Guest post by Mike Keller, a self-described aid agnostic.
When a friend recently pointed my attention to Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, a “book” by an organization that I’d never heard of, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, I was skeptical. I assumed it would be just another aid agency advertisement masquerading as a meaningful we-do-listen-to-the-poor anecdotal report (see the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor or the UN’s Asian Children Want Greater Involvement in Disaster Risk Reduction).
During my field work, I have often wondered how the locals around me actually perceive the aid industry. Beyond the superficial Senegalese village drumming ceremony or words of praise from Afghan elders, were people upset to see so many shiny 4x4s rolling by their villages with only one passenger, while locals had to cram into rolling sardine cans? Was the enormous generator I used in Afghanistan angering my neighbors as they ate by candelight? Did the Chadians to whom I distributed food agree with my concerns about perpetuating dependency?
I was therefore surprised and relieved to read a compelling report (book is a bit of a stretch) that asks 6,000 aid beneficiaries and (mostly local) aid workers the simple question: how do you perceive aid? The answers are of course complex, and unfortunately not quantified. But as the introduction points out, the answers aren’t mere anecdotes either. The researchers have distilled feedback from a large sample size and come to a number of solid conclusions; it turns out that aid beneficiaries see the same problems as those of us within the industry.
The only remaining people in the aid equation who haven’t understood these challenges, therefore, are the ultimate donors: Western taxpayers. With my book I hope to use similar aid worker feedback, but target it to an audience with the power to change some of the fundamental problems within the aid industry.
If you don’t get the chance to peruse the 145 pages (free PDF online), here are some highlights I gathered:
- The power of this book is in the cumulative evidence it reports. When so many people in so many places, people who have experienced different forms of assistance from many different international providers, still come up with essentially the same message, this goes beyond the localized griping of some people. Across very different contexts, people described their experiences with very different aid providers in remarkably similar terms. Their analyses of why and how things go wrong are common and consistent. When they judge how aid, as a system, has “added up” in their societies, the overwhelming majority cite negative cumulative effects.
- One community leader in Angola suggested that people who make charitable contributions to aid agencies are not given the full picture of what becomes of their donations. He said, with others nodding in agreement, that people in the U.S. who think they are helping the suffering need to know things are not done as they should be.
- Very few people call for more aid; virtually everyone says they want “smarter” aid. Many feel that “too much” is given “too fast.” A majority criticize the “waste” of money and other resources through programs they perceive as misguided or through the failure of aid providers to be sufficiently engaged.
- “This food assistance ought to stop. This money should be given to infrastructure development. Seventy-five percent of families in this village receive rations for food each month but are unable to pull themselves out of poverty. Changes will be there definitely if families take their economic development into their hands.” (Villager, Sri Lanka)
- “It’s unavoidable that humanitarian aid created a situation where we are programmed to receive. If aid wasn’t just given, but if there was a program that was much more of a give and take, it would be more beneficial for the whole community…. It’s important not to get things for free so that people are not programmed to get aid. If you give it for free, you take away the sense of responsibility they had.” (Karen leader, Thai-Burma border)
- Aid agency field directors say that they are promoted and respected if they “grow” their portfolios or budget every year and gain little recognition when they manage to save money for their agencies.
- “Donors require that we establish associations in order to be eligible for support, but these associations have in some cases become the source of our misfortune. It can happen this way. For example, I create an association and I am the president. My sister becomes the secretary and another sister becomes the treasurer, so it becomes a family affair. I can easily mobilize 100 other women to become members of my association, but they won’t have the right to question things or have their say. When the funding arrives, you are marginalized if you keep asking questions. All the association’s income goes to the president. When the donors return, the association’s leaders convene some of the members and pay them to attend a donor’s meeting. The donor is happy and concludes that all is going well. But, in fact, nothing is going well! The funding comes to those who know how to work the system.” (Leader of a women’s association, Mali)
- “Many organizations are just interested in visibility. As soon as their logo is on the wall, they are satisfied. What is written in their brochures and newsletters is often not the reality.” (Refugee, Lebanon)
- “If you ask me what my priority needs are and I tell you, but then you bring me other things instead, I will take them, but you did not help me.” (Farmer near Timbuktu, Mali)
- “Donors do a lot of assessments and focus groups, but then when what comes out of these focus groups doesn’t fit their agenda, they simply change it to make it fit.” (Lebanese researcher, Lebanon)
- “This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated: I participate. You participate. They decide.” (An indigenous businessman and grassroots development worker, Ecuador)
- Many note it is easy to provide pictures (sometimes faked) and receipts (also sometimes faked) to meet reporting requirements since it is widely known that donors will not often go to the field to see what has or has not occurred.
- Many conclude that if donors make it this easy to cheat, they must not really care. They say that the message conveyed by reporting procedures that are so easily bypassed or faked is that donors care more about getting the reports written with the “right” attachments than about what actually happens in the field in terms of either processes or outcomes.
- Whereas people rarely felt that NGOs were involved in corrupt or unfair practices, they were often disillusioned by what they saw as NGO tolerance of it, or at least reluctance to take steps to combat it…. There is no budget for lawsuits. (Listening Project Report, Bolivia)
- Many also comment on the wastefulness of using expensive hotels for conferences and workshops when simpler and less expensive venues are available.
- “There is not an NGO director in town without a personal vehicle, a nice house, a big boubou (a fancy and expensive outfit), and a beautiful woman!” (Male shopkeeper, Mali)
- “All I see are people coming in with big cars … the only thing is talking, meetings, and rumors of an NGO holding functions. So where does the money go?” (Hotel guard, Kenya)
- “Those donors who have been on the ground longer understand the local dynamics and political context better. But people get moved around like ambassadors and that knowledge often goes with them.” (City official, Philippines)
- “With community participation, how do we know what’s working? In Soviet times, [Communist] Party people visited the kolkhoz (collective farms) and everyone looked busy working and participating. Now it is the president or the new political party people, or in many cases INGO visitors who come to visit and everything looks fine on a short visit.” (Aid worker, Tajikistan)
- “I know that we are providing things that are not needed, but I have to keep the delivery on schedule in order to be ready to apply for the next tranche of funds,” complains the agency field director. These comments are not unusual, and they are telling. These people are their agencies. They are senior staff. They make policy, set standards, supervise others, determine their own schedules, and set their own and others’ priorities. They are able, smart, and aware. They recognize that their work is flawed and that there are better ways to achieve their intended results. Yet, they feel compelled to keep the system going as it is. What they are saying is, “I have to do it wrong so I can keep money coming so I can do it wrong again to keep money coming….”
Mike Keller is writing book on “aid organizations’ internal problems, from perspective of field level employees, for tax-paying audience.” You can follow him on Twitter @AidHappens or via his Facebook page.
A video of a presentation by one of the report’s authors, Dayna Brown, at the Overseas Development Institute is available here.