There is a wonderful moment in the 1979 film “Life of Brian,” where the People’s Front of Judea, an anti-Roman revolutionary group, embarks on a mission to kidnap the wife of Pontius Pilate to force him to make political concessions. As they sneak through the palace, the group bumps into the Campaign for a Free Galilee, another separatist movement which is also planning to capture Pilate’s wife. The two groups argue over who gets to do this and end up killing each other before Pilate’s guards even get a chance to intervene. You can watch the scene here (fast-forward to 5:00).
Monty Python’s comical vision of a fracture resistance, comprising dozens of similarly-named groups with redundant objectives, is strikingly familiar in the world of aid. While the NGO community suffers from these problems the most, it is official donor fragmentation and duplication which is particularly disheartening as its relative size (a few dozen approaching 100 donors versus hundreds of international NGOs) means coordination and communication ought to be easier.
It is in this muddled context that USAID, has just announced its own “plan” for achieving the 2015 targets for the Millennium Development Goals, soon to be followed by USAID’s overall strategy for development assistance, all ahead of next month’s UN summit on the MDGs.
Let’s simplify things for a minute: Imagine a world where the US was the only donor. In this context, an individual strategy seems quite sensible – the solo donor just needs to decide on what its objective function is (i.e poverty reduction, growth, reaching the MDGs) and allocate aid flows accordingly to best achieve those objectives.
Now let’s move to a world where there are two donors and make the rather strict assumption that they have the same objective (perhaps achieving the MDGs). If each of those donors continues to operate as if they are in a vacuum, without knowledge of or concern over each other’s movements, they will both tend to spend money on the same programmes in the same places. This results in “donor darlings,” countries and programmes that have too many donors and probably receive too much aid money.
The are two ways to back out of this corner: one is to reduce the number of agents dolling out cash. While some donors already implicitly do this by ceding money to larger multilaterals like the World Bank or the UN. However most governments are less keen: the is a perception by the public that aid spent by proxy is less reliable (this view also extends to recipient governments), despite the general lack of concern for analytical oversight of their own aid agencies.
The other, more depressing reality is that while helping people makes us feel good, being identified as the helpers makes us feel even better. As a result we get stickers that read “From the American People” and road signs detailing exactly who paid for this 500m stretch of highway. It’s more difficult to claim the credit when aid is given fungibly to a third organisation.
The other answer to duplication is coordination, which happens in a limited sense in some countries. Again, incentives often get in the way; some methods of helping are less costly, more popular or more photogenic than others. Even when we have a world of perfect information, where DFID and USAID can communicate in real time on their future plans, they are likely to continue, for political reasons, to clump their efforts in the same areas.
The US is renowned for eschewing coordination whenever possible. Much of the electorate practically sits in the same vacuum I described earlier – for most of them the US is the only official donor that really matters, which creates enormous incentives for USAID to act as if this were true. In this context, a grand strategy might actually be a good thing. By announcing “this is what we are going to do regardless of what anyone else is doing,” USAID might be allowing more flexible, more thoughtful donors to pursue complementary strategies. In essence, by declaring openly that they are going to kidnap Pilate’s wife, they nudge other groups to focus their efforts elsewhere. Let’s hope they respond to that nudge.