Another meeting to Save The World.
September 3, 2008 4:58 AM   Subscribe

The Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness is being held in, well, Accra until Thursday, three years after the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

The conclusions seem to agree it's not about the volume of aid, so much as the way the aid is used. The way the principles have been implemented (if not the principles (pdf) themselves) have been attacked as too technocratic, too politically correct, too cowardly and insufficiently committed (pdf) - but at least there's debate.
posted by YouRebelScum (19 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen the joint opinion piece by Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the president of Liberia and the chairman of de Beers, Nicky Oppenheimer?

Why, then, is Africa still lagging behind the rest of the world on most indicators of development?

The answer, we are told, is that Africa isn't using aid properly. So African governments devote enormous time and energy to discussing, among themselves and with organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, how to improve the impact of aid

Aid is important for Africa's poorest countries, but we must also address the real reason why growth stalls: The cost of doing business is just too high.

According to the International Finance Corporation, 24 of the 30 countries with the most costly business environment are in sub-Saharan Africa. These costs are seldom borne by consumers. They are shouldered by African businesses and producers.

Well, that may not be true, our field research in subSaharan Africa shows the highest rates for mobile phone calls and texts plus the average cost of a week there was almost the same as a week in Europe.
posted by infini at 6:07 AM on September 3, 2008

er, link for above *blush*
posted by infini at 6:08 AM on September 3, 2008

This is good stuff to see, the conversation continuing. It will continue at TED again this year in the US, too, I'm sure. And multiple other forums across the planet. Which is a good thing, don't get me wrong. We're thinking and arguing about the best way to help those who live on the least allocations of resources on our planet. We're approaching these problems, seeking to solve them from an at least semi-global perspective. When in our history were we at least in some part collectively focused on that? This is an exciting time to be alive and able to help other people.

But let me guarantee you one thing: every participant in the 3rd HLF in Accra will arrive in a suit that could have fed 1,000 people they drove past on their way from their hotel near the airport to the forum, and they will - and I say this beyond any shadow of a doubt - be riding in a large, white, SUV.

If there's any more damning evidence of the misuse of funds, the misappropriation and lack of accountability in aid in Africa, if there's anything more self-evident and completely maddening than the white SUVs, I've never seen it in a year's time there. It's true of every partner organization that I've worked with - every organization with any kind of international funding ties, be they governmental or NGO. And it is true of every country I have worked in. When you get to the airport, at least 25% of the vehicles in the parking lot are those with their funding organization plastered on the driver's side door.

And you know what's really frustrating? It took a while for it to first sink in when I moved to Africa, but when you drive anywhere - anywhere at all - you are driving past people. Hundreds and hundreds of people. Its a lot like NYC in some ways - you get in a cab and all of a sudden you're zipping past the mass of humanity on their feet. The difference is that the humanity in NYC could get in a cab, or on the subway, or a bicycle, but for the most part they're just walking because its more convenient. In Africa, almost everyone walks, because that's their only option. If you're lucky, you have some kind of work and can maybe afford a mini-bus taxi fare (they're called "tro-tros" in Ghana, "mutatus" in Swahili speaking countries, and a myriad of other names in various other places), in which case you're crammed in there often with 18+ other people. The newspapers in places like Ghana have regular columns reporting on how many people died in mini-bus accidents the previous day. Almost everyone walks, because that's all they can afford. And yet not one aid organization that I'm familiar with has any sort of cost-reduction strategy in place limiting the types of vehicles that should be sought for their work. Are 4WD vehicles necessary for reaching far-flung and often flooded areas like northern Ghana where the roads are few and far-between? Certainly. Are they necessary for every official (one for each, mind you) attending a conference in Accra? Apparently.

If there's going to be real change in Africa - if we're going to take countries that have seen millions of dollars in international aid poured into them and yet still the standard of living remains stagnant - its going to take some painful, drastic changes at the higher levels of the in-country organizations. And that's going to take some even more painful, visible changes at the out-of-country organizational levels - some actual leading by example. The problem is no one at either of these levels wants to set the example. No one wants to take a pay cut, give up their suit, or drive to work in a Corolla. Everybody at the highest levels of aid work either is a government minister or wants to be like one, and they all need to drive Land Cruisers to their air-conditioned offices.

Until the people who are leading the discussions on aid work actually start living like they are doing aid work, the real problems are never going to be fully addressed.

