Getting it wrong

A recurrent theme in international development is the issue of measuring and reporting aid effectiveness – this topic gets a lot of buzz, and rightly so. Especially in an age of fiscal constraints, it is ever more important to deploy funding to projects that work. There’s a lot of debate about whether official development aid is more effective than chanelling funding through small local NGOs, big international ones, or something in between. What I find baffling is that a lot of people are willing to say that one is the better alternative – personally, I think that there are some government agencies, some NGOs (large/small) that are good at handling aid money, and others that aren’t. Dismissing one model for the other doesn’t make any sense, given how heterogenous the group is. 

As the excellent blog Good Intentions are Not Enough points out, one of the main problems with aid agency/NGO reporting is the fact that negative findings are often swept under the rug, or spun into a positive narrative because these agencies are afraid of jeopardizing their sources of fuding. The problem is that funders often don’t have the capacity to closely monitor/evaluate the impact of their donation, and rely on reporting from their grantee… Which is obviously problematic, for a number of reasons. Even if the grantee outsources evaluation to a third party, the results that filter back to the donor aren’t always guaranteed to accurately reflect reality. There’s also the issue of overstating a crisis or situation to attract funding, another dangerous and unsustainable practice. Organizations and agencies that receive aid are all actually competing for resources – they are, after all, entities that employ staff etc. and whose own existence depends on the existence of a need, a crisis, a situation that has to be addressed. It’s no wonder that they tend to overstate, spin, or misreport the facts to their donors – for some, it is a matter of organizational survival. 

It makes it complicated to evaluate the effectiveness of aid in this context: not only do you generally have to contend with insufficient monitoring mechanisms at the project level, which make it difficult to know whether any quantifiable objectives are met, but there are also all these qualitative dimensions that come into play. The straightforward elements of evaluating aid effectiveness can sometimes be overshadowed by subjectivity – the reputation of an organization, who’s on the board,  its ability to serve beneficiaries at scale…etc. And let’s not forget the highly political nature of official development aid – the fact that Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Pakistan are the countries which receive the most American official development aid (ODA) is a telling fact (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan.) To genuinely evaluate the effectiveness of aid, we shouldn’t just be looking at the glossy quarterly and year end reports. For some well-entrenched organizations and agencies, the validity of their model, of their projects is barely questioned.

Interestingly, when it comes to ODA, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of aid dependency and lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the recipient government. (“The Open Budget Survey reveals that those countries performing least well in terms of budget transparency practices share certain characteristics, including lower income levels, dependence on foreign aid, reliance on revenues from hydrocarbon extraction, and weak democratic institutions.”) For a lot of these countries, ODA is their principal lifeline, and to stop the flow of funds would probably have catastrophic consequences for the population (actually, that is an assumption – would be interesting to find out what impact lower levels of ODA would have on a country like Liberia)

The whole “aid effectiveness” debate is rather obscured, in my opinion, by political and subjective factors – how can we effectively evaluate the impact of aid when aid disbursements themselves aren’t based on genuine levels of need, but rather on how well the agency, organization or government is able to convince donors of that need. Whether one looks at ODA, or funding for agencies/NGOs carrying out development activities in low income countries, we’re never going to be serious about “aid effectiveness” until we look at the full process, from needs assessment to expost evaluation.

Until we are able (willing?) to do so, we’ll have to accept a certain degree of inefficiency when it comes to aid. It’s not a perfect system, far from it, but the fact that such vigorous debate exists around development aid – in all of its forms – is a hopefully a sign that, as time goes by, we’ll be much more sophisticated when it comes to efficient aid allocation, monitoring and evaluation.

Apparently, World Vision in Liberia didn’t get that memo.

A disturbing example of large scale corruption within NGOs just emerged in Liberia. Astonishingly, 90% of World Vision’s aid to Liberia went missing – they lost $1mm as their project managers were selling food and using construction materials that were supposed to benefit Liberians (World Vision was a sub-grantee for food distribution and food-for-work projects.)

World Vision calculated that $884,681 worth of food was missing, with a total loss, including ocean freight expenses to ship the food to Liberia, of $1.45 million. 

