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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