25 November 2009

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

It was hard to tell if her cheeks were flushed from the heat or anger. Over a beer on a rooftop dive off Kimweri Road, Jen, an American from North Carolina who has worked in the poverty reduction business in Dar es Salaam for two years, derided the sins of development aid—hopelessly arrogant, self-interested and patronizing. Not to mention ineffective. “Do you know how much money we’ve poured into this country?” she fumed. “Show me an example of where it actually reaches the end user.”

Around us, Tanzanian men and women sat on blue and red plastic chairs, some watching television, others talking quietly. They had greeted us warmly (and with amusement—we were the only wazungu around), offering us chairs in the shade, but Jen had protested. Little beads of sweat dotted her forehead, and her face glowed in the sunlight. “It’s worse in Washington,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll work in development when I go home. I don’t know if I can be a part of that.”

The irony, of course, is that she already IS a part of it. We all are. We work in various capacities in poor countries because we want to help—because we feel we need to help—but we are also our own fiercest, most merciless critics. Half in love with our own disgust for the community we are a part of, we derive a strange satisfaction from the assumption that while our particular projects are decent, not too bad, well-intentioned, all around us lie the wreckage of development failures.

—The bilterals are so pitiful it's funny. All politics, you know. Neocolonialism at its worst.

—It's the NGOs that really scare me. Some of these people--what qualifications do they have to be here except big hearts? Such a bunch of clueless do-gooders.

—I hate to say it, but the World Bank is the worst offender. A bumbling bureaucracy, totally incompetent. I mean the work you do for them is great, but really, as a whole, it's terrible.

It’s a mystery—how individuals can be so smart and well-intentioned, but put them together in a collective, make them into an institution, and they become arrogant, lazy, short-sighted villains.

The criticism is warranted. Donor assistance is often unpredictable and inflexible; redundant in some areas and feeble in others; driven more by the political/PR/security/economic interests of rich countries rather than by the needs of poor ones; under-evaluated and sometimes wasteful.

We all know this. But our bumper sticker criticisms are useless. They trivialize the complex, and are born out of a gnawing doubt, a nervous cynicism, a ragged despair that secretly wonders: maybe we cannot fix this.

One thing is for sure: we cannot improve aid by trying to change these core dilemmas. Like churches and democratic governments, there are lots of persistent shortcomings and corruptions, but that doesn’t mean the whole system is worthless.

How can we take these realities and produce better development outcomes—people who are healthier, who can provide for themselves and their families, who have more and better choices about how they live their lives? Here are a few suggestions:

Tell the truth

All of us should be more transparent about what we’re doing—what we spend, and what we spend it on (including compensation and perks for our own employees). As Owen Barder notes in a recent blog post: “Under current arrangements, donors publish details of their aid up to 23 months after it has been spent. Donors need to publish detailed information about their current and planned future activities so that governments, donors and the private sector can identify the gaps where additional resources would have most effect.”

We should also be more candid about our failures. Programs that don’t work ought to be written up and discussed just as much as success stories, and the people implementing programs on the ground shouldn’t have to worry that their funding will dry up if they actually show the donors just how hard to implement and messy and riddled with problems many of these programs are. (The World Bank, to its credit, will soon publish a story on such a failure written by yours truly. Stay tuned.)

Cross the ocean

There are oceans—literally and figuratively—separating development professionals working in the field from those working in policy circles in Western capitals. We need ways to facilitate regular and candid communication between the two.


No one really knows how economic development “happens,” but most are pretty sure it takes time. You can debate the motives behind and modalities of aid flows from rich to poor countries until you’re blue in the face—they are not going to stop any time soon. This is long-term redistribution at work, and the sooner we can make this reality a part of the foundation upon which our programs are built, the better. The United States is especially guilty of thinking about aid in terms of ultra-short time horizons.


Our sins are many—but in spite of them, aid can and does improve lives, and it can be made better. But not by simply wishing that things—that we—were different.

*For specific “what to do on Monday morning” suggestions, see Owen Barder's Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid, published by the Center for Global Development.

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