| Thursday, March 16, 2006
| Can the aid industry be reformed?
|How to read this post
While editing the following, I realized that I often use quotation marks for commonly used terms. It is because I do not for a second trust terms like foreign aid, non-profit organizations… The reason is:
. Foreign aid is a necessary tool for domestic politics.
. There is no such thing as non-profit organization otherwise such organizations would have been bankrupt and extinct long time ago.
. Aid ‘experts’ has been a commonly used cliché for a long time now.
. I do not see how anybody can give themselves a time frame to ‘make poverty history’.
What started this
Now, some background facts quickly so that I can go straight to my ranting about the poverty and development business under the aid industry.
1. East Africa is facing drought and millions of people need food aid.
2. Ethiopia is of course amongst the affected countries in the horn.
3. Hunger and famine are not new in Ethiopia, but what’s alarming is the frequency in which they are occurring.
4. Since the 1973 famine, which made Ethiopia internationally famous, aid agencies and Western countries have been at it to help Ethiopia feed itself, help her reduce poverty and set her off on the road to development.
5. Ethiopia has very little to show for it.
6. Several types of ‘medicines’ by countless ‘doctors’ have been prescribed for the many symptoms of the poverty disease.
7. The old symptoms are still at large, there are new ones and nature is still not cooperating. So, Ethiopia is still sick from poverty.
8. Finally, the country is ensured against nature.
And I’m sitting here behind my computer screen thinking, is the end of the illness approaching? Then, I remind my hopeful self that it’s pretty much like home insurance and the construction code in Florida. The construction code is still a joke (although Hurricanes Andrew and Charlie in 2004 finally forced whoever is responsible for enforcing such codes to make some changes), and if you make claims against other house threatening factors such as flooding, termites and flimsy roofs that blow away when somebody sneezes, your premium goes up. Changing states is not even going to help. Your claims stick with you like a criminal record.
More symptoms of a failing industry
Because I am well informed, as of 6 hours ago, about how home insurance in Florida works (a good-hearted lady at the insurance company told me to think about even reporting let alone making claims…), I am feeling confused about this insurance against drought business. I read and re-read several documents online, and I still do not see how it is going to work. This time the WFP paid on behalf of Ethiopia. Who is going to pay next time and the time after that and after that…? Is there any point to all this - is it going to significantly reduce the food crisis? Is this another way of saying that we have accepted that there is no alternative for the food crisis in Ethiopia? Is it the latest buzz in ‘making poverty history’ because the previous cocktail of medicines did not work – food aid, food aid mixed with development, development with women, participatory development, structural adjustment, liberal economy, civil society (do not even get me started on this one which I think is the vaguest of all) in development, now insurance against drought.
My personal conclusion is that the grand plans of poverty alleviation and development have failed, but the industry behind these plans has become a monster which is hard to restructure let alone get rid of. It is hard because partly there is a lot of money and interest involved in countries which sponsor the industry as well as in aid recipient countries, and partly because of collective ignorance about the motives of global welfare-ism. I was very surprised to still (in 2006) read that there is detachment between what is needed in poor countries and what NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are offering to alleviate poverty. I was surprised because I was out of the aid loop for six years, and all that anxiety about what I might have been missing was for nothing. Aparently, everything is as I had known it for the past 16 years. Exactly the same. When people in Ethiopia need some basic medical equipment as Andrew Heavens’ of Meskel Square points out, Bono envisages internet connection for them… Although I admire the commitment of Western artists to help the poor in some remote continent, the sad fact is that development is still not run professionally though we have noticed time and again that just good will is not enough.
Old news, new media?
It was also amusing to read (in 2006) that donor countries have personal interests to satisfy via development aid. The fact that this is still news is news to me. The danger of dwelling on these old issues is that it prevents us from focusing on the failure of the whole ‘making poverty history’ and development plans. Therefore, finding alternative solutions is indefinitely postponed.
