The Truth About Foreign Aid

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.

Bananas from Jersey: How the world is losing trillions to tax havens

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch on November 30, 2011.

Since the economic collapse of 2008 and the ensuing recession, increasingly more attention is being paid to corporate accountability. Recently, the Occupy movement has brought into sharp relief some of the discontent with poor corporate citizenship. If you pay close enough attention, there have been many stories in the media exposing unfair – sometimes illegal – corporate practices and how they are affecting the overall health of the economy. We’ve learned, for example, how G.E. – America’s largest corporation – avoided paying any taxes in the United States in 2010 – thanks to the “clever use” of tax breaks and offshore accounting. While Republican presidential hopefuls will have you believe that reducing corporate tax rates is the best way to boost the economy, American corporate tax rates haven’t been this low (35%) since before the Second World War. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to figure out how to cut a soaring budget deficit and continue financing key health care and welfare programs.

This situation, however, is not unique to the United States or the industrialized world. Indeed, a recent report by Eurodad (European Network on Debt & Development) finds that developing nations lose more than a trillion (yes, trillion) dollars of potential tax revenue every year because of corporate tax evasion.

The UK-based Tax Justice Network also recently published a report to highlight the negative effects of tax dodging by multinational corporations, and launched a new campaign “Tackle Tax Havens (By the way, their website,, offers myriad resources, information and data about tax evasion – I highly recommend checking it out.) Their reportshows that tax evasion costs 145 countries, representing over 98% of world GDP, more than US$3.1 trillion annually.

As noted in the executive summary of the Eurodad report, “the international community has repeatedly stressed the need to mobilise domestic resources in developing countries, as the most sustainable way of financing development and ending aid dependency […] The cross border nature of multinational companies’operations combined with the absence of adequate transparency regulations have very damaging implications for a country’s ability to mobilise domestic resources.” Mobilizing resources through taxation is not just critical for developing countries’ ability to finance development: it is, in fact, one of the most fundamental functions of modern, sovereign states – developing or industrialized. Drawing a parallel with the way in which the United States is weak on corporate tax enforcement allows us to see the depth of the problem of tax evasion.

While we continue to think about how developing nations can finance programs to support economic and social development, it’s clear that the issue of corporate tax evasion must be addressed. In the extractive industry, efforts such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, begin to deal with this issue, but the voluntary nature of the EITI, and the lack of enforcement mechanisms, make it an imperfect solution. Dealing with tax havens is a third rail issue. Similarly, attempting to close tax loopholes for multinational corporations is practically political suicide. The globalized nature of this problem suggests that bold, concerted action will need to take place – nothing less than the viability and sustainability of our economic and financial systems are at stake.

Three Cups of …

An interesting controversy is erupting around Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). A 60 Minutes investigation is alleging that part of his story in Three Cups of Tea is fabricated, and, that – more damningly – CAI has not accomplished all that it says it has and that the organization has been plagued by financial mismanagement. The 60 Minutes investigation sought to interview Mortenson, who declined. Apparently, though, they only contacted him at the very end of the production process and “ambushed” him after a talk to speak with him. In any case, this is bad news for Mortenson, who has been hailed as an inspirational figure for many years for his efforts promoting community-based education in some of the world’s toughest spots.

I don’t have cable and I can’t get 60 Minutes content in Canada, so I might not be able to watch it, unfortunately. There is no doubt in my mind that Mortenson’s organization is not perfectly managed. CAI’s 2009 financial statements show that $1.5 million was spent on advertising, while roughly $3.5 million was spent on actual “overseas projects” (H/T Saundra and Cynan). The statement also shows that only $35,000 went towards teacher salaries – with about 145 schools, if my math is correct, that is about $240 per year, per school for salaries. Even in a poor country, even if there is only one teacher in each school, that is not a lot of money. There are other red flags. For example, the 2009 statement seems to be the only publicly available one, and the 60 Minutes investigation points out that schools that CAI claims it built do not exist.

All of these allegations are really damning for Mortenson and CAI.

Here’s my two cents. I hope that there will be a real opportunity for Mortenson and CAI to explain themselves and offer reasonable explanations for the allegations put forth by 60 Minutes. This is also a great opportunity for the organization to improve its practices, and grow from the experience. Because, after all, while it may be true that some schools don’t exist (or, as this photographer notes, are not being used), while it may be the case that CAI has been badly mismanaged, the reality is that thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been able to receive an education thanks to CAI. We can be cynical and critical, and demand that CAI explain itself and improve its operations and transparency, but we can’t take away these achievements.  I hope that we can take a positive, constructive approach rather than a hostile one. I hope that the outcome of the 60 Minutes controversy is a better, improved CAI, and not a ridiculed and shamed Mortenson.

