work. But that does not blind me to the rather patronising nature of the work in which I am now embarked. We provide the funds, because the country where I work is too poor, and we provide some of the expertise, because that is either missing too or too thinly stretched.

When working with the poor, rural communities our organisation targets, one  is concious of the huge gap in wealth, usually manifested most obviously in the gadgets we bring. However, that huge gap also seems to inoculate both sides against some of the worst aspects of patronising charity; the wealth discrepancies are so big the communities mostly just seem pleased that we’re helping them, perhaps in the same way I wouldn’t feel guilty about accepting a gift from a multi-millionaire who can definitely afford it.

When the gap is smaller, however, the issues of patronisation arise. Mostly I encounter these when dealing with local professionals here (government types, academics, some NGO staff and consultants), but I also sometimes detect hints of similarly strained relationships between these professionals and poor community members. Wounded pride leads to push-back; heads get stuck firmly in the sand, political agendas come to the fore, and awkwardness reigns. It can be extremely frustrating; the same people who eagerly write in their own strategies that they need “capacity building” (usually supported with generous per diems), then get shirty when given some of the advice they so clearly need. I presume they are frustrated too!

Building local ownership is the best solution, but this ownership (and capacity) building can take a long, long time, during which time the ruling elites are benefitting but the intended ultimate beneficiaries are going nowhere. This is one of the major dilemmas of international aid and development, and inevitably results in twin-tracked approaches which compromise that crucial local ownership. (And can you truly own something which someone else is paying for, any way?)

A significant portion of my job involves managing inter-organisational politics. Sometimes it is pure ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour, but frequently one can detect a strong subtext of push-back against patronisation. And, as frustrated as I may sometimes get with it, I always try to remember to put myself in their shoes. The desire for self- assertion is natural and reasonable; it must be magnified several times over each time you’re reminded that someone else is paying (so you’d better keep them happy: conditions on aid grants seem particularly patronising to me) or one of  their representatives apparently knows better than you. Are we ‘development partners’ or ‘development patronisers’?

The Logic of Compassion

Yesterday I blogged about the contradictions of an expatriate development worker’s life (i.e. of my life). My main conclusion was that you had better believe in what you are doing if you are going to overcome all these contradictions. I have a vague mental classification of the altruism of various types of aid projects. It goes something like this …

Medicine. Travelling through Indonesia many years ago I and my fellow travellers came across the site of a bus crash. Some of my companions were medics and set about helping the injured. The rest of us just milled about feeling a bit useless. Other people I know have stated their envy of doctors who clearly have real meaning to their careers: saving lives. Thus Medecins Sans Frontieres and other similar organisations can be easily categorised as doing good. It’s also relatively easy for them, and their employees, to quantify how much good they’re doing by answering the question “how many lives have we saved today?”

Except that direct provision of surgical expertise and equipment is not cheap. At one step removed, public health professionals can argue they save more lives per $ spent than our doctoring friends. Or at least they can if not working in a country or sub-sector already saturated with aid money. However, it can be much harder to quantify impacts of public health campaigns. Is the 101st AIDS awareness campaign really value for money? The case is thus harder to argue, and doubts may start to creep in.

Education is another sector that gets a lot of support, and, on the face of it, is hard to criticise. Even if the connection with economic development is sometimes hard to demonstrate for the poorest of the poor, many people recognise education as a good thing in its own right. However, this good becomes questionable when the beneficiaries have more immediate problems like inadequate diets. Also you suffer from the same problem as public health. Either you are in the business of directly educating people (volunteer teachers, relatively low bang for buck, cultural and ethical issues), or you are funding general inputs such as school buildings, books, teacher training and salaries, none of which may actually deliver more education to those children in need, either because of mismanagement, corruption, and/or other constraints.

Then there are all the development projects associated with economic activities of one kind and another; agricultural extension workers and subsidised fertilizers, vocational training, new roads … all the way to macro-economic stability and creating more enabling business environments. Alleviating poverty is not hard to justify, and will have all sorts of knock on effects for health and education etc. However, identifying the causes of economic development is notoriously difficult, and thus determining the impact of these programmes is not always easy. If a farmer’s income went up was it because of your agricultural extension project or the new road? The answer is probably (hopefully) both, but attributing the contributions of individual projects can be somewhat subjective. And as with health or education, the further away one gets from the intended beneficiaries, so generally the possible size of impact increases, but equally so does the difficulty of measuring that impact.

An ex-colleague of mine had a stark criterion for evaluating any of the above kind of projects. If you took the total cost of the project and divided it up between all the intended beneficiaries, would they prefer to receive the cash or the benefits of  the proposed project? You can bet that most beneficiaries are big skeptics (they have, after all, seen it all before, many times), so you’ll need a really convincing argument for them not to just want the cash!

I work in community conservation, which actually brings a slightly different view point. For a start the conservation agenda is 99% one that we have brought ourselves, though we’re quite pleased with the small number of local collaborators we have indoctrinated to the cause!*Conservation is a global good (if one mostly espoused by Westerners), and thus our ultimate beneficiaries are not just the local communities, although they are always front and centre in our minds. If our project achieves zero rural development but has substantial conservation impact it may still be judged a success. (Negative development, however, even if massively compensated by conservation gains, is to be avoided.) There are lots of areas where environmental and development concerns overlap: abuse of land rights, lack of clean drinking water, soil erosion, and sustainable livelihoods. But doubts constantly assail us, and I and my colleagues often question ourselves whether there might be better ways to help those we are trying to help.

I really do believe in what we are doing; we can claim some real successes, and, to my view at least, they justify my meagre salary. But sometimes it would be nice to be able to point to someone, and say “I saved their life today.” That you can feel good about.

* For the avoidance of offence, I should stress this is supposed to be humorous. There is a small, but growing voice for conservation here. It may first have been inspired by Western conservationists, but the views of local environmentalists are genuine, and not an elaborate piece of puppetry.

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