M of Thinker’s Room is spot on in his Get Real: Poverty Eradication 101 piece. The US, for example, would buy corn from its heavily government subsidized farmers, use US transport companies to move the corn and US NGOs to distribute it on the field… Neither such self-serving involvements in “foreign aid” nor disguising it under the pretext of pure humanitarian, compassionate, unselfish intentions is new. One of the major factors for the birth of the Marshall Plan in 1947 was precisely that – pour American tax payers money into Europe, but Europe has to buy stuff and services from America only… However, when George Marshall, the then Secretary of State, delivered his famous speech at Harvard University he (I’m sure) did not blink when he said “Our policy is directed not against any country [i.e. Russia] or doctrine [i.e. communism] but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” However, twisted the truth was, the speech still made it as one of the top 100 American speeches.
Despite all that, the Marshall Plan helped Europe back on its feet. Some progressed slower than others, but they progressed nonetheless. Jeffry Turcker argues that it was not the aid that helped European economy, rather it is free market. What the Marshall Plan provided was a psychological help. The billion dollar question here is, why did Europe manage to pull itself up much quicker with the help of ‘foreign aid’ or "expensive therapy", and Africa is still where it is despite decades of ‘foreign aid’? Simple! Europe had the manpower to rebuild the continent, and Africa does not. Europe did not have such corrupt governments, which stifle development and Africa does. America has not closed its doors for European goods like current trade policies do to African goods and services. I think that is it. Unless, the corruption illness is cured in Africa, development and the dream of “making poverty history” are not going to see the light of day. The aid industry will continue prescribing different medications, and the illness will still be there.
The crux of the matter
The same issues that we are lamenting about regarding Africa and the foreign aid saga were pretty much the issues surrounding the Marshall Plan in 1947. It was used to gain domestic political control, distract the general public from larger issues, according to Jeffry Tucker, to benefit large corporations which were on the government side, enforce US hegemony and strategic geographic placing of the US to keep Russian communism from expanding in Europe, basically anything but purely willingness to fighting “…hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” out of the goodness of the US government. Still, it helped Europe. I really do not care much for the argument around what type of help it was. The fact is, it did help. Of course, there might be certain side-effects. Every medicine has a side effect.
The ranting is obscuring my point, I think. My point is that we have to think of corruption and lack of manpower in Africa as one of the major obstacles for development. Corruption comes in different shapes and sizes. It varies from simple swindling money to creating complex networks of thieves to using aid money to buy weapons and kill… The current mechanisms are obviously not working. Therefore, it is time for a radical alternative. Unfortunately, the alternatives that have been prescribed are addressing the wrong issues. The alternative needed now should address corruption from local government bureaucrats somewhere in the country of Africa to corporations behind each donor country. Simply changing the development agents from missionaries to volunteers to ‘development experts’ to civil society (whoever that may be) to singers and actors is not going to solve the problem. More money I (really) believe is not the answer either. There seem to be renewed commitment to come together globally and electronically (like the ONE campaign)to put poverty back in the global agenda and raise awareness… Poverty has never been off the agenda otherwise we would have been seeing T.V. images of thousands of aid workers striking because their industry has shut down and they are out of work like steel workers in some state of the US. Awareness about poverty has not dwindled either. Rather, it is the interest that is understandably dying. Who would blame anybody who is getting tired of hearing the same miserable story for the past half a century?
A re-starting point
I have bashed enough so I think I’m now expected to suggest some solutions. Therefore, here are my alternative wishes for TED to replace the ones it has rejected.
A global poverty awareness campaign
But, the campaign is not going to deafen people reiterating how poor some nations are, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa… It is going to focus on educating people why such nations stay poor, and how the authorities who collect people’s taxes did not really care looking at the underlying causes of poverty. People then would be well informed and, if there is the will, influence the way the aid industry operates on their behalf.
This campaign should also teach people what poverty means in different contexts. To this day, I do not understand how the UNDP development index decides what the poverty line should be for every body. ‘Living on a dollar a day” is the common tear jerking line I hear these days. A dollar is 9 Birr (the Ethiopian currency) and there are millions of people who would settle for half of that to not feel poor. When I was doing a research on poverty and alternative development in Western Ethiopia, I was interviewing people who were labeled poor therefore were accepting aid from the NGO I was doing the research for. I basically wanted them to define poverty and development for me because my fellow classmates back in The Netherlands and I were having a hard time defining them (what does that tell you?) I was blown and humbled by the definitions I got and my favourite one 11 years on is by a woman who said “Poverty is when I lose all my limbs and my sight and I become totally dependant on others, and development is when my neighbour helps me up when I fall.” Is that deep or what? I am sure it has lost some of its beauty because it was translated from her language (Oromigna) to mine (Amharic) and now to English. This, I feel is important because it will help stop playing with emotions to raise more money in the name of poverty.
