Elephants in the room

Laura at Texas in Africa (a must read) has been doing a great job recently covering Hilary Clinton’s recent Africa tour. A few days ago, she quoted Desiree Zwanck, who in turn revealed that a large part of Clinton’s proposed aid package to the DRC was redundant:

HEAL Africa, the local organization that was hosting the event, has a hospital with 7 years of experience in treating survivors of sexual violence. However, we learned only through the speech of our honored visitor that USAID is planning to construct a hospital to do the same work, in the same city.

It is, as Laura puts it, “incomprehensible.”

  • They looked at the city – which is home to a hospital that is a model of community engagement – and decided that it would be better to build a different hospital altogether?
  • That was apparently decided on without consulting those who are already experts on treating rape victims in the region?
  • And that will lack the extensive network of community-based counselors who live in the villages and are trained to identify and assist rape victims?

But is it surprising? One of the biggest criticisms of the donor community is its lack of internal and external coordination. Most donor agencies operate as if they were in a vacuum. For example, the popular, flawed paper by Dollar and Collier on poverty efficient aid resulted in an aid allocation model for the entire global aid budget. Some donors, such as DFID use similar methods for allocating their aid budgets, but do so only using their own aid budget; resulting in allocations that are only efficient because donors pretend they’re the only players in the game (this recent paper gives some empirical evidence to this assertion). Aid agencies are constantly duplicating efforts, crowding in on donor darlings and distracting governments with yet another bilateral relationship. We blame them for this – but this behaviour might just be a rational response to a narrow-minded electorate.

Aid agencies seem to be caught in a perpetual cycle of self-justification, especially in countries like the US where the average citizen thinks that they spend much more on aid than they really do, with little to show for it. In most countries, taxpayers and politicians have little concern for the efforts of other countries in the fight against poverty: they want to know what their own aid agencies are doing. They want to see their agencies involved in the most popular interventions in the most popular countries. They don’t want to hear that their government isn’t involved in HIV/AIDS  because there are 10 other donors that might have a comparative advantage. They don’t want to hear that it might be more optimal to stay out of country X altogether and just give extra resources to the multi-laterals already there.

Recent efforts by DFID to deepen their connection with the unwashed masses will likely worsen this problem. Even worse, the Torys have proposed to let people vote on where they think their aid dollars should be spent.

Part of the problem is, ironically, due to the lack of coordination in global advocacy. The biggest issues receive the most attention in each and every country, forcing every aid agency to deal with the same big issues first. It would be preferable to have advocacy groups that lobbied different causes in different countries; promote one issue in America, another in the UK – promote specialisation instead of fragmentation.

We also need to do a better job making this repetitions more transparent. Most Americans that hear about Clinton’s new hospital will never know that a local one already exists – and they won’t care enough to investigate. The newspapers, who have been literally fawning over Clinton’s recent excursion into the heart of darkness (for an entire week, the NYtimes equated Africa news with Clinton news) prefer drama to analysis.

I’m not holding my breath on this one.

HEAL Africa, the local organization that was hosting the event, has a hospital with 7 years of experience in treating survivors of sexual violence. However, we learned only through the speech of our honored visitor that USAID is planning to construct a hospital to do the same work, in the same city. And even though Clinton claimed that funds would be distributed to local NGOs, we found out shortly afterwards that the lion’s share would go to the International Rescue Committee.

6 thoughts on “Elephants in the room

  1. Texas in Africa

    August 21, 2009 at 5:29pm

    Great post, Matt, and thanks for the link. This is dead-on. The completely depressing truth is that it’s not in the least bit surprising, even if it is appalling.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 22, 2009 at 12:19pm

    ditto, really good post. I’ve seen literally hundreds of examples like this. When I was working in one country, I helped put together a list of all the donor interventions on and off-budget that we could collect information on. Something like 60% of them were in at least one substantial respect a repetition of another activity.

    But I do think there is hope on this one. The whole function of the new aid structures gaining popularity over the last few years (most notably SWAPs and baskets) is to create this kind of coordination by getting all players choosing aspects of a single set of interventions, like ordering off a menu. It’s not perfect, obviously, and there remains duplication, but the bad practice like the example TiA put forward is getting less and less common. They are also disproportionately likely to be done by the agencies most remote from the local Government (which is best placed to play the role of coordinator).

  3. […] Do some research on whether or not your government is known for using its aid effectively and wisely (well, at least relative to the rest of the pack). If it is, pay your bloody taxes. […]

  4. Lazy summer edition « Aid Thoughts

    September 5, 2009 at 1:05pm

    […] the fact that Ranil and I are often banging on about donor coordination, we both ended up taking a break from AidThoughts at the same time (oh no!). We’ll both […]

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