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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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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Does Development Aid Violence?

Peter Uvin's "Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda" (1999), should be read by all students, practitioners and scholars of development studies. The book offers unique perspectives on the linkages between development activity and politics, power, exclusion, marginalization and processes that generally counter the objectives of the development enterprise, and specifically the Rwandan genocide.

The book opens forcefully with the statement that: "Almost none of the foreign experts living and working in Rwanda expected the genocide to occur or did anything to stop it from happening" (p. 2), and "the way development was defined, managed, and implemented was a crucial element in the creation and evolution of many of the processes that led to genocide" (p. 3). This is because "the way development (aid) is defined and implemented interacts with processes of elite reproduction, social differentiation, political exclusion, and cultural change" (p. 6).

Yet, Uvin recognizes the limitations of such broad, general claims: "Another problem is that this book describes the development aid system at large and therefore generalizes and simplifies. It is likely that for any statement I make, there have been agencies and people who acted or thought differently. Any statement about "the development enterprise" is bound to do injustice to some people and organizations. The same holds true, for that matter, for statements about "farmers," "politicians," "Hutu," or "Tutsi." (p. 9).

The international community, Uvin argues, was blind to the processes that led to the genocide: "In its "soft" version – that Rwanda underwent a social revolution and its regime truly represents the masses – there were almost no dissenters internationally. If one reads, for example, project documents, policy statements, and analyses by foreign aid agencies or their employees, one is surprised to find, over and over again, an uncritical acceptance of the merits of the social revolution and the representative nature of the state" (p. 27). Even when racism, ethnic differentiation and marginalization were directly and indirectly apparent "no aid agency has ever pushed the government to change these policies. Alison des Forges, one of the foremost American specialists on the Great Lakes region and a human rights activist (working for Africa Watch), bitterly laments the fact that all foreign aid agencies accepted the continuation of the ethnic IDs and did not pressure the government to abandon them – not even in 1992, when it became clear that they were being employed to target Tutsi for harassment and extermination" (p. 37). Exclusion "was embedded in the functioning of society" in social, regional and ethnic levels, and "it comes as no surprise that exclusion was deeply ingrained in the processes of so-called development (p. 118). "Development aid strengthens processes of exclusion both directly, through its own behaviors, and indirectly, through its acquiescence and implication in other actors' behaviors" (p. 153).

  • "Ethnic inequality; institutionalized, state-organized racism; regional politics; lack of dignity and self-respect; the generalized presence of impunity and fear of the absence of justice; human rights violations; the oppressive presence of the state, and the like are emphatically not parts of this "solvable problem" or of the mandate of development agencies; they are thus evacuated, ignored, considered not to exist. (p. 45)
  • "Ethnic and political amnesia does not make development aid and the processes its sets in motion apolitical; it just renders these processes invisible." (p. 232)
  • "When the large majority of high-level civil servants and project managers in Burundi are Tutsi; where there are legal limits on the number of Tutsi that can enter civil service in Rwanda; when the top positions go disproportionately to people from the president's region and assorted other friends; when the best-paid jobs are always reserved for Bazungu, regardless of competence; when many of the people with well-paid positions in the private aid sector are Tutsi; in other words, when ethnic and regional criteria intervene so crucially in the distribution of the direct benefits of development projects, is the aid system neutral?" (p. 147)
False attacks were utilized to fuel national and international sentiment against Tutsi people, including an all-night attack on Kigali in 1990, staged by the army, and again in 1991, both of which justified mass imprisonment (p. 63-64). At the same time, the trendy and innovative approaches in the development community prioritized governmental ownership and control of aid resources (p. 88), yet Uvin wonders if these policies "reflected any understanding of the disintegration of Rwandan society and its structures of governance" (p. 89). Aid agencies could not, Uvin argues, claim ignorance. "All aid agencies, from headquarters in Western capitals to local offices, were aware of the rapid deterioration of Rwanda's human rights record (from already low levels) and of the rise in racism and violence; similarly, all development experts were daily confronted at the personal level with the fear, hatred, and insecurity that characterized daily life in Rwanda in the 1990s. None of them, though, felt that the development assistance mission ought to be, or could be, fundamentally rethought" (p. 94). Uvin wonders if it really needed to take a genocide to understand that development could not take place without peace, justice, civil society, human rights and conflict resolution (p. 100).

