Don’t knock aid

by David Week on 07 September 2011


This post comes from a debate I became involved with on LinkedIn. You can find that debate here.

Critiques vs knocking

  • Critiquing aid is to take a specific aspect of aid practice which could be improved, showing comparatively that it could be better, analysing the problem, and proposing solutions.
  • Knocking aid is to enter into an “ain’t it awful” condemnation of the whole “aid system”, with the suggestion that it’s a waste of money, and will only be worthwhile if radically re-built from the ground up.
Each of these forms of discourse has a moral dimension.
Most aid workers will pay attention to critiquing aid, because they see their job as to make aid better, and critiques produce actionable insights and proposals. Most aid workers will ignore the knocking, because it is not actionable, and because they have a sufficiently fine-grained understanding of aid to know that some things work well, others not so well, and yet others are a real dick of a problem that no-ones seems to make any headway against.
Critiques help aid.
On the other hand, the audience for knocking is mostly people who don’t have much detailed knowledge of aid—of how it works, and doesn’t work—i.e. the public. Knocking undermines public confidence in aid. It plays to the agendas of far right politicians, who believe that the poor are poor because they’re lazy and need a little discipline and incentives to climb their way up the free enterprise tree.
Knocking undermines aid, by undermining aid budgets.
As we said in the 70’s: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Here’s are my other arguments against the broadscale knocking of aid:

“Why does the ID sector spend so much money for so little result?”

What’s your benchmark, and how do you run the comparison? Compared to, say, building a car, or providing Internet services in California, development aid operates in the messiest and most difficult environments, addressing some of the most intractable. Who’s to say that aid is poor value for money? I’d like to see the transparent methodology for that one.

I work in large scale aid-funded schools projects. The projects deliver teacher training, text books, education management, and classrooms to poor communities that have no schools. The schools are themselves community-built through grant funding, and cost about USD4,000 per classroom. Thousands are built every year. And your complaint is… ?

“It really is a litany of issues that are being raised and commented on.”

If you walk into any organisation, even “stars” like Apple Computer or the Grameen Bank, you will find a litany of issues being raised and commented on. That’s a good sign, not a bad sign. When you walk into an industry or organisation where there are no issues being raised or commented on: then you know you are in deep shit.

 “The sad part is that with so many people in agreement, we still can’t get it right.”

What does this mythical “get it right” mean? Does it mean “get it right” like the way they get it right in:

  • the war on drugs
  • the US education system
  • the war on poverty
  • the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan
  • environmental protection
  • pollution control
  • democratic governance
  • efficient and effective bureaucracies
  • the criminal justice system
  • the airline industry
  • urban planning
  • workers’ rights
  • child protection
  • local government
  • the health system

I challenge you to come up with one serious, complex, area of endeavour in which people are sitting on their laurels, glad that they “got it right.” Development aid and humanitarian aid, as an area of endeavour, is no better or worse than any of these. And in those areas where you think things are better than in development, there is usually a simple answer: the budget per “client” is a hundredfold or a thousandfold greater. That simple.

“Why are there so few sustainable outcomes?”

Once upon a time, donors were satisfied with inputs. Then they noticed that the inputs weren’t producing “results”, so they shifted to “outputs.” Then they shifted to “outcomes”. And now we have “impacts”. All common sense, at one level: but the fact is that in most cases the poor were quite happy with the inputs.

Donors have also shifted from a charity model, to development, to sustainable development.

And most donors see their giving nowadays as “investments”, rather than… giving.

So what drives this ongoing donor dissatisfaction?

But they are aiming at, I think, is the investment ideal of reaching a point where a change is sustained internally, and no further investment is required.

That’s a worthy ideal… but ideals can be worthy while being in practice not feasible.

There are many places in the world where sustainable development is clearly not feasible. One area is the PICTs: the Pacific Island Countries and Territories. They are structurally incapable of internally sustaining the standards of living which both they themselves and donors have set. I happen to know the PICTs quite well, but I’m also wondering how many other countries in the world also fall into that category.

If we look at the international system as a whole, the idea that every country will one day “middle income” is in the first place mathematically impossible. It may also be the case that constant global competition and accumulation will mean that some countries will always be poor systemically, regardless of the education of their people or the natural wealth of their country.

Here again, I’d draw comparison with the welfare system.

IF the US, still top of the GDP pile, a country which has over the last 50 years poured much more (I should check how much) per capital into the welfare of its own poor, within its own borders and governance systems, can still today be at a place where 1 in 7 of its children are subsisting on food stamps, THEN why do we imagine that better outcomes should be reached when same money is poured into foreign countries, with worse governments, weaker economies, less education, at a fraction of the per capita rate.

I mean: on the face of it, people should be amazed that there are any development outcomes AT ALL.

But I take an optimistic view. I think that if were to able to compare IDA outcomes between nations on a social return per dollar per capita, we would find that IDA produces a far better ROI than the internal welfare system. And that therefore what we should be doing is taking this comparative success, and applying it from the foreign field, to our own home turf.

Now: this assertion would require some numbers to support it. But here are three bits of evidence:

  • The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) recently reviewed AusAID, and determined it’s functioning efficiently and effectively.
  • The ANAO also recently examined the GOA’s investment in Indigenous welfare, and excoriated it as being almost a complete waste of money, with nothing to show for billions spent.
  • One highly regarded Indigenous leader, Professor Mick Dodson, AM, 2009 Australian of the Year, has said of Australia’s aid program “that the principles AusAID uses in delivering aid throughout the region should be applied to the delivery of assistance to Australia’s indigenous communities.”

I’m offering the following theses:

When we look at IDA compared to donor country programs, and factor in the lower per capita investment rate, even without allowing for the problems of cross-border and cross-cultural work, IDA fares well.

The real task is not rebuilding IDA, but to import the lessons learned to improve home country programs.

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