Getting it wrong

A recurrent theme in international development is the issue of measuring and reporting aid effectiveness – this topic gets a lot of buzz, and rightly so. Especially in an age of fiscal constraints, it is ever more important to deploy funding to projects that work. There’s a lot of debate about whether official development aid is more effective than chanelling funding through small local NGOs, big international ones, or something in between. What I find baffling is that a lot of people are willing to say that one is the better alternative – personally, I think that there are some government agencies, some NGOs (large/small) that are good at handling aid money, and others that aren’t. Dismissing one model for the other doesn’t make any sense, given how heterogenous the group is. 

As the excellent blog Good Intentions are Not Enough points out, one of the main problems with aid agency/NGO reporting is the fact that negative findings are often swept under the rug, or spun into a positive narrative because these agencies are afraid of jeopardizing their sources of fuding. The problem is that funders often don’t have the capacity to closely monitor/evaluate the impact of their donation, and rely on reporting from their grantee… Which is obviously problematic, for a number of reasons. Even if the grantee outsources evaluation to a third party, the results that filter back to the donor aren’t always guaranteed to accurately reflect reality. There’s also the issue of overstating a crisis or situation to attract funding, another dangerous and unsustainable practice. Organizations and agencies that receive aid are all actually competing for resources – they are, after all, entities that employ staff etc. and whose own existence depends on the existence of a need, a crisis, a situation that has to be addressed. It’s no wonder that they tend to overstate, spin, or misreport the facts to their donors – for some, it is a matter of organizational survival. 

It makes it complicated to evaluate the effectiveness of aid in this context: not only do you generally have to contend with insufficient monitoring mechanisms at the project level, which make it difficult to know whether any quantifiable objectives are met, but there are also all these qualitative dimensions that come into play. The straightforward elements of evaluating aid effectiveness can sometimes be overshadowed by subjectivity – the reputation of an organization, who’s on the board,  its ability to serve beneficiaries at scale…etc. And let’s not forget the highly political nature of official development aid – the fact that Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Pakistan are the countries which receive the most American official development aid (ODA) is a telling fact (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan.) To genuinely evaluate the effectiveness of aid, we shouldn’t just be looking at the glossy quarterly and year end reports. For some well-entrenched organizations and agencies, the validity of their model, of their projects is barely questioned.

Interestingly, when it comes to ODA, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of aid dependency and lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the recipient government. (“The Open Budget Survey reveals that those countries performing least well in terms of budget transparency practices share certain characteristics, including lower income levels, dependence on foreign aid, reliance on revenues from hydrocarbon extraction, and weak democratic institutions.”) For a lot of these countries, ODA is their principal lifeline, and to stop the flow of funds would probably have catastrophic consequences for the population (actually, that is an assumption – would be interesting to find out what impact lower levels of ODA would have on a country like Liberia)

The whole “aid effectiveness” debate is rather obscured, in my opinion, by political and subjective factors – how can we effectively evaluate the impact of aid when aid disbursements themselves aren’t based on genuine levels of need, but rather on how well the agency, organization or government is able to convince donors of that need. Whether one looks at ODA, or funding for agencies/NGOs carrying out development activities in low income countries, we’re never going to be serious about “aid effectiveness” until we look at the full process, from needs assessment to expost evaluation.

Until we are able (willing?) to do so, we’ll have to accept a certain degree of inefficiency when it comes to aid. It’s not a perfect system, far from it, but the fact that such vigorous debate exists around development aid – in all of its forms – is a hopefully a sign that, as time goes by, we’ll be much more sophisticated when it comes to efficient aid allocation, monitoring and evaluation.

Apparently, World Vision in Liberia didn’t get that memo.

A disturbing example of large scale corruption within NGOs just emerged in Liberia. Astonishingly, 90% of World Vision’s aid to Liberia went missing – they lost $1mm as their project managers were selling food and using construction materials that were supposed to benefit Liberians (World Vision was a sub-grantee for food distribution and food-for-work projects.)

World Vision calculated that $884,681 worth of food was missing, with a total loss, including ocean freight expenses to ship the food to Liberia, of $1.45 million. 

The United States spent an additional $300,000 for construction materials, most of which were never used on the intended projects.

Unfortunately for World Vision, it means that their fundraising will suffer as a result – while this is obviously too bad for them and the beneficiaries of their other, functional projects, there is no reason why donors should not sanction World Vision for its lack of oversight. World Vision apparently employs 250 people in Liberia, which is quite significant – besides other international organizations or the government, there are few employers of this size in Liberia (hence the 85% unemployment rate…) and they’ve been operating there since the early 80s – it’s quite unbelievable and unacceptable that it took them 2 years  to uncover this massive fraud. 

