Andebo Pax Pascal shares his experience as an aid worker in Africa’s newest country in his second guest post. By examining beneficiaries’ place (or lack thereof) in two projects, he explores whether the development discourse has drifted into the abstract, beyond those he serves.
The idea of different categories of people–donors, government representatives, implementers, beneficiaries–interacting with one motive to improve the human lot is noble. But the internal dynamics of the system is another matter altogether, intriguing and yet baffling. The following two stories illustrate this, especially when it comes to how the beneficiaries or target group are treated.
At the end of a long day, I sit at the restaurant and overhear two fellow aid workers at the next table, Patrick and John*, discuss ideas about how information about the school block construction project should be shared with the beneficiaries.
John, the Programmes Officer, suggests that community representatives could be fully brought on board to plan and have access to all information (including funding amounts), which would also introduce the leaders to managing the school block project once the NGO has left. Patrick, the Project Administrator, argues that the policy of the organization does not allow him to disclose such budgetary/resource details to the community or their representatives, not even to the local government officials.
In any case, Patrick argues that the organization is going to finish a magnificent building that they could not afford by themselves and hand it over to the community. He further opines that even if the community has other ideas to suggest about the building project, these would have no room since, in essence, the beggar has no choice. Patrick reminds John that they are not employees of the local community, but rather are working for the NGO.
As I follow the discussion, I picture myself. Do I act in a two-faced manner when I deal with the beneficiaries? Are there moments in which I have to share information with them in a way that leads me to act superior, working merely as an agency representative guided by policy? If so, I convince myself that I am justified to do things this way. I have to follow policy. On a second thought, I also wonder whether I do these things to provide genuine service to the beneficiaries, or to protect my own position.
Charles* left his home country in the West to settle in South Sudan after the civil war in 2005. A typical do-gooder, he was driven by a need deep inside himself to alleviate human suffering. He chose to focus on orphans, those who had lost their parents during the conflict and would certainly need the hand of someone to take them through the challenges of growing up.
With the financial assistance of a few friends from his home country, Charles established an orphanage, gathering sixty five orphans, boys and girls of different ages. He first focused on having a roof over the orphans’ heads and fulfilling their basic human needs, including school attendance at the local primary and secondary schools. He then acquired some land outside town in order to help initiate a project in agriculture for producing food and tree-planting. The orphanage also supports a youth choir that includes the orphans and the children in the neighbouring community. The beginnings have been rather humble, though the few orphans I was able to interact with seem contented with what life has now accorded them.
Planning for the future, the management decided to build a more decent home which could eventually accommodate 150 orphans. By the standards of the existing building, it is already one of the few modern structures in the town. According to Charles, this building project was to be completed in three years, but had stalled due to the fact that the friends are faced with economic hardships.
I visited the orphanage with another aid worker, Peter, who had some contempt of Charles’ efforts. Apart from appreciating the support for the education of the orphans, he had many reservations about the fancy building, which in his opinion the orphans didn’t need. He also suspected that someone probably ran away with the money meant for finishing the building.
I found it difficult to make a judgment about Charles’ intentions, as well as Peter’s conclusions from our visit. For instance, was Charles merely following his own lofty aims of “saving children” in postwar South Sudan or did he just have the best interests of the orphans at heart? Was the orphanage benefiting the orphans in the long-term? Were the orphans even part of the planning process? Were Peter’s assertions based on core development principles or just personal opinion? I finally resolved that perhaps the best judge(s) in the matter could really only be the orphans themselves.
Were the attitudes, biases, stereotypes, values and visions reflected by John, Patrick, Charles or Peter in these two stories a true reflection of the beneficiaries’ position? How much should beneficiaries know about a project? To what extend should development experts make decisions in the project on behalf of the beneficiaries? Should they be considered as true participants or just end-users? Perhaps beneficiaries only exist in the aid system to balance an equation:
Aid x the principles/opinions of practitioners = Development (for beneficiaries)?
One thing I know for certain is that in development, people are involved at various stages and all are people with ideas, aspirations, dreams and values. How these are viewed by the ‘others’ within the aid structures is purely a matter of the attitudes, biases, stereotypes, values, etc. that individuals in the development industry carry with them. In the case of the beneficiaries, having a few of their representatives on board in the planning, implementing and monitoring of projects has huge advantages in transparency and accountability.
“We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.” - Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, Principle 9.
Unfortunately accountability in most development projects aligns only with the power relations involved. Most aid organizations focus on upward accountability, such as reporting to donors, boards and head offices. The conventional vertical systems of accountability are themselves appropriate; however in many instances the beneficiaries are kept at bay. (For an alternative approach, see Mango’s Who Counts? Campaign for financial reporting to beneficiaries.) How can beneficiaries ensure basic accountability from NGOs, at least in the resources approved for their direct benefit?
Andebo Pax Pascal is from Arua, northwestern Uganda and is currently working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nimule, South Sudan, where they are implementing education programmes. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
*Names have been changed.