Update, Monday 04/18: This document outlines the responses of CAI’s board to questions asked by CBS producers. To me, most of the answers reflect an idiosyncratic management and governance style, not unsurprising for a small NGO. Fair enough. Two things though really stood out for me. One, is the board claims that they are “unaware of any organization qualified to undertake” and independent assessment of their work. How is that possible? Mortenson and staff must have – at the very least – ran into NGO workers whose job is to evaluate development projects. The board is either dishonest about this, or they are very worryingly uninformed and oblivious. Two, is the fact that said board only has three members, and one of them is Mortenson himself. There is no excuse for not having a more established board, other than being obsessive about retaining control over “your” organization. With a budget in the millions, and nearly two decades of existence, it’s unacceptable to have such poor governance and oversight. (H/T Saundra for noting the size of the board)

You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

This is my contribution to Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “A Day Without Dignity” campaign.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. In 2007, he traveled to a refugee camp in Ghana, home to tens of thousands of mostly Liberian refugees, Buduburam. (That camp happens to be a place where I spent many months working between 2007 and 2008.) While there, he was moved by the struggle of a young singer/musician, Samuel. For years, he kept in touch with Samuel, as the young man tried to pursue a musical career, first in Ghana and then in Liberia. Bidini was in touch with Samuel and Samuel’s uncle Jake, and was speaking on the phone with his protege on a regular basis. Excerpt from his story (worth reading the whole thing, really):

Jake also fled the war, barely surviving on foot as he left Monrovia for peace in Ghana. Jake said that if Samuel was back in Monrovia, he’d probably be a big name. “Dave,” the young singer told me one early morning on the phone. “If only I could get home, I know I could do it. I know this for certain.”

Samuel sent me his record. A demo. Endless tracks of highlife electronica mixed with ebullient female backing singers and Samuel riffing, singing and shouting overtop.

“Dave, can you help me make this record?” he asked me one day. Samuel has been calling me every week for about three years. He used the number I’d given him on my last day at the camp. Uncle Jake also had my number, but he never called. Instead, we emailed back and forth, staying in touch about his organization — the Liberian Dance Troupe — which he hoped to continue despite relocating to Monrovia in 2009, which was when everyone in camp was supposed to return to Liberia, part of the Accra mayor’s initiative to close the settlement and declare it a success on his watch. Some left, but some didn’t. Some stayed, squatting on the grounds. Samuel was one of those who couldn’t go home, at least not yet.

“I have no family,” he told me. “No mother, no father. All of my family was killed in the war. When I left for Accra, the boat was crowded and there were people drowning in the water at my feet. When I return, I want to return with a CD. I want to have a purpose.”

After writing about Samuel and Jake a few years ago, I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders. It made me a little suspicious of Samuel, but I figured that if even a fraction of what he’d described to me was true, it was enough to help him out. Then the phone calls started. One after another, relentlessly. In the middle of the night. Before I knew it, I was making his CD for him.

Ah yes. The White in Shining Armor. Sweeping in to make the African boy’s dreams come true, to lift him out of his misery. Except, it’s not so easy. In spite of having visited the refugee camp for himself, in spite of having met and talked and exchanged with the people he was trying to help, it’s clear to me that Bidini didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into. For starters, in the quote above, Bidini talks about the “mayor of Accra” wanting to shut down the camp. While I’m sure the mayor of Accra supported the idea of getting rid of the thousands of refugees at Buduburam, he never spearheaded the effort. What lead to a massive repatriation of Liberian refugees in 2008/9 was a crisis between the UNHCR, the Ghanain government (in particular, the Ministry of the Interior) and the Liberian community in Buduburam. Anyway, the point is that Bidini, for all his good intentions and kind-heartedness, and for all his musical talent and knowledge, was not prepared for how this would eventually play out. Another excerpt:

I sent out a message on Facebook, and through it, I met Chris Parsons, who designed the record. He created four or five beautiful images, which I sent to Samuel. But Samuel said they weren’t right. Instead, he wanted an image of himself singing on the cover.

“No one in Liberia will buy a record without a picture of the singer on it,” he told me. I was in no position to argue with him.

Mark Logan of Busted Flat Records in Kitchener, Ont., pressed the CD. Five-hundred of them, for free. When they were done, they looked and sounded beautiful. Samuel now had a record, and, each time he called, I told him, “We’re getting the package ready. You’re going to love it.” Samuel sent us one address, then another, then another. While all of this was going on, Jake told me about his troupe, how they couldn’t afford studio space, which would double as a classroom where kids would learn about art and history and music. He asked for nothing, but it wasn’t long before Facebook yielded another donor, an old friend, Steve Dengler. Steve sent Jake the money, and he wrote to say thanks. Then Jake got on with the business of keeping Liberian culture alive. No phone calls. No requests for more, and more still.