I honestly have no idea how something of this scale could have occured – how is it possible that no one realized that 34 of the towns intended to benefit from this project didn’t exist? It really says a lot about WV’s management capacity and how (un)rigorous their internal monitoring mechanisms are. In addition, in a context of poverty, how could over a million dollars disappear discreetly? 

Quite apart from the fact that their Community Resettlement and Rehabilitation Project ended up being a massive failure because of this fraud, it’s also worth noting that their model of importing food from the United States for aid is a flawed approach – why not purchase locally and support the Liberian agricultural sector and its small-holder farmers? Owen Barder recently wrote  that instead of importing food aid to Ethiopia, cash transfers would be more effective in combating hunger (which makes a lot of sense, by the way: in doing so, you would reduce the cost of providing food aid). I suppose the risk here is that people may not use the cash for its intended purpose – but the counter-argument is that if the person would naturally use the cash for whatever is their greatest need, which hopefully doesn’t involve getting drunk at the local bar…(more about purchasing food aid locally here, and more about untying food aid here)

I have serious beef with this World Vision drama: not only did they fail the people of Liberia by botching the design and execution of its CRRP, but this is also going to contribute to increasing the distrust for organizations doing similar work. The “public relations disaster” mentioned by Kleinman is not limited to WV, but will have repercussions for other NGOs. Shame. 

Warning: shameless plug

As for The Niapele Project’s School Nutrition Initiative in Liberia, we just received a small grant from the GO Campaign to cover the start-up costs of the project. While we certainly don’t have the ability to operate at a scale quite like a large INGO, we’re still planning on feeding 600 kids/day during the upcoming school year. And we take monitoring seriously – in addition to having trustworthy program coordinators, we track the impact of the program through regular medical assessments. We’ll also be sourcing food items for the project from an agricultural co-op in Central Liberia which is run by a local grassroots organization, Malaya. While we don’t have the enormous budget, staff and long standing experience of World Vision in Liberia, Niapele’s work in Liberia is guided by an honest assessment of needs at the community level, and we believe that our small-scale impact will be long lasting. 

This ‘n’ that

Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter: 

penelopeinparis@bill_easterly vs. J. Sachs: http://ow.ly/aInw.amusing – although I wonder if this is sorta lowering the standards of educated debate.
bill_easterly@penelopeinparis @saundras_s u mean that educated debate that includes Bono&Angelina?
penelopeinparis@bill_easterly – touche. Still, 2 bad muck raking takes over the constructive discussion,& thats what ppl will focus on,instd of real issues

I’m so very entertained by modern media and information exchange. 

In other news, I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, the memoirs of Dr. Halima Bashir, a woman doctor in Darfur. In spite of the fact that I spent most of the second half of the book swallowing my tears, I really enjoyed her story. The horror… Goodness. We have all seen, read or heard accounts of rape as a weapon of war (in Liberia, in the DRC, in Sudan….), but the personal nature of her account made it even harder to bear. It almost makes me in favor of celebrity advocacy – how could you not want to be outspoken if you knew you could draw media (and potentially, political) attention? 

Dead Aid Bandwagon

If you are a development nerd, you have probably read ad nauseam about Dambisa Moyo’s new book, Dead Aid. In the last few months, there has been an interesting debate happening between different schools of thought. Essentially, Moyo argues that foreign aid to African countries is one of the preeminent root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment (for lack of a better word), and that instead of throwing billions of (wasted) dollars into the hands of dicators, African governments should instead be given access to more private finance. 


Having worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, Moyo – who hails from Zambia – offers a refreshing perspective on the aid debate (which is typically dominated by white males… no surprises there, right?)


Her book unleashed an outpouring of commentary – some condemning her views, others wholeheartedly agreeing, and everything in between. I have been tempted to throw in my two cents, but the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that a) everything that could be said, has been said and, b) the debate over whether aid should be stopped or not is such a macro discussion that, ultimately, we’re getting stuck at the “50,000 foot” view – and that doesn’t really help move the debate forward constructively. Because, as we all know, foreign aid will NOT end – even if you were able to show by a+b=c that aid caused most of Africa’s problems, Official Development Aid (ODA) is still a critical foreign policy tool, and to call for its halt is unrealistic.

Anyway.  

Most recently, Francis Fukuyama voiced his opinion on the matter in Slate. He compares Moyo’s argument with another prominent African scholar’s views, Wangari Maatai. His piece, I thought, actually touches on a couple of really key issues, which most commentary on “Dead Aid” have failed to focus on. Excerpt:

Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control.