3) The Paris Declaration creates stronger mechanisms for accountability

I've always liked this one. I mean, read the tough talk under that, like "constitutes a mechanism" or "encourages donors and partners to jointly assess mutual progress." What they need is someone to come right out and actually say "eliminate pork-barrel-like spending at the administrative levels of aid and aid-related organizations so that maximum levels of funding can actually reach beneficiaries." Until they do that, its all just hiding behind fancy words.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:23 AM on September 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Nice post btw YouRebelScum. You won't get as much commentary as a post about Palin's family situation, but I'm always glad to see posts like these at least make the front page. Keep 'em coming.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:28 AM on September 3, 2008

Doing Good Efficiently

Finn E. Kydland: Six Nobel Peace Prize laureates asked themselves what the most effective way would be to spend $75 billion in order to make the world a better place. The ranking list they developed gives very different answers than those policymakers usually do.
Our top-ranked solutions were in areas that we don't hear much about. Unglamorous interventions like de-worming would allow children to be better nourished; lowering the cost of schooling would see children and nations benefit.

posted by infini at 6:45 AM on September 3, 2008

Allkindsoftime - I agree with you in part, but while the Big White SUVs are very obvious, I'm not sure vehicular choice is where the problem lies (even as a symbol). It's too easy to turn on the NGOs, and say - you're being rubbish. From my experience it's not fair, although of course every operation is different. Sure, wastages are happening at the donor and NGO level, but through inefficiencies rather than corruption or even incompetence. As I read the dilemma, there's the choice of giving it to NGOs to spend, hobbled by a difficult overarching aid architecture, security issues, and a lack of local knowledge, which means your money will be inefficient; or you give it to the government, who will spend it to reinforce their patrimonial networks. A generalisation, I know, but broadly true.

In the UK at the moment there's an interesting split between the parties' lines. DfID and Labour have thrown their weight behind budget support and the Paris Declaration's principles (but using Trust Funds to try to keep control in other ways), whereas the Conservatives are arguing that this means taxpayers' money is wasted by corrupt governments without accountability. They argue the money should go straight to implementing NGOs etc.

Myself, I think at a strategic level Paris gets things pretty much right - you put the money through the recipient country's finance ministries' procedures, you make sure that the donors are all behind it, and you try to make sure as little seeps through the cracks as possible. Ashraf Ghani, who ran the Afghan Ministry of Finance, has done some great work on that with the consequence that the Afghan MoF is one of the few excellent local institutions in the country and has stood up powerfully to the donors. He's done some excellent academic work linked to sovereignty and budget reform (there's an ODI paper from 2005).

Tactically, the donors are too scared to make the changes necessary, because money will be wasted. Probably a lot of it. It means giving up control of the purse-strings to the local ministry of finance, and so the donors hedge, by shifting responsibility onto local governments, by having technical advisers with big cars, by not doing direct implementation (that's the job of the government), by creating capital-level working groups etc. Which is where the wastage comes.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:00 AM on September 3, 2008

From my experience it's not fair, although of course every operation is different. Sure, wastages are happening at the donor and NGO level, but through inefficiencies rather than corruption or even incompetence. As I read the dilemma, there's the choice of giving it to NGOs to spend, hobbled by a difficult overarching aid architecture, security issues, and a lack of local knowledge, which means your money will be inefficient; or you give it to the government, who will spend it to reinforce their patrimonial networks. A generalisation, I know, but broadly true.

at a recent workshop on 'design for social impact' hosted by the rockefeller foundation, it was identified that the key pipeline that needs to be analyzed and overhauled is the [donor --->NGO--->'poor'] sector and should be studied just as any business process is to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the system.

imho, while there is increasing attention on the 'ROI' of an NGO based on the proportion of monies spent on actual development versus money spent on admin and stuff, that's not always the best metric for evaluating the eventual return on 'investment' by a donor organization, since returns in this case are more often than not either intangible or in kind rather than 'profits'.

an interesting alternative to the "give money to the NGO or the government" options is a recent experiment to give money directly to those in need, a pilot progam by the DfiD in fact

So, in famine situations at least, is there an alternative to handing out bags of rice? Well, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) seem to think so, and they recently ran a $3 million pilot project with Concern Worldwide to prove it, providing cash payments instead of food to tens of thousands of hungry people in northern Malawi. You can't get more direct than that. Although the project experienced its fair share of problems and challenges -- ranging from the family registration process to overall data management and control -- the problems were far outweighed by the benefits. As with many microfinance-style projects in developing countries, women were the main recipients of the cash, many taking their money and heading straight to local markets to buy food. The logic here is that this keeps the local economy moving, and the agriculture sector buoyant. In this part of northern Malawi at least, that's one problem solved and two avoided, by my count.

posted by infini at 7:16 AM on September 3, 2008

I got the feeling that those documents were written with the help of a International Aide Bullshit Generator.
posted by Student of Man at 7:22 AM on September 3, 2008

at a recent workshop on 'design for social impact' hosted by the rockefeller foundation, it was identified that the key pipeline that needs to be analyzed and overhauled is the [donor --->NGO--->'poor'] sector and should be studied just as any business process is to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the system

I guess I'm saying that it's the pipeline that's at fault, rather than specifically the NGOs. I also think that describing the interactions in a linear way may not be useful, given the complexity of the interactions between international actors and the local population (poor and non-poor). Lastly - there's an important group left out, the local elites. THere's some significant work being done on their role (pdf) - a lot of this is being covered over by top-down governance reforms and democratization which has no relation to internal political equilibria.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:26 AM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

yes, but I think that you are looking at it from a very macro policy perspective whereas I might be simply seeing it from the specific donor's perspective vis a vis their system of evaluating business plans submitted by 'social entreprenuers' for funding holistically beneficial programmes. i.e. are these plans realistic and relevant for the populations they wish to serve, have they identified and understood the 'needs' of the users in design speak

I guess I'm sorta like the ant listening to the elephants in the room talking ;p
posted by infini at 8:03 AM on September 3, 2008

what do you think of easterly's searchers vs planners argument, btw?
posted by infini at 8:04 AM on September 3, 2008

Student of Man - I hear you. It's a function of having to get a few dozen international actors who've been swimming in bureaucracy their entire life to agree on one document. Very delicate balancing act, resulting in a whole load of shite.

