(Non)measurable Effects of Aid

[Written January 29, 2014] For years I have been convinced that big “A” Aid is more detrimental to recipient countries than it is beneficial. This isn’t a wild or crazy belief but for some it may be. For many who actually work in the international development industry and who may have even studied development or international relations, it is a crazy notion. They must think it is — as far as I see it.

It has been a little over a year since I moved to Washington DC. The development “industry” here is alive and well and as a development person myself, it tends to infiltrate my conversations quite often. The majority of development folks that work in DC are employed by our bilateral agency USAID or contractors for it — those that churn out proposals to win USAID projects: Chemonics, DAI, IRD to name a few big ones. The other, highly visible but less populous, contingent of the development sector in DC are folks working in multilaterals including the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), who have their own separate piles of Aid money.

I have plenty of friends who work within these agencies who are well-intentioned, hardworking individuals who want to make a difference and I respect them for that. However, I have always suspected that their good intentions are being wasted on harmful projects. Until now, I could never quite articulate my argument.

“Wins” with Aid money are tangible. For example, a specific microfinance project in Kenya set up by a local USAID-funded NGO, or a basket weaving rejuvenation activity in Peru to “empower local women” facilitated through donor money.

“Loses” are much harder to measure. So how can I explain the social and political effects of reprioritizing needs according to what American dollars are willing to fund? Many scholars and practitioners have noted the lack of substantial positive economic “upliftment” through this money, but few have been able to concretely offer examples of negative effects.

Conscious of my views and the industry I work in, I chose to avoid working in big “A” Aid affiliated organizations. At Global Integrity, we operate through funding from philanthropies that work with smaller sums of money that either trust us to do with it what we choose to, or offer it out for targeted, micro, locally-manageable projects.

As of six months ago, we joined the funding game through our Innovation Fund: Testing 123. As the manager of the Fund, I have spent the last two months reading through applications from innovators across the globe. Our hope is to invest up to 10,000 dollars in those that propose half-crazy, brand new, high-risk/high-reward ideas addressing challenges of transparency and accountability.

The majority of submissions were not new nor high risk. Some ideas proposed to take a solution working in one geography to another, others offered to use existing approaches for ongoing projects.

To some extent I anticipated this outcome because it is hard to come up with something shockingly different than has been tried before. A less predictable result was what led me to my “a-ha!” moment.

Applicants from top Aid recipient countries used “Aid” industry rhetoric and almost without fail, proposed classic Aid-driven projects. For example, “Capacity Building”, “Empowerment”, “Livelihoods” were terms invoked consistently across these submissions.

This is a clear result of decades of “Aid conditioning” that has narrowed the focus of these recipients to a few streams of potential project areas. It is a sign that development practitioners need to think long and hard about working in ways to support an “unconditioning”.

Without this, I suspect that our cravings for innovative, out-of-the-box, game-changing ideas that exist locally in these countries, will not be satiated.