The concept of raising awareness for fair trade is going to be a dodgy one, but I will say it anyway because there isn’t really much to be lost. It is dodgy because it is asking people to choose between what is fair against the interest of one of their own in favour of some poor person somewhere far away. Still, it is worth taking a shot.
We have witnessed campaigns against companies from shoe makers to pharmaceutical companies, which gave birth to corporate social responsibility. Some things have been achieved globally, and I think it is time to turn the heat on the aid industry to have similar achievements. I am not advocating for a blind bashing against everybody. Collect the facts and show the weak links. I do not subscribe to the notion that every Westerner who goes to Africa to help is a culprit. I was fortunate to have worked in the industry both in Ethiopia (the ‘expert’ receiving end) and Belgium (‘expert’ and policy providing end). The collective ignorance I was talking about earlier also applies to volunteers who sincerely wish to make the world a better place. I also do not buy the argument that without working against African poverty, these expatriates would have been nobody in their own countries…
Forming an independent program and finance auditing body
I am envisioning a group of experts in a wide range of fields advising Western governments, donors, local governments and NGOs. Amongst the lessons that the aid industry can learn from other industries – commonly differentiated from the first with the confusing label ‘for profit’ as if there is such a thing as ‘non-profit’ – is that there is a reason why others invest millions in consultancy work. If this consultancy group consists of people from different backgrounds and countries, and if it is structured in such a way that decisions are democratically reached, I do not see why corruption cannot be avoided.
This consultancy group will:
- evaluate big project proposals thereby putting an end to programs that have no direct relation to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. There are thousands of such examples ranging from providing thousands of Somali nomad children in Ethiopia with chalk boards and teaching them the English alphabet and the song Kumbaya My Lord to building state-of-the-art health care facility in an area where there is no reliable water supply… Real retarded projects have been implemented and they will continue to be implemented because somebody is benefiting from all these seemingly stupid ideas and/or the stupidity well and truely reigns in the aid industry.
- It has to make sure that the programs are what the people who are supposed to benefit from them can run on their own. In other words no super fancy stuff. This is not a new concept, but it still is waiting to become a reality. If delivering medicine in some remote area is a problem then ask a local what is needed. You will be amazed how sometimes the simplest solutions such as using a mule or a couple of bicycles are more effective than a gigantic Land Cruiser, which no one knows how to fix when it breaks.
- It has to be a sort of advisor for local communities on looking for alternative ways of bringing income. It is mind boggling how 80% of Ethiopians are still dependent on subsistent farming – generations after generations. And for what? Is it impossible to help them develop other skills and establish alternative (I am big on alternatives, I know) income generating means?
Lessons NOT learnt
Here I would like to go back to Andrew Heavens' crucial question as why nobody else except Ethan Zuckerman said anything about TED rejecting Bono’s wish because it is symptomatic of the way in which the whole aid industry is operating. Working for three years in an association of NGOs in Ethiopia, I had not once heard a report on bad project planning and management. Not once. And I was an information officer therefore I would have heard it directly or indirectly. So, I question who is out there helping the aid industry accountable for its mistakes, idiosyncrasies, cock up, bluffing...?
I would like to propose the following. As an initial stage, create a forum for past, present and prospective aid workers to share their experiences anonymously. If we compile enough stories, the next step will be to decide and influence public opinion and policy on aid. Only when the aid industry is treated like all other industries – close scrutiny, public pressure to drop bad practices and improve performance, is it possible to reform it. So, here is a blog site called Post Card from Abyss where people can share stories of big and small mistakes made and lessons learnt or not. Give me a moment to tweak it and get it up and running. If there is already compiled information somewhere out there, forget this project and let us see how we can use such data to influence policy. I hope this helps a little.
Drought in East Africa
2015 - End of poverty
Old paper on foreign aid for development
|posted by Fikirte @ 10:07 AM