I recently spent time reading Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, by Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. It’s published by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a non-profit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a distillation of 6000 interviews carried out from 2005-9 with people who have received or been involved in aid – individuals, local NGOs, international NGOs, bilateral aid agencies etc.
The methodology of doing the interviews and distilling the findings is valuable and the subject of another post. I’ve selected the main findings and quotes I found relevant. The book is certainly worth reading in full though and can be freely downloaded. Many of the findings are not new for people active in development cooperation. However, it’s convincing and often uncomfortable to read them from people on the receiving end from many different countries.
Most people feel that international aid is a good thing. They are glad it exists and want it to continue. Many tell positive stories about specific projects, individual staff, or special planning or decision making processes that they credit with achieving what they hoped for. Some of the positive impacts are lasting, such as when a road improves access to a market or women develop skills that they feel improve their families’ lives.
People often distinguish between the beneficial short-term impacts of certain projects and the cumulative negative long-term impact of aid. This focus on the cumulative impact of aid on poor people is really valuable, because it contrasts with most interviews that intend to get feedback on the results of a specific programme.
The interviews lay bare some of the weaknesses and perverse incentives that aid generates, often remarkably consistent among countries. Everywhere people described markedly similar experiences with the processes of assistance and explained how these processes undermined the very goals of the assistance.
A main side-effect of much aid is that it increases dependency and powerlessness. The “Message” of Aid extends beyond ‘we care’ to ‘you don’t have to worry, we will take care’.
“By giving out so easily, you are turning them into beggars. Some villages received too much to stop and think of the value of all the things they have been given.” (Policeman, Thailand)
“It’s important not to get things for free so that people are not programmed to get aid. If you give it for free, you take away the sense of responsibility they had.” (Karen leader, Thai-Burma border)
“One truth about external aid that occasionally presents itself is a double dependency … whereas grassroots people can develop a dependency on NGOs and other supportive entities, the NGOs in turn become dependent on grassroots leaders and groups. They need them to launch their projects, bring out the people, generate enthusiasm in the participants, and finally, to demonstrate to supervisors, donors, and visitors their achievements, or at least that the projects are underway. Their positions, salaries, and sense of efficiency are all linked to the cooperation and conformity of the aid recipients.” (Listening Project Report, Ecuador).
A recurrent them in the book is that the selection of beneficiaries is often not transparent or perceived as unfair. Criteria for disadvantaged groups are arbitrary, selection of target areas is based on political criteria or external priorities. In all but one country, international aid over time had introduced or reinforced tensions among groups and that, cumulatively, it had increased the potential for violence and/or fundamental divisions within their societies.
“I feel jealous. I don’t know why NGOs help [the refugee village] and not our village. The refugee village has electricity; the road is better there, and here it is muddy. It makes me feel they are better than us.” (A male in a village next to refugee returnees, Cambodia)