Friday night reading.

April 22, 2011 Reflections, Uncategorized

Some more insight on aid, donors and the relationships that affect both the appropriateness and efficiency/overall impact of this industry on the people it’s supposed to help — from a great article by Waylaid Dialectic:

Aid’s boosters and its bureaucrats do, of course, have their shortcomings (they’re human, in other words). And this does contribute to worse aid. But that ain’t the real story. The real story is that they’re working with the money of, and are accountable to, a particular type of master. Typically, neither individuals who donate, nor taxpayers who fund government donors, think or know much about aid. Which is fair enough, they’ve got lives and problems of their own. But it’s also something that creates a particular set of challenges.For NGOs it means they’re in a market of people who are:

1. More likely to donate on the basis of emotion than consideration. Which is why we have ‘poverty porn’.

2. More likely to believe in the effect of small scale change. Which is why we have child sponsorships.

3. Liable to only ever hear about aid in the media when it’s to do with the next big thing or the last great scandal. Which leaves them with an unduly pessimistic picture of aid as it was and also more likely to give money to people who promise to have hit on something different and new. (An easy promise to make when your audience isn’t particularly informed).

4. Keen on double duty. The appeal of emptying the garage while saving the world explains why in-kind aid lives on despite all its problems.

And in the case of both NGOs and government donors:

5. Prone to not donating or being put off donating if they think there’s any risk of failure. Which is why aid organisations are wary of too openly discussing what’s gone wrong.

In the case of government donors additional problems include:

1. The fact that aid takes place overseas, which provides politicians plenty of leeway to do things such as give aid in a way that benefits powerful constituents of their own.

2. The fact that as civil servants, one way or other, they’re prevented from speaking out against the misdeeds of their political masters.

3. The fact that, in the public imagination, civil servants can do little good anyhow. Which gives politicians even more leeway to play up – because they can always offload at least part of the blame.

In saying this I’m not suggesting that aid can’t be improved, or that it doesn’t need to be improved. Nor am I slagging off ‘the public’: until a few years ago I myself would have fit the descriptions I’ve given above. All I’m saying is that, if all you’re really doing is “just asking that aid benefit the poor” you need to start by asking why that aid which is poorly given is poor in the first place. The bad news is that you won’t get to laugh at Bono so much, but the good news is that you won’t have to travel so much either, because many of the interesting questions are actually about what takes place in our own countries, and the beliefs and understandings of the donation givers and taxpayers who live in them.

I’ve been thinking about these relationships quite a bit lately, as I’m elbow deep in editing narratives that we hope will result in continued funding from a smorgasbord of donors. I would say I’m lucky to work for an org that receives funds from what [in my limited perspective] seems to be well-informed, experienced donor agencies. For the most part. But in a lot of ways, I think we are still more beholden to the task of molding program strategies around donor priorities than the task of developing solid programs that honor the best practices and sector-integrations that we know are ideal.

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