Posts Tagged ‘political support for aid’

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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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

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.

A hypothetical proposition

Discussing my previous posts on the lack of donor success in stimulating serious governance reform in developing countries a friend asked, “So what’s the alternative?” Here’s how I think it could work if donors abandoned their posse-ocracy and actually got their act together, i.e. a purely hypothetical proposition.

It’s a form of  COD aid for GBS (that’s Cash on Delivery aid for General Budget Support for those not fully inducted into the development sector’s jargonology). You start by defining the general conditions under which you, a donor, are prepared to give GBS aid. You could do this based on national GDP, poverty rates, or following Andy Sumner’s recent conclusions (that most poor people are now found in middle-income countries), based on sub-national analyses. If you were sensible, you would define this on a marginal basis, like different income tax tiers that only apply to the amount of income above a certain threshold, so as to provide a smooth exit ramp out of GBS aid as countries (hopefully!) grow and reduce poverty amongst their citizens, although there would probably be a minimum amount ($10 million?) below which you just wouldn’t bother to disburse GBS aid to a country at all.

The important thing is that you make these same rules apply to all developing countries across the world, irrespective of previous national ties and other ‘strategic’ considerations. Thus any developing country with an interest in GBS (the juiciest form of aid) can instantly work out how much it could be in line to receive straight into their treasuries. Yummy! But, aid recipients have lots of different donors to bargain with, so you need to all agree on what are your conditions, and these should apply to all donors who join the system.

There could be certain minimum requirements, e.g. basic democracy; if you don’t meet these then no iced lolly, I mean GBS. But many other governance requirements could be handled through proportional reductions. E.g. if, as OECD DAC appear to, you really believe that a giant work of fiction entitled National Poverty Reduction Strategy is important, then you could say that not having one reduces the maximum GBS available by 10%. Such conditions could even have a temporal dimension, e.g. in year 1 you have to write the NPRS, so no reduction, but you lose 10% in year 1 if it’s still not written, and this could increase to 20% in year 2 etc. Of course, as any blogger knows, good story-tellers need to be kept in gainful employment, so you should also demand the NPRS be updated every so often (5 years?), and the penalties are reinstated if you don’t keep up with this process.

More usefully you could make sliding-scale conditions around financial management processes, audits, democratic oversight of budgets and the like. Some could even work in reverse; extra iced lollies for the best behaved! Some conditions will be general and widely applicable, others may be specific to the developing country concerned. E.g. developing countries who let big corruption scandals go unpunished in the courts would lose their GBS.

The big benefit of this system would be that developing countries would have a clear set of goals, and remove the usual messy negotiations surrounding renewal of GBS. Earlier this year Malawi had its GBS from the UK suspended due to increasing authoritarianism; with well-designed rules this might have translated into a gradual withdrawal, plus a clearer understanding on the part of President Mutharika as to the road that he was heading down and the implications of doing so. Like Saddam Hussein and his WMD, developing countries often believe they can snub their donors to little effect, and only discover too late when they are wrong.

Moreover developing countries would have a clearer view of how they are faring against their peers, with the knowledge that those who reform most effectively will get the most the cash. Conversely, if there are insufficient reformers, donors need to be strong enough willed to simply use the money to pay down their national debts, and stop the nonsense that just because money has been put on the table that it has to be used. All society is built around rules-based systems, and in every walk of life we see the benefits of this approach and the clarity it brings. Why should development aid be any different?

There are two big dangers I can see with this my hypothetical proposal. One, which it shares with the rest of COD aid, is the need for rigorous independent processes to determine when conditions have been met. For national level governance controls this is always going to be a politically fraught process, and there will probably be more grey areas than the simpler deliverables that mostly are suggested as targets for COD aid, but I don’t see that this has to be a show-stopper so long as the political will can be found, and donors do not break ranks at the first sign of trouble.

Secondly there is a danger of development by blueprint. The design of the various conditions would need to be smart enough to allow for local flexibility and adaptability in how they are implemented without compromising on the essential governance improvements that are sought. I would imagine the conditions would need plenty of tweaking as we went along. But arguably donors are already doing this, pushing things like the World Bank’s Medium Term Expenditure Framework, and the basics of sound financial management cannot vary much with social setting.

Finally, I would also note that such an approach might not be very clever in the most fragile states where political compromise is the critical criterion against which all policies will need to be judged, and where a certain amount of leakage through patronage networks an unpleasant but necessary price to pay for peace. As the recent example of Afghanistan shows us, determining when to move to a more normal treatment of such issues is a very tricky judgement call to make.

Aid effectiveness and governance experts have probably already dreamt up such a system, spotted the flaws in it, and discarded it, but if so I haven’t read about it. (This says more about my reading habits than anything else.) But when even the normally upbeat Owen Barder is moved to say “The development sector is in a mess.” I am inclined to think that almost anything is better than the status quo and needed if we are to sustain political support for aid in donor countries. Unfortunately the status quo is real, and all of the above is purely hypothetical.

