Development Aid – Does it Hurt More than it Helps?

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

It is detrimental, says Thilo Thielke in Der Spiegel , because it creates unfairness and dependency in many different ways. First, using the case of Kenya, Thielke invokes a classical concept of formal organizational behavior: self-perpetuation.

“The roads are in horrid disrepair, and they’ll stay that way for a while. As a result, it would take days or even weeks to get the corn from the west to the northern parts of the country. But why would they need it there anyway? There’s a shortage in the north because the World Food Program is usually there to hand out food for free. The UN’s employees are paid to fight hunger, and that’s why they usually write reports in which they dramatically portray the situation in Africa and which they usually end with appeals demanding more donated food.

These developmental aid workers, whose reports largely shape our image of Africa, behave this way to a certain extent out of an instinct for self-preservation that they believe the Africans don’t have. Without help, they say, all the Africans will starve. And, indeed, without aid, all the helpers would also be out of a job.”

A first problem then is that the persistent handing out of free food (largely surplus from Western countries) eliminates any incentives to be locally self-sufficient. And there is also the idea that the WFP needs people to be hungry in order to justify its existence and work (and some well-paying jobs for UN consultants). Even if some adventurous local entrepreneur tried to start local food production in an area with a numerous malnourished or under-nourished population, the results would likely be disastrous:

“And what happens when the help comes? First the merchants complain because the cost of food drops through the floor. Nor is it worth it, under the status quo, to build up any surplus stocks. Then, the farmers complain because their crops become worthless. The people who cozy up with the aid workers are the ones following better advice. You can get everything for free there and you don’t even have to lift a finger.”

The correct term for this is dependency, if one wants to be polite, and potential corruption, if one is less so. Although, it should be noted that corruption is always understood as a non-Western phenomenon. It is local elites and others in the Global South that are corrupt. Never mind that there needs to be a corruptor for corruption to occur. It certainly is a problem for many African countries, but not exclusively. And Jeffrey Sachs convincingly demonstrated that countries are not poor because they are corrupt, but they are corrupt because they are poor, as good governance and proper enforcement of laws are a luxury.

Another issue is that development aid might lead to the illusion of development while not addressing structural issues, and creating new ones (such as overpopulation in an area that should not be densely populated because it cannot support it):

“The aid workers are drawn to the arid lands, where the poor live and the help is urgently needed. Under normal circumstances, such areas don’t contain many starving people because they are thinly populated. In the Sahara, for example, hunger emergencies are comparatively insignificant. But in northern Kenya, and particularly in the region’s bordering desert land, such as the Sahel, they happen all the time.

And that’s why the aid workers dig wells there to provide the inhabitants with clean drinking water. Soon enough, there’s a downright crush around the well. Then, more and more cattle drivers and more and more nomadic shepherds bring their wards to the well. And these herds — and especially the goats — eat everything up. And, there, where you used to have someone coming by only rarely, a dusty little village shoots up, and then a little city. And, now, more and more aid workers are necessary to feed all the people who settle around the well and the feeding stations. Pretty soon, nothing can happen without aid. The area becomes hopelessly over-populated, and there is no way out of the dilemma in sight.”

And Thielke does not mince his words:

Development aid is a planned economy, even if it doesn’t have a plan. The belief that food shortages can be overcome in a planned economy is one that has already proved disastrously wrong in the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Cuba. One has to feel sorry for the Africans for their continued role as human guinea pigs.

So why do Africa countries accept the aid if it is so detrimental? Well, because in the current system, they do not have much of a choice and they really are poor. How could they possibly turn down donations? And this is where poor leadership gets in the way of development when corrupt African leaders, often put in such positions by their former colonial patrons, use the aid their receive for their own purposes.

“The main reason that there is starvation in Africa is that there are no profits to be made in cultivating or trading foodstuffs. Either developmental aid ruins the profits or corrupt leaders rob their people blind. There’s hardly a country in Africa where private ownership rights are enforced; everything belongs to either the clan or the state.”

Hunger in Africa is not a natural fact of life, it is a socially, economically and politically created state through a combination of factors: the rules of world trade, the structural adjustment policies imposed, bad leadership and governance, the meddling of former colonial powers, environmental degradation and the functioning of world development aid.

For some African economists such as James Shikwati (a big proponent of globalization), fair trade, not more aid, and just leaving Africa the bloody hell alone would work better. Oh, and it would be nice too if Western countries stopped arming and subsidizing dictators and aid is responsible for a great deal of that:

“Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.”