Infini - to my embarassment I've never read it. I bought the book, promptly left it on a train, and was so traumatised I never bought it again. My macro-position is that we should let others decide what to do with our money, if we claim to be spending it for their benefit. We should be facilitators and resource providers, and maybe umpires, but not implementers. That would mean we're never in the position you describe.
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:49 AM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Great post. Great comments and links.

Interesting that the Accra conclusion that volume of aid is less important than its quality veers away from the Bono-Sachs-Gates approach which (while obviously not oblivious to the quality of delivery mechanisms) has generally focused on the need to increase the amount of aid that's being delivered rather than increasing the quality of the government mechanisms in developing countries that both distribute that existing aid and make the policy decisions about business environment, education, health care, infrastructure and everything else that are largely responsible for future economic growth and quality of life.

I think that's a good move, personally. Large quantities of aid distort and weaken and corrupt local governing structures, with devastating long-term results. And "success stories" of intensive assistance are rarely scaleable with even massive volumes of assistance. There's a reason the Sachs project is called "millennium villages" and not "millennium states" or nations - the model is not sustainable at a scale bigger than the village.

If governments don't work, then assistance is like water into sand. And we may not know very much about how to help a government (even our own) become more effective and more accountable, but that doesn't mean we can get around that problem by giving more and more assistance, any more than you can make money by selling more and more of something at a loss.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 2:06 PM on September 3, 2008

Main problem is all the greedy and corrupt leeches in the host countries. No way to really deal with them.
posted by tarvuz at 5:29 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Micro-finance, micro-finance, micro-finance...

With a 98% return rate and a profit being made, developed countries should be ploughing money into micro-finance. This must be the surest way of developing an economy and getting the democratising and state-building effect from that.
posted by RufusW at 9:51 PM on September 3, 2008

rufusW: yes, agree. And not only that but with the increasing grassroots use of airtime as ersatz currency, what is the influence of 'prepaid' or 'pay as you go' schemes on the informal economies prevalent at the bottom of hte pyramid becomes the next question
posted by infini at 9:59 PM on September 3, 2008

There is so much external interference in Africa's affairs that China and the West are at loggerheads over who gets to pimp the continent. If, in spite of all of that, some are still concerned at the ecological destruction that results from the number of children Ethiopian women choose to bear, our apologies. Feel free to have nothing to do with all things African. The greatest danger to development is the desire to see a "return" on one's "investment". Giving money for development work is not the same as investing in a start up company, it is not even similar to investing in a social enterprise. Both come with the expectation of financial reward. The desire for quick fixes and instant results is what leads to an over investment in projects like food handouts over those that help people achieve food independence. It is the latter rather than the former which should be promoted, even though it is less measurable.

The second greatest danger to development comes from not realising the worth of the people who are being helped. Africa's greatest asset is not her oil or mineral wealth, but her people. The rate of development and growth there will be determined by how many Africans are empowered to contribute to their countries.

I wholeheartedly believe in seeking African solutions to Africa's problems. That will only truly happen when Africa's rural majority has the kind of access to information and resources as other people groups.

posted by infini at 2:37 AM on September 4, 2008

De-worming, vitamins and minerals, improving surgical capacity and heart attack care, reducing tobacco impact - I'm surprised, I guess, by how many of the suggestions of the Nobel Laureates are basic healthcare related. I'm also surprised to learn that there's debate about these things and that the laureates find them to be relatively neglected because they are unglamorous. I had always assumed - based largely on my classes about public health in developing nations - that a good deal of foreign aid was directed to these ends, such as Jimmy Carter's work in providing reusable filters to eliminate Guinea worm.

I guess I'm surprised that anyone needs to hear that these things should be top priority. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Sick people can't help to improve their own conditions - how can they be expected to, when they're sick?
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:49 AM on September 4, 2008

ikkyu, at least in my experience working with first world designers developing for the third, the lack of awareness and knowledge is really there. its not ignorance per se nor is it callousness, its simply implicit assumptions that can't really be 'cleared up' until you get out of your airconditioned office and into rural India or a slum in calcutta etc

btw, on the Accra meeting, an update

Delegates from both developing and developed countries have adopted the Accra Agenda For Action (AAA) as a guide to improve the way aid is given and spent.

The document was adopted at the close of a three-day High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness which drew over 1,200 delegates from about 120 to the Ghanaian capital.

Under the AAA, developing countries committed to control their own futures, and donors to better policy and delivery coordination among themselves.

After some hard negotiations, both sides also pledge to make themselves accountable to each other and their citizens.

posted by infini at 7:26 AM on September 5, 2008

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