Feb
23

Travesty in Haiti

I cannot recall where or how I was directed to "Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Food Aid, Fraud and Drug Trafficking" (2008) by Timothy Schwartz. The book appears to be self-published, and Paul Farmer is quoted on the back as saying "This book knocks it out of the park" (assuming that is the Paul Farmer, who better to speak on a book about Haiti and the NGO sector?). The author spent ~10 years in Haiti, for graduate school research and then consulting work in the NGO sector. This is an academic book, and closer to a reflective personal history as well as quasi-expose of the aid industry. The personal stories make it an engaging and easy read. There are some errors here and there. For anyone seeking out a reality check on the non-profit sector, this is the book. One lengthy note:

"...beneath the surface it was a fiasco. Massive reforestation projects had consumed millions of dollars but when I investigated they turned out to be decades long failures. Irrigation projects meant for the poor turned out, when I investigated, to be owned by congressmen and senators, doctors and nurses, engineers, and lawyers, some of whom were living in the United States. I could tell about a dike that became a dam and caused flooding and about a dam built at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars but that with the first heavy torrent snapped like a stick. I could tell about roads the NGOs built that became massive gullies. About twenty years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on BIGs (Bio Intensive Gardens that are small, highly productive vegetable gardens) that the peasants never paid the slightest bit of attention to but into which CARE International went right on pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid. I could tell about a massive seed project in which, despite the fact that the Jean Makout rainy season is only three months, the NGO agronomists distributed long season seed varieties, causing the peasants who accepted and planted the seeds to lose their harvests, to be driven deeper into poverty, and I could then tell how the project was continued for four more years, how the peasants instead of planting the seeds took to soaking them to remove the pesticides and then ate them. I could tell about hundreds of barefoot doctors trained to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and two years of effort, but when we tried to hire them for the survey, we found only five of whom could accurately take a pulse. I could tell about networks of local agricultural extension agents who are even more poorly trained, about the United Nation's million dollar fishing projects that were flops as well: Smoking pits going unused gran neg (political bosses) commandeering refrigerators and solar panels meant for the storage of lobster, motor powered fiberglass boats that never went to sea for any other reason than joyriding and sightseeing when local and visiting VIP's could afford The US$2 per gallon for gasoline. I could tell about all these failed projects and most bizarre of all I could tell the same stories several times over for they have been repeated in Jean Makout and throughout Haiti for over half a century the same projects, often in the same places, and always with the same result, failure." (p. 70-71) 

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Feb
13

The UAE as a Global Donor

The United Arab Emirates as a global donor: what a decade of foreign aid data transparency reveals

Open Access article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21665095.2021.1883453 or here https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21665095.2021.1883453

Abstract: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become a leading contributor of foreign aid, in terms of percentage of gross national income as well as in total amount. Historically, Emirati aid was opaque, and little was known about the foreign aid portfolio. This changed after 2009 when the UAE began to submit detailed, project-level data to the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD. Based on a decade of aid transparency, this article carries out an examination of the political economy of aid provided by the UAE, comparing its portfolio to other donor countries. Particular attention is paid to analyzing three primary recipients of its aid (Egypt, Serbia and Yemen) and the implicit motivations driving those decisions. The majority of Emirati aid to these three countries was granted as general budgetary support, often in tandem with efforts to achieve political, economic and/or military aims. Based on the findings, an evaluation is made regarding Emirati narratives of South-South cooperation and its seeking of mutual benefit as well as critiques put forward within the literature countering this. In addition to critically assessing the details of an under-researched aid portfolio, this paper highlights areas for further study to deepen our understanding of the UAE's foreign aid. 

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Jul
09

Why We Lie About Aid

"Why We Lie About Aid" (2018) appeared all over development studies social media in 2018, at one point topping Amazon's best seller list for the sub-category. For those who do not think aid is political, or who sit on the fence of development being political, Pablo Yanguas' book is an essential read. The book makes a clear and strong case, and should be essential reading for undergraduate students interested in development studies and practice.

What is the biggest challenge for aid and development in the future, according to Yanguas? It is that the simple tasks are largely complete, leaving the complex, political ones. "The reality of aid in the twenty-first century is that the most obvious problems to be fixed - maternal mortality, vaccination, literacy, and so on - are either fixed already or will be fixed by countries themselves in the coming decades. It is the intractable problems - almost all of them institutional - that will take decades or even longer to fully address. If aid donors really want to contribute to development in the twenty-first century, they need to focus on effectiveness instead of volume, strategy instead of tactics, and long-term pro-poor empowerment instead of short-term pro-poor results." (p 12)

The existing system presents donors, implementing agencies and individuals with a environment wherein the incentives push toward to the direction of action that does not enable the change Yanguas views as important: "One tragic repercussion of our short-sighted aid debates is an entirely wrong set of incentives for aid organizations and professionals. Domestic politics in donor countries has led to a strictly technical interpretation of development in the public eye, which forces aid practitioners to spend more time justifying their expenses than actually understanding and engaging with the difficult political contexts in which they operate" (p. 5)