But wait a minute, yes, we know that corrupt governments use aid for their own purposes, but what about NGOs who are supposed to be so much more efficient, and clean and participatory and stuff?? How are they doing? And I mean by that, what do the recipients of their benevolence feel? It turns out, as IRIN reports, that there are mechanisms to evaluate their efficiency and make them accountable such as The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP-International ) which has developed a standard that NGOs have to meet in order to get their certification:

  • declare their commitment to HAP’s Principles of Humanitarian Action and to their own Humanitarian Accountability Framework
  • develop and implement a Humanitarian Quality Management System
  • provide key information about quality management to key stakeholders
  • enable beneficiaries and their representatives to participate in program decisions and give their informed consent
  • determine the competencies and development needs of staff
  • establish and implement complaints-handling procedures
  • establish a process of continual improvement

There is also the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP ), as well as the International Sphere Standards (The Sphere Project ). Which means that any NGO might have to draft reports to all three agencies according to these agencies’ standards; a waste of time and resources already deplored by Elizabeth Pisani in her book, the Wisdom of Whores . So, what do these accountability agencies say? (Via IRIN )

“Most experts say NGOs have made progress, but they still place far more emphasis on reporting back to donors than they do on evaluating their impact on beneficiaries, particularly when things go wrong, according to John Mitchell, director of ALNAP. (…)

One of the reasons for the emphasis on donors, said Mitchell, is that NGOs have no choice but to be funding-driven. “Agencies collect the vast amount of information, including from beneficiaries, at the beginning – assessment stage – of an intervention, and put fewer resources into collecting feedback during and after, and it is the financial imperative that drives this,” he told IRIN.

So many unforeseen external variables can affect a response – politics, price fluctuations, security – that it is often easier to excuse away the bad, and emphasise the good, particularly where donors are concerned, said one agency staff member.”

What a shocking surprise. This is something that is well-known in the development profession: donors demand nothing less than unmitigated success or they are likely to go spend their money on other NGOs with more promising prospects. So, NGOs have an interest in jazzing up their accomplishments, as direct result of their actions, and downplaying the failures, or dismissing them as unforeseeable factors, external to the NGO’s actions. This, again, means that NGOs have to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising and schmoozing with donors, instead of actually helping people, and have to deal with the fact that funding is never certain (which is why Muhammad Yunus proposed to move toward a social business model).

Moreover, donors are not a patient lot: they want action and results quickly, which is another source of problems:

“”It is very difficult for agencies that parachute in and are in a hurry to get operations started as quickly as possible; they lack the understanding to appreciate the social context and don’t have the time to discuss the situation in depth,” Mitchell pointed out.

There are also cultural barriers. In a study by HAP-I, ‘To complain or not to complain: still the question’, conducted in emergency-affected areas of Kenya, Namibia and Thailand, researchers found that communities in Namibia and Kenya would complain at will, while refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border felt they would ‘lose face’ if they did so.

“So we had to redesign our feedback so that the Karen refugees [on the Thai-Myanmar border] didn’t have to frame it in terms of ‘complaining’ per se,” said Katharina Samara, regulatory services director at HAP-I.

Feedback systems have often been cast in Western moulds, which do not necessarily translate globally. Christian Boehm, adviser with the Danish Refugee Council’s (DRC) programme and policy support unit, told IRIN: “We set up a complaints box system in Chechnya, which worked well because they are literate and entitlements-focused, but it fell flat in Uganda, where people cannot read or write and had no idea what they could expect from an aid response.”

And complaints threaten agency staff. When the NGO, CARE International, set up complaints mechanisms during their Peru earthquake response, staff were reluctant to support it, fearing they might lose their jobs if beneficiaries complained about them or their projects.”

Lack of cultural sensitivity due to urgency as well as, again, self-perpetuating mechanisms. And besides, how are NGO workers trained? Are they trained for specific geographical areas or just dumped there for a short period of time with some money to spend on a project designed in a Western country? And, when it comes to complaining, who watches the workers? If an aid worker is accused of any form of abuse but is also the person to whom the complaints are reported, what happens then?

NGOs such as CARE and the Danish Refugee Council are doing a lot to improve culturally-specific mechanisms for collecting complaints and act on them. What is the problem then? Donors are not keen on funding these mechanisms because they are not glamorous and do not really count as success. This is why the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO ) now funds such mechanisms. And also why the Danish development agency (DANIDA) provides specific lines of funding for beneficiaries complaints.

The questions associated with development aid are more complex than most people think. It is way more complicated than just dumping food aid on starving people. There has to be real multilateral thinking on this, if it is to be beneficial to its actual recipients, not the donors or donor countries.

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