Time To Listen (3): Donor Policies and Agendas

ImageThis is the third post on the Time to Listen report, that aims at giving a voice to those on the receiving end of development assistance.  Earlier posts can be found here and here.

Donors usually have external interests and agendas that influence international aid.  These agendas are not always shared by the recipients and have negative effects on their societies.

A grandmother who was caring for her orphaned grandchildren explained that a decision to provide aid only to people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS meant she got food to feed only one granddaughter, who was infected, while her other grandchildren were also hungry. She was amazed that donors set a political policy that forced her to choose among her hungry grandchildren. Others noted that the focus on humanitarian aid only for those affected by HIV/AIDs left able-bodied children and children who had living parents without any support. This neglect of healthy children and families was, they felt, short-sighted because it could undermine the country’s future development.

“It appears there is a need to be in a war situation before we can get assistance. We have to risk our lives in order to get development aid.” – Community members, Philippines

Procedures intended to make aid more transparent and consistent have often the side effect of being complicated, rigid, and counter-productive  reducing efficiency and effectiveness and wasting both time and money.

Western concepts of vulnerability and worthiness do not always match local concepts. For minority ethnic groups in Cambodia, who stated that they believe everyone is equal and deserves the same aid, foreign concepts of vulnerability clashed with local concepts of fairness. “They come and ask about our needs and then come with district officials to distribute…. We don’t agree with the selection. Poverty assessment is based on whether or not the family owns a motorbike or a wooden house (richer) or no motorbike and bamboo house (poorer).” People were angered by the selection criteria and stormed out of the community meeting. (Listening Project Report, Cambodia).

There is wide agreement that outside aid providers should work through existing institutions where they are strong and support them, if weak, to help them gain experience and resources for bettering their societies. Receivers and providers of aid together recognize that international donors are only temporary actors in recipient societies and that governments and local organizations know their contexts better than outsiders do.  However, local institutions may have their own motives for selecting activities or target groups.

“If you are from the opposite party, you will get no aid to develop your area. And the ruling party will accuse the other parties of not helping people. Aid is manipulated for political favor and to disfavor other political parties. Foreign assistance is used to show that the ruling party is generous.” – Local NGO staff, Cambodia

Corruption is a daily concern of many involved in development work.  Beyond the unambiguous manifestations of corruption through theft, diversion, and unfair distribution, people often raise three other issues. These are aspects of international assistance that they see as “corrupting influences”. These include what people see as extravagant spending or needless waste by international aid agencies and their staff, the delivery of too much aid (too quickly), and the absence of serious or effective accountability in aid efforts.

When sizeable resources come into otherwise poor communities with the message that these must be spent quickly to comply with donor guidelines, it is not surprising that this prompts abuse. A number of people are surprised that international aid providers continue to make this mistake, which leads, they say, to misuse.

Some principles should guide the development of an alternative funding system: “Enough, but not too much”; “Available, but not necessarily spent”; “Steady, but no burn-rate requirement”—such funding principles would connect resource flows to a mutually developed strategy and to a given context.

Donors need to be honest and forthright about what they really mean by ‘participation.’ Is it simply a consultation with communities to get approval or support for a project that has already been pre-determined, or really to decide jointly and to work together?

An aid worker in Senegal admitted, “It is true that an obstacle to getting real involvement of local populations may be the cost and time commitment that it entails. With the emphasis on speed and efficiency, there is little time for true community involvement.”

“Not until I spent three weeks staying in a village did I feel like I was getting truthful information about what the community really needed and wanted. Only after they knew me and trusted me, did this frank exchange became possible.” (Aid worker, Lebanon)

“Presence takes time and money. Presence requires openness and humility. Presence involves prioritizing time and resources and delineating roles and responsibilities between levels (outsider, insider, stakeholders of various sorts).” (International Aid Worker, Denmark)

Opinions on paying people to participate are divided.  Many practitioners observe that such payments can undermine the principle of participation, influence the quality of relationships, raise expectations, and create perverse incentives for people to “participate” in aid processes. Some aid providers and recipients believe that paying people to participate erodes the traditions of mutual self-help in communities. Others argue that aid agencies should not expect local people to contribute their time, input, and efforts without being compensated. Some feel that giving people money or other forms of payment constitutes a gesture of appreciation and respect for people’s effort to spend a away from their regular duties. Others feel that payments for involvement feed into a monetization of what should be community-based or volunteer activities.

Local organizations report that when wealthier aid providers pay higher participation fees, recipients will sometimes refuse to engage in activities that do not pay as well. Local NGOs can rarely compete with international agencies’ larger budgets and find it challenging to work with the “professional workshop-goers” that this precedent has created.  The latter is certainly relevant in donor-darling Cambodia.  There are guidelines issued by the government on the amount of per diem fees, curbing some of the misuses of ‘per diem collection’.

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