The man in the street donor

Caveman Tom reckons I was too kind on donors with my recent post on how many NGOs we might need.

To be clear for a moment, normally when I talk about ‘donors’ on this blog I am referring to the big institutions (government aid departments, UN agencies, philanthropic trusts, and the like) who recruit professional staff to help them determine how they should spend their money. But in this case actually I was more talking about the man in the street, Joe Public if you will, who is persuaded to stick his hand in his pocket for some apparently worthy cause, usually based upon some NGO’s publicity. Almost without exception this literature grossly simplifies the actual problems that the NGOs are trying to address to convert it into the only message that arguably matters at that point: by getting out his wallet or chequebook the man in the street is making a difference. Even if it’s a small difference, is the implication, if enough men in the street do it then they’ll make a big difference.

Tom says of these donors’ ignorance:

“No, it is not their fault, but they need to start asking more questions and received better education.”

To which I say: carry on dreaming! There are so many issues out there in the world that we are called upon to adjudicate, that is frankly not possible to come close to a decent understanding on more than just a few. Just think about all those ethical product labels one encounters in an average shopping trip: e.g. fair trade bananas or organic bananas? I’d take the fair trade ones any day, but there’s a whole tonne of issues to unpack in making just that one decision.

If many people vote in elections (if they vote at all!) simply for the party that their parents voted for (with little further analysis) what hope can we have that they will want to read up on effective means to alleviate poverty? All these NGOs marketing departments might be immensely frustrating to field staff (ref any one of J from the ‘Hood’s rants), but the guys working for them aren’t stupid; they know that a simple picture of a starving child works far better than a bucketful of prose on the developmental tensions between settled crop cultivators and semi-nomadic pastoralists.

So yes, while it infuriates me no end that big institutional donors continue to make the same basic mistakes time after time, I am rather more phlegmatic over the man in the street donor. If we want to influence their giving then, it seems to me, then we have to make it as simple as possible to differentiate between the quality of NGO’s work. Sam Gardner’s suggestion that the Sphere standards could form the basis for such a ranking in the humanitarian aid sector is thus particularly intriguing.

If we could truly all agree on such a rigorous method for comparing the achievements of different NGOs (with a cost-benefit ratio factored in), and then widely publicise that as a basis for making funding decisions, then that would be fantastic. But is it really in the interests of BINGOs who already have very successful fundraising campaigns? One can be optimistic, and appeal to the idealism of most NGO staff, and suggest that they should commit their NGOs to this now, but what will happen when the first big NGO gets a significantly sub-par score? Suddenly the excuses about the complexity of development will rain down thicker than ever.

Joe Public is often quite happy to be sold stuff that s/he knows is bad for her/him, e.g. a Big Mac, on the basis that it might taste good and any way all their peers are eating them. So I think one faces an insuperable task in attempting to persuade them that their do-gooding donation might actually do some harm. I would keep up the campaign against SWEDOW – as it has a simple message – but apart from that I wouldn’t get our hopes up too high. Sometimes we just have to accept things as they are. Institutional donors, on the other hand, deserve all the excoriation they get and more.

ps. That I previously suggested that appealing to the voter in achieving the necessary reforms to bilateral donors is another one of the contradictions in which we live.

The Charges against Big Aid

Terence, the Waylaid Dialectic, tears a couple of fair sized strips off Jonathan Starr’s self-righteous polemic about Big Aid. Terence’s points are well made, but I think not the whole story.

For a start, stripping away the pomposity, Starr is surely right when he says Big Aid has an accountability problem. As I and many other bloggers have remarked time and time again, our ‘customers’ are not the same people as those who pay the bills and that leads to massively misaligned incentives. Starr thinks he’s solved this by charging for his Somaliland school’s services, but (as Terence points out) since that only covers a fraction of the true costs – most of which are subsidised by volunteer teachers providing their time for free and him donating a pile of cash – I am not convinced he’s closed that case.

Still, for those of a certain political persuasion, the suggestion that our governments may be throwing millions of dollars at an unaccountable bureaucracy with a poor record of delivering its stated target results will be a like a red flag to a bull. International aid is surely not the only programme funded by Western governments to be susceptible to such a charge, but nonetheless we need to be able to justify aid spending in economically straitened times, and at present I do not think we can do so convincingly for large portions of government aid budgets.

Part of the problem, I think, is what Terence alludes to at the end of his piece when he states:

“Some aid fails because it’s bad. But a lot of aid is actually pretty good. And the reason why it still fails, when it fails, is only sometimes to do with the qualities of the people and organisations delivering it. More often, failure stems from the simple fact that the problems aid is being asked to solve are frequently close to intractable.”

There are two responses to calls for cash to be spent on problems that are “close to intractable” (aka wicked problems): (a) conclude that any investment of resources is highly unlikely to yield any results and thus refrain from any attempt to tackle said problems, or (b) determine that such problems are too important to be just ignored, and that it is fair and reasonable to take a few risks and try a few different approaches to see what might work. (Whatever you do, just don’t equate big problems with the need for big amounts of cash!)