This view actually echoes what one of the most prominent French African scholars, Jean Francois Bayart, writes in his book “L’Etat en Afrique: La politique du ventre“. In this book, he writes that the “politics of the belly” – which is to say the political culture that is prevalent in Africa whereby rulers seek to accumulate power and possessions –  is not only the fundamental issue that has been plaguing the continent, but also a product of its very particular social, political and economic history. In his book (which I unfortunately don’t think has been translated into English), he describes how complex social and political networks arose in the context of colonial and post colonial sub-Saharan Africa, and how the polity that emerged is defined by an intricate interplay between foreign dependency, reliance on local (and often socially constructed) tribal or ethnic identities and leaders’ destructive desire to selfishly accumulate resources. 

Of course, given that we’re talking about a whole continent, generalizations are very hard to make – so while one can certainly find counter points to Bayart and Fukuyama’s argument, there is an element of truth to it, which to me captures the most powerful criticism of Moyo’s book: it’s not aid per se that’s the problem – it’s what’s being done with it, and how it’s being managed. And of course, Moyo knows this. But, as Owen Barder notes:

It seems to me that Dambisa Moyo has set up a false dichotomy between aid and entrepreneurship. Many of the things Moyo would like to see – better access to financial services, a better business environment, lower tariffs – can be (and are) supported by aid. 

It’s been frustrating to read Bono’s response to Moyo, as well as the reactions from a lot of people “shocked” that Moyo would call for an end to foreign aid. But, if (like me…) you subscribe to the Easterly school of thought that holds that most ODA ends up being horribly wasted and that an entirely new ODA regime needs to come about, then her argument, while virulent and, frankly, aggressive, makes sense. 

Just recently, from (of all places) USA Today:

Two United Nations agencies spent millions in U.S. money on substandard Afghanistan construction projects, including a central bank without electricity and a bridge at risk of “life threatening” collapse. 

In the current context, I think it’s great to debate the virtues (or lack thereof) of ODA – however, focusing on that macro question shouldn’t be a reason to turn our focus away from the real issue: today, there are millions of aid dollars at work – how do we actually make them work, with a view to incrementally decrease countries’ dependence on foreign assistance? 

Oh, aid effectiveness… You are hella elusive. 

First South American thoughts

I somehow ended up taking a work related week long trip to Peru – made the decision thursday, and here I am! This is exciting for me, as I have never been to South America, and I am beyond thrilled to discover this continent (or at least a tiny part of it). Working for CGSGI, I have been researching and writing about poverty in Peru and Colombia (where we work), but this trip will be an opportunity to get a much more holistic and real understanding of the dynamics at play. In Peru, the stats are staggering: over 40% of the population lives in poverty, and that in spite of strong and sustained economic growth – 9% last year, the highest rate among South American countries. In one of the regions we work in, Cajamarca, mining is the economic engine. Nonetheless, nearly half the children under 5 in that region suffer from chronic malnutrition…. Meanwhile, the central government collected nearly $2 billion in tax revenues from mining companies, but this has failed to translate into improved quality of life for impoverished Peruvians.

Anyway — I cannot wait to visit the sites of our project work, and to experience it for myself. It’s 2:20 am, and I am wired! 
In terms of first impressions, the Lima airport at midnight was chock full of American missionaries… There were probably 200 missionaries, mostly middle aged/older people. I have no doubt that they come and do work in good faith here, probably contributing to poverty alleviation in some way or another. Regardless, I have a fundamental issue with aid that is tied to religious proselytizing. Particularly in this part of the world, where Christianity wreaked such havoc. While I was waiting in line at immigration, I kept wondering how the Peruvians perceived this. Perhaps they are despondent, and this is just part of the landscape. Maybe they think Americans are mighty, mighty strange. Who knows. In the mix, we also had an enormous tour group of older Japanese people, most of them wearing those fancy face masks… 
To finish off, a collection of infuriating stories from this past week: 
Firestone and workers’ rights violations in Liberia (and their $30 million Superbowl ad…)
– This isn’t so much infuriating as disappointing – ECOWAS gives $100K to Liberia to fight the invasion of caterpillars which is decimating the country’s agricultural sector. $100K? Seriously? Not that ECOWAS should be giving more, but perhaps more substantial help should be making its way….
– And, of course, another story of refugee abuse. I long for the day when people fleeing tragedy will be treated with dignity and respect.  

New Wave

262 migrants from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived aboard a rickety fishing boat in Malta this morning. Media reports claim that the migrants attempted to “disperse and hide after landing in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, but were surrounded by police and soldiers”. Funny, because it doesn’t seem like anyone is dispersing and hiding – Watch the video here.

Most of these individuals will be repatriated, seeing as they come from countries which are not eligible for humanitarian status and cannot avail themselves of refugee or asylum seeking status.

Again… This shows the obvious need to reconsider how we handle population movements. People do not put themselves through such harrowing experiences without a good reason to do so. The answer isn’t an “open door” policy either – but an adequate policy mix, which combines elements of border protection and greater coordination with countries of origin with policies that promote the creation of opportunities in said countries.

Seems likely..