Posts Tagged ‘flavour du jour’

Should the biggest problems get the most money?

Last week Ranil over at Aid Thoughts discussed the new big thing in international aid: fragile states. The powers that be appear to have decided that these are the biggest problem out there in the aid world, and, as such, they deserve to get the biggest slice of the aid pie. I long have noticed a similar approach to prioritisation within conservation: the rarest species and the most threatened habitats get the most money.

Despite the fact that it incentivises everyone to talk up exactly how bad their problem is, on the face of this is in an eminently sensible approach to determine how to divide up a pot of money that is never big enough to solve all the problems in the world.

This, however, pre-supposes two things:

a) that there are solutions to be found to these, the biggest problems, and

b) that these solutions need a lot of money to succeed,

Neither of which are necessarily true. The biggest problems tend to me the most wicked problems, and therefore the least tractable to ordinary problem solving. And we seem to have conveniently forgotten about that old chestnut, absorptive capacity. Whilst I know little about how to ‘cure’ a fragile state (if such a thing is possible), the horror stories coming out of Afghanistan of wholesale corruption of aid flows suggest that the absorptive capacity conundrum hasn’t gone away, and is probably magnified in fragile states.

In both conservation and development I would like to see more money being devoted to solutions, especially proven solutions. That is not to say we should ignore the biggest problems, but if you don’t have a workable solution, then a lighter touch with smaller amounts of supporting funds seems a more sensible approach. Pouring money at a problem is unlikely to achieve very much more than reducing your pot of money for tackling other problems and increasing public and political scepticism of aid due to low success rates.

Great businesses, like great sporting teams, play to their strengths. International aid and conservation too often seems to play to its weaknesses, and that is much to our loss.

New year, new start

It’s the start of a new year (hope you all celebrated in style, folks!), and many people choose this time to start something new. Of course not all of  them last, but mostly we at least mean them do so when we begin them, even all those ill-fated fitness drives. No-one deliberately joins the gym in January if they actually intend to stop going in February.

Donors are no different (though their financial year may be). They always like to start something new, to fund that innovative new project that transforms the aid landscape. This has two pernicious effects. Firstly, it means that boring old-style stuff (even last year’s great innovation) that has been proven to work is no longer the flavour du jour, which is a great pity since if something is proven to work (and is value for money) then it ought to be a no-brainer to fund. Not so! This can be incredibly frustrating for NGOs who regularly have to find new justifications to fund the same old work.

Secondly, in the absence of endlessly increasing amounts of money (maybe not an issue for DfID over the next few years), one or more existing projects have to make way for the new ones. This is easily accomplished by putting a timeframe on all these projects in the first place, thereby automatically freeing up funds later on. Hence we end up with fixed term development projects in which we are only just approaching success when the taps are turned off. I have written before about the sustainability issue (my greatest pet peeve), but I recently also came across a fantastic (old) post by Owen Barder on the issue.

As Owen pointed out more recently, this fixed-term fixation is especially hypocritical when applied to such things as agricultural subsidies. And yet the default approach of otherwise reasoned commenters (ok, one commenter at least) is to assume that subsidies must be for a limited period only.

How about this for a new start instead: what if donors just funded the same old stuff for once, and didn’t put a term limit on it right from the start, but said “Let’s see how this goes …”?

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