Whilst some donors may decide that approach (a) is what best suits them, we can surely also support the idea that taking option (b) can also be a good idea. The problem, as I see it, is that we are very rarely upfront about the risks of failure. Far too much of the conservation and development industry is extremely reluctant to admit to failure (or even just disappointing results); glossy brochures proclaim an unending procession of success stories.

So by all means we should try to tackle these almost intractable problems, but we should be honest about our expectations of success in advance (sensible risk management), and we should also balance our portfolio with a good number of projects which follow more tried and trusted routes.

ps. Disclaimer: I helped setup and run what must surely be the most ‘perfectest’ of NGOs (according to Terence’s classification), so may not be regarded as entirely neutral in the basis for my above-stated views.

Dealing with Criticism

I promised a response to GL’s guest post on how conservation NGOs respond to criticism, and here it is.

The first thing to note is that I don’t think this analysis is particularly unique to NGOs or the conservation sector. Governments, donors, hell probably even academics can come over all defensive when their pet projects are criticised. I, at least, am no saint and I reckon I must have used several of the strategies GL listed over the years. Unfortunately, as in all walks of life, such defensive responses can get pretty nasty, even potentially career threatening, and although truth may win out in the end, this can be scant consolation at the time.

The second thing to note is that it is always easier to criticise than to do. Critics of aid and development projects, and academic critics in particular, can be amazingly naive in their lack of understanding for the myriad pressures and resource limitations with which a project manager must cope. Critics sometimes push their own pet agenda without regard for the bigger picture. My own favourite example: when, as a tiny start-up NGO, we were criticised for not having a “working definition of poverty”. We didn’t have a working definition of the forest we were trying to conserve, but we didn’t believe that was constraining our work. (GL’s own work, I know, has rather more meat than such petty complaints.)

I see several aspects particularly germane to NGOs working in the international conservation and development sectors:

  1. Tax payers in donor countries seem to have a pretty jaded view of official international development assistance and have already priced in expected levels of corruption to their views. Although I have no data to support this, I would imagine that BINGOs as a whole have an almost squeaky clean image in the minds of many people. Whilst I am sure they back that up with an absolute intolerance of internal corruption, most people in developed countries may not have even considered that BINGOs may fail with many, or even any, of their projects. The idea that your personal donation was or might be money wasted is a pretty big turn off for future donations. So BINGOs perhaps feel they have to cultivate an aura of unerring invincibility? On the other hand, given the sheer scope and size of some of these organisations, you would have to be pretty naive to not expect a substantial non-zero failure rate. Do any NGOs, large or small, ever report these? I know we don’t, or at least not publicly on our website, unless buried in an otherwise long, and generally positive report.
  2. Overall, international conservation and development have a patchy record at best. If you went back 30 years and asked people then working in those fields, my guess is that most would have hoped / expected that things would be a lot better now than they are. However, the international aid is very bad at recognising failure (Owen Barder singles out lack of adequate feedback loops). Instead there is a culture of declared project success. BINGOs may have better systems than most to cope with this, but the interchange of staff with bilateral and multilateral aid organisations means that they cannot be immune to this kind of blinkered approach creeping into their work.
  3. The obvious corollary, and much remarked upon, is that international conservation and development is difficult, really difficult. With limited resources at our disposal many management decisions may be taken at the project level which are not as fully informed as we might like. So there is always likely to be plenty to criticise. Good project managers will recognise this, accept the criticim, and move on, but that isn’t always that easy because …
  4. … for most people working in conservation and development their work is a vocation not just a monthly pay cheque. Criticism, especially unsolicited criticism, nearly always has a personal impact, whether or not it is intended that way. However, when critiquing someone’s development project, you may be cutting a lot closer to the bone than, say, dissecting a company audit. In our sector people take their jobs home with them in the evening; shrugging off criticism is a lot harder when it matters more.
  5. Hence when delivering such criticism, diplomacy is advised. As I’ve previously remarked, it is easy to cause offence and or blunder across unseen cultural boundaries, even when you’ve got plenty of experience. BINGO staff might be paid handsome international salaries, but that does not mean they will have left all their cultural ties at the door, nor would we want them to do so. That said, the BINGOs could also do with getting rid of the bad apples, regardless of any immediate fallout; I’ve come across some astoundingly unprofessional people working for BINGOs (a tiny minority) who appear protected because no-one wants to face up to the challenge of booting them out the door.

I ordered the above points in this manner because it gave them some kind of logical flow, but, to my mind at least, they are in clear diminishing importance. Often NGOs seem to be regarded in almost saintly terms – indeed I do not think I am immune from this fallacy – but the reality will always be much messier. This blog exists in part to document the ‘ugly side of conservation and development’. Whether the general public is ready for such nuanced views is less certain. (A question crying out for a good research project, surely!) In the meantime, we can expect BINGOs to continue to gloss over their failings and be rather less tolerant of criticism than their saintly image might imply.

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