The United States spent an additional $300,000 for construction materials, most of which were never used on the intended projects.

Unfortunately for World Vision, it means that their fundraising will suffer as a result – while this is obviously too bad for them and the beneficiaries of their other, functional projects, there is no reason why donors should not sanction World Vision for its lack of oversight. World Vision apparently employs 250 people in Liberia, which is quite significant – besides other international organizations or the government, there are few employers of this size in Liberia (hence the 85% unemployment rate…) and they’ve been operating there since the early 80s – it’s quite unbelievable and unacceptable that it took them 2 years  to uncover this massive fraud. 

I honestly have no idea how something of this scale could have occured – how is it possible that no one realized that 34 of the towns intended to benefit from this project didn’t exist? It really says a lot about WV’s management capacity and how (un)rigorous their internal monitoring mechanisms are. In addition, in a context of poverty, how could over a million dollars disappear discreetly? 

Quite apart from the fact that their Community Resettlement and Rehabilitation Project ended up being a massive failure because of this fraud, it’s also worth noting that their model of importing food from the United States for aid is a flawed approach – why not purchase locally and support the Liberian agricultural sector and its small-holder farmers? Owen Barder recently wrote  that instead of importing food aid to Ethiopia, cash transfers would be more effective in combating hunger (which makes a lot of sense, by the way: in doing so, you would reduce the cost of providing food aid). I suppose the risk here is that people may not use the cash for its intended purpose – but the counter-argument is that if the person would naturally use the cash for whatever is their greatest need, which hopefully doesn’t involve getting drunk at the local bar…(more about purchasing food aid locally here, and more about untying food aid here)

I have serious beef with this World Vision drama: not only did they fail the people of Liberia by botching the design and execution of its CRRP, but this is also going to contribute to increasing the distrust for organizations doing similar work. The “public relations disaster” mentioned by Kleinman is not limited to WV, but will have repercussions for other NGOs. Shame. 

Warning: shameless plug

As for The Niapele Project’s School Nutrition Initiative in Liberia, we just received a small grant from the GO Campaign to cover the start-up costs of the project. While we certainly don’t have the ability to operate at a scale quite like a large INGO, we’re still planning on feeding 600 kids/day during the upcoming school year. And we take monitoring seriously – in addition to having trustworthy program coordinators, we track the impact of the program through regular medical assessments. We’ll also be sourcing food items for the project from an agricultural co-op in Central Liberia which is run by a local grassroots organization, Malaya. While we don’t have the enormous budget, staff and long standing experience of World Vision in Liberia, Niapele’s work in Liberia is guided by an honest assessment of needs at the community level, and we believe that our small-scale impact will be long lasting. 

Thinking Back

I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”

Second Plenary – generating profits, jobs and equitable growth

Well, this morning’s plenary session was really pretty amazing – on stage, the Queen of Jordan, the President of Liberia, the Chairman of Coca Cola, Bono and Al Gore. All had some really interesting and inspiring stories to tell (save maybe for the chairman of Coke, who merely encouraged MNCs to continue investing and engaging in emerging markets). Al Gore pleaded with the youth to take part in acts of civil disobedience if the authorities weren’t changing course – his entire intervention, as well as that of Bono, was incredible.

Bono reminded us that we managed to find $700 billion last week to rescue Wall Street, but that we were having a hard time scrounging the $25 billion it would take to make a huge difference in the fight against AIDS, malaria and TB. While drawing this kind of comparison is a bit of a cheap shot (the stakes of non-intervention in Wall Street are different – and one could argue higher – than the stakes of saving the lives of children), the whole point of this first plenary (and I’d say of this entire conference) is to motivate and inspire those who have the ability to make things happen. I suppose that’s the reason that first session was entitled ” A Call to Action” and not “Deep Thoughts on Development Strategy”.

I unfortunately missed the working sessions, as I was called into some meetings for the Clinton Giustra Initiative, but now I’m back in the midst of it – another plenary is about to begin, and then, “A Conversation between Bill Gates and Bill Clinton about Giving”. Should be great.