Essentially, Yanguas makes a case for a more political understanding and approach to aid (and a recognition that it was already so, even if we pretended it was not): "aid, by its very existence, produces a number of political effects. I have called this the 'Aid Interference Principle': a donor cannot enter a political context without altering it. Despite apolitical mandates and protestations to the contrary, donor missions are very much a part of the political landscape of the countries in which they operate. Aid always benefits someone, and whenever local politics is seen as a zero-sum game, it is by definition undermining someone else. I have said this to donors many times in public presentations: an aid project can be a highly subversive thing. Support for NGOs and advocacy groups is an explicit attack on established institutions and elites. Support for technocratic reformers is an implicit attack on politics as usual and the players who benefit from limited rule enforcement. Likewise, budget support to a government represents a consolidation of centralised power by giving regime leaders new resources to distribute how they see fit. Money, ideas, and people: whatever form aid takes, it will always have a profound effect on local actors, legitimising some and delegitimising others; sanctioning existing coalitions or brokering new ones; and diffusing new models and techniques for control or contestation." (p. 145)

On aid projects in general: "Many foreign aid projects do not work as intended. Sometimes they struggle with structural constraints or demobilisation efforts. At other times, funds are wasted with incapable or unwilling implementation partners. And in more cases than practitioners would willingly acknowledge, projects are badly designed, lazily reproducing the best-practice flavour of the day with little attention to actual problem solving. However, there are also countless aid projects that do work as intended. Moveover, aid projects often have positive unintended consequences that are impossible to foresee, such as empowering erstwhile partners or diffusing new ideas about integrity, inclusion, and deservingness. Aid can train future challengers. It can generate useful information and policy models that bring together reform coalitions. It can even sway the minds of the most dominant of leaders. But of course, none of this usually makes it into project evaluations, much less the aggregate reports by aid agencies." (p. 198-199)

Ought we toss our hands in the air, or be optimistic? The latter has a chance, but requires action; work the authors calls upon many to engage in: "Without visionary leaders who are unafraid to defend the value of humane internationalism, it is up to practitioners, scholars, consultants, students, and concerned citizens to voice, argue, advocates, lobby, and demand a new moral vision for foreign aid. It is certain to be an uphill struggle, but nothing that local reformers and aid innovators do not face on a daily basis." (p. 215-216)

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Dec
19

Civil Society and the Aid Industry

Civil society is said to provide "the agents of change that will cure a range of social and economic ills left by failures of government and the marketplace: autocracy, poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, social malaise. Cornucopian expectations for social change have been heaped on this idea and, indeed, for some Northern donors in particular (both official and non-governmental), the 'discovery' of civil society has promised a solution to the enduring problems of development and democratic change" (p. 1). With the rise of 'civil society' in research and practice in the 1990s, there was a great need to critically engage the questions being raised. An important book that arose to do just that was "Civil Society and the Aid Industry" (1998), edited by Alison Van Rooy. The book "chronicles one part of the story and highlights some of the promises and dangers that the language of civil society brings with it" (p.1).

The origin of 'civil society' thinking is deep: "there are two phases in the family history of civil society theory. The first, dating from the Romans, grappled with why and how humankind should be governed and under what conditions. From the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, however, we see a line drawn starkly between the governed and the governors: all of a sudden, there is a State that needs to be defended against, and a civil society that harbours the citizenry and trains them to keep the State at bay" (p. 7). Due to 'civil society' being commonly used but rarely defined explicitly, there is "mix-and-matching from the centuries old debate on civil society" with the authors identifying six key perspectives utilized: civil society "as values and norms, as a collective noun, as a space for action, as a historical moment, as an anti-hegemonic movement, and as an antidote to the State" (p. 11-12).

While there are challenges, the contributors view civil society positively: "civil society is a good thing: many of the groups that interest us form to compensate for the failures of the State, the market or other parts of society to fulfill their aspirations. The idea assumes that a third sector is necessary to guarantee a just society" (p. 30). But, this is not a simplistic promotion of civil society. For example, they argue that "much of the literature frequently overlooks the ways in which the larger conflicts in political society are reproduced in civil society. The orthodox belief that civil society is an arena for negotiating interests, itself a touchstone of democratic deepening, masks the point that civil society can and often does feed into and aggravate existing social and political cleavages" (p. 136). As Ndegwa (1996) wrote about the 'two faces' of NGOs, the authors also outline the multiple faces of civil society: "Civil society has to be seen as an ad hoc melting pot and battleground of diverse interests and actors. This public arena is never homogenous; constituting itself as a permanent regrouping and renegotiating process. Its complex fabric and interwoven interdependencies are built on the voluntary will of individuals taking part in social and political affairs" (p. 76).

Fortunately, the authors provide not only assessment and criticism, but also suggestions for the way forward. This includes "broadening as well as deepening knowledge of African civil society; in particular understanding what might sap or energize it" (p. 166). It also means exploring indirect engagements by donors to "resume its role as an encouragement to existing movements for change, not the strong arm that sets them rolling" (p. 207). Along these lines, the book concludes that "if any project of social and political change is to be enduring it must come from the voices of local people" (p. 217). Other recommendations include understanding enabling environments, including the right to associate, the rule of law, a free press and other basic rights (p. 215). Importantly, it is being more explicit, open, reflexive and cognizant of the political nature of engaging with civil society: "The question is not whether politics can be avoided, but whether one's particular choice of political stance and partnerships can be justified and, if so, to whom" (p. 211). 

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