Over the last four years, because of my work in Buduburam and my involvement with the community there, I have received countless emails from people trying to verify someone’s identity in the camp, trying to get a better sense of whether the person they met on a brief tour of the camp, or via an online chat room, was trustworthy. The only thing I’ve ever been able to do when I get these emails is reply with (usually long-winded) honest answers about the reality of life there. For many Liberians in the Buduburam camp, foreigners are seen as an opportunity for a better life. I’ve heard countless stories like Bidini’s (“I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders.”)

It just isn’t that easy to know who you’re helping, why you’re helping them, and if, in the end, you’re actually having a positive impact, or, on the contrary, contributing to perpetuating an insidious, counter-productive culture of dependency.

I made my share of mistakes at Buduburam, naively trusting the wrong people, so I can very much relate to Bidini’s story. In one particular instance, a teenage boy’s unemployed, depressed mother begged me to pay for her to attend a training program to learn baking. I relented, and agreed, and paid the (relatively) hefty fee for her to attend the program. I met with the director of the program, a fantastic lady named Agnes, a Liberian who had lived in the U.S. and come to Buduburam to be with her family members and help out. Agnes assured me that my friend would really benefit from the program, that this would be a huge boost for her, that I would be helping her become an independent woman. Music to my ears! Following months of training (and costs for me), my friend finished her training, got her diploma and immediately resumed sulking, sitting at home and being depressed about her situation. Years later, I know she has never made any use of her training. I wish so much I had thought this through at the time, and I wish someone could have told me that I was making a mistake.

At some point in my time at Buduburam, I also tried to help out a group of former child soldiers. This happened when the crisis between the Liberian community and the government was at its height, and many were worried (rightfully so) that they would be a target for deportation. These ex-combatants had organized themselves into a small organization, trying to learn skills and generate income to support their rehabilitation. By then, I was already more weary and careful, and I knew there really wasn’t much I could do. I could talk to them, and help them figure out logistics – how could they get a passport, or other form of travel document, putting them in touch with contacts in Togo (nearest border to Accra), etc. I remember sitting in my house at night with these guys, worrying so much that I was doing more harm than good, worrying that I’d make some kind of mistake that would get them in trouble, or worst. They didn’t *really* need me anyway – these guys were some of the most resourceful, cunning people I’ve ever encountered (I guess these are some of the qualities one needs in order to survive a brutal war.)

Back to Dave Bidini and Samuel’s story:

We sent Samuel the records. The phone calls stopped for awhile. After about a month, he called to say that he hadn’t received the records. I asked him why he’d waited so long to tell me, but he had no answer. I told him I’d check the post office, but there was no tracing the delivery. I became angry with Samuel. My wife told me that I was being a jerk for feeling mistreated through all of it. Then Samuel called to say, “Don’t worry about the records, Dave, I have to get back to Liberia. I need $200 for a plane ticket.”

I didn’t know what to think. Was Samuel fabricating a story to get more money out of me? Was a few hundred dollars too much to help a musician who lived in poverty, regardless of the details of his hardship?

I sent Samuel the money. The phone stopped ringing, but then it started again. At 4 a.m. Then 6 a.m. Samuel hadn’t received the money. Someone else, he said, had claimed it. I got angry again, then sad, and now, I’m just tired. Today, Samuel has neither his money nor his CDs. He asked me to send the money again, but I said that I could not. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and I no longer had the will. The phone stopped ringing. Then it started again. It was Samuel. At 4 a.m. Police had stormed Buduburum, he said, and they were running roughshod over the squatters. Samuel asked if could I hear them shouting in the background. It was early. I was exhausted. But yes, I told him, I thought I could.

I really liked Bidini’s column. I welcome his honesty and his willingness to admit failure, which are rare among would-be do-gooders. As an outsider, it’s very hard to know how best to help people. Going into an unknown community, unaware of the social and economic dynamics, one needs to bring along  a good dose of humility, curiosity, understanding and, I’d argue, skepticism. A place like Buduburam is complex. Yes, it’s a refugee camp. But it’s also a refugee camp in Ghana, a particularly dynamic country. Yes, Buduburam is home to thousands of refugees. But many of them were never officially registered with the UNHCR, for a variety of reasons, and cannot avail themselves of the rights in the refugee Conventions. Yes, people are struggling. But it’s also a place of incredible resourcefulness, dynamism and life.

The point I’m trying to make is that even at the individual level, it can be very difficult to know what’s good and what works to help someone lift themselves out of poverty. Even though it may seem obvious, giving a pair of shoes to a shoeless person may not be the best way to help them.

H/T Glenna Gordon, for bringing Bidini’s story to my attention.

Photo credit: Chris Leombruno, Brown Lion Photos