  • "There is no way that the government could implement any policy, coherent or not, without the assistance of the foreign aid community; as a matter of fact, there is no way that significant parts of the government bureaucracy could even exist without international aid. In countries such as Rwanda and many other African countries, development aid is the fuel that allows the government machinery to exist, to expand, to control, to implement." (p. 227)

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The Anatomy of Giving

Most of the time development folks just speak with and to other development folks. Outsiders can bring a healthy voice to the conversation. Augusta Dwyer, in her 2015 work "The Anatomy of Giving" offers such a perspective on the aid industry, focusing upon Haiti. With a background as a journalist, she sets out to answer what has changed since she first visited Haiti 26 years ago. She asks: "Where can I see the evidence that the billions of dollars and loads of helpful advice given to the people of Haiti have, even incrementally, improved their lives? Would they, as some suggest, be even worse off without it? Or, like the key around Woodley Angelito Vrissaint's neck, does is not seem to be doing much good?" (p. 16) Worthwhile questions. Answers that will inevitably result in too broad of generalizations to appropriately do justice to the broad spectrum of experiences.

The book opens with the work of a doctor, who "is different from many who come to Haiti convinced they have something – some new idea, or program, or better way of doing things – that will finally bring the nation to its feet. Rather, he recognizes how little he and people like him can do, working around the edges of the kind of structural poverty that seems immune to any kind of lasting solution" (p. 3). Herein lies one of the challenges of the outsider – this idea is not as rare as assumed. Take the term used in this description, structural poverty, about which there have been rich discussions since the late 1960s. It is also a space where much has been written, including about Haiti. Most well-known of which is probably Paul Farmer earlier books, such as AIDS and Accusation (1992), The Uses of Haiti (1994), Infections and Inequalities (1999), and Pathologies of Power (2003). These works, somewhat surprisingly considering their relevance to the topic and the questions raised, do not feature in this book. Consider one quote, written almost three decades before Dwyer's work, in a book primarily about Haiti:

  • "Talk of "appropriate technology" and "sustainability" had sounded good to me, at least initially. The problem was that these sounded silly, even sinister, to the landless peasants with whom I worked and to many of their staunchest advocates…during a year of transformative experiences [in the early 1980s], I ran head-on into the fundamental disjuncture between "expert views" on these matters (as promulgated, for example, in scholars journals and in schools of public health) and the views of those whose commitments was more to radical changes in the circumstances endured by the poor" (Infections and Inequalities, Farmer, 1999: 21).

The author is supportive of civil society organizations and social movements as an alternative to the traditional, top-down aid. While I agree with this support, there are also instances wherein civil society may not be the best mechanism or have the authority, such as developing a national highway system or setting minimum standards for pollution levels in water. In taking a view that 'good' development equates to individual empowerment, the narrowing of what is praiseworthy is a natural outcome. However, within that narrow framing of good development, the book mentions Time to Listen, but insufficiently addresses the problems that arise within community-driven and civil society organizations, often times reflecting the challenges of NGOs. More so than any other comment, however, I wish that the author had taken the NGO-criticism and reflected that in her own work, wherein the voices of people experiencing chronic poverty are greatly outnumbered by those of NGO workers and academics.

These comments are somewhat critical, but the book offers plenty of insight, particularly for those not familiar with the aid industry. One example – of many – is the role of aid in relation to human rights:

  • "Today it is countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia that continue to serve as examples of governments receiving lots of aid money despite their lack of democracy and accountability. When human rights organizations complained of the mistreatment and forced removal of peasant farmers in Ethiopia, for instance, the [World] Bank – co-chair of the Development Assistance Group there – rebuffed those accusations by talking instead about the countries "impressive performance with economic growth accelerating on a sustained basis since 2003, despite the global economic crisis." This growth implied, it said, that Ethiopians were, as a whole, better off. While they had no effective way of voting in a different government, this did not matter." (p. 150)

Notes on moving forward:

  • "What we, the givers, can do, perhaps, is think about poverty, and how to eradicate poverty, in a different way. We can learn to better understand the systems that cause it, and we can support organizations that acknowledge and resist them… We can also recognize that our governments are using us as a pretext for their own self-interested giving, and maybe even start campaigning for them to stop doing so. And instead of doling out things, as if the problems of the poor are such that we can't find the time or patience to help them deal with them, we might enable ourselves to stand alongside them as they decide what needs to happen." (p. 166)
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