Justice for Syrians?

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

***

Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

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.

PSA: An unmissable seminar on Côte d’Ivoire

I just received an email advertising a seminar that is truly unmissable if you’re interested in Côte d’Ivoire (or West Africa more broadly) and humanitarian law. Next Thursday, May 12th at 9:30 am, the Harvard Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum is hosting a live (online) seminar entitled Côte d’Ivoire: Assessing the International Response. Speakers include some of the brightest minds on West African affairs – Mike McGovern from Yale, Corinne Dufka from Human Rights Watch, for instance – and will look at the following questions:

This Live Seminar will examine the international community’s response to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Though the widespread violence is generally subsiding with the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the situation in Côte d’Ivoire continues to raise a number of concerns in terms of protecting civilians and adequately addressing their needs. This Seminar will address the following questions:
–What legal frameworks apply to the situation, and what forms of protection do they provide to civilian populations?
–What political, normative, and operational dilemmas arise for (elements of) the international community in responding to the ongoing crisis?
–What is the role of relief and development efforts in the current context?
–Has the response of the international community been appropriate and effective?

Register here

I’ll probably post some kind of summary of this either here or for UN Dispatch. If you have a chance to tune in, I’d love to know your thoughts/reactions afterward.

on entrepreneurship and NGOs

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.

***

Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?

***

There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.

***

I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.

***

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.

***

But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

***

This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]

***

What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.

***

The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?

***

I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

This & that

– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts…

Continue reading This & that

E-Z charity

In the last month since the earthquake struck the capital of Haiti, we’ve been bearing witness to an incredible outpouring of generosity: from individuals to corporations, from governments to celebrities, the world has been falling over itself in an attempt to lend a hand to Haiti. I’ve found some African examples interesting: for instance, Liberia – apparently – is giving $50,000 to Haiti, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has donated $2.5 million. Senegal, meanwhile, has offered to give land to Haitians wishing to resettle there.

As of February 3rd, the Chronicles of Philanthropy reported that contributions from Americans had already reached $644 million. Canadians contributed $113 million (CAD), with their federal government matching funds for every donation made until February 12th. Private contributions in France were less significant (64 million euros donated to charity in the last month), but given the fact that French people are typically reluctant to donate to charity because of the lack of tax incentive, it’s still relatively impressive (note that French people gave 95 million euros in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.) Check out this table, courtesy of @MoogieJo, for a breakdown of donations by country and a comprehensive overview of who gave to which organization and for what purpose.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.

Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)

Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a development blogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.

Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.

Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.

The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.

I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.

One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!)  didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.

It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with  the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.

People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.

"Post-bureaucratic" effectiveness?

There has been a bit of a buzz around the recently released British Conservative Party Green Paper on international development, and David Cameron’s party is getting a little bit of heat for some of their policy prescriptions. 

The report begins by announcing the Party’s good intentions:

As well as highlighting the amazing achievements of aid, we are candid and open about the difficulties and problems involved in turning money and good intentions into real outcomes on the ground. We identify both the systemic problems that beset the whole official aid industry, and the specific mistakes that Labour politicians have made in running our aid programme. And we set out how we will put these problems right, increasing British aid, while injecting a new post-bureaucratic focus on effectiveness and outcomes. Our aim is to spend more on what works, and end funding for what doesn’t.

What caught my eye was the notion of “post-bureaucratic” – which is in fact repeated throughout the report. At first, I thought it was probably another euphemism for increased coordination among agencies or more flexible funding and disbursement timelines. Interestingly, the Conservatives take the concept in an unexpected direction; as The Independent reports, their suggestion is to give British citizens a say in where their tax dollars/aid money goes. Through the intelligent use of “post-bureaucratic” modern technology (the internet, who would have thought), David Cameron is considering asking British citizens to decide which international development projects they want to fund:

The site will include a history of each project, the impact it has achieved, details of how the additional money will be spent and a short film by the head of the project, setting out why they deserve to be backed. The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

The point of this being two-fold: a), it would allegedly increase the quality of project results,  by creating new incentives for effectiveness, b) it would give tax-payers a say in how their money is spent, leading to increased popular support for aid programs. However, as critics note, this would inevitably lead to some “unpopular” programs being cut, and surviving ones spending more time trying to cater to the needs of an ever changing public opinion than addressing issues on the ground. 

Many are calling this “populist gimmickry”. I can understand that, especially when phrases like “Every time the candle of life is snuffed out by disease, we all suffer” are thrown around (page 8 – some beautiful prose, highly recommended). And indeed, some of the Conservatives’ policy prescriptions seem a bit “naive”, like the “MyAidfund” initiative described above. 

Nonetheless, they deserve some credit for at least attempting to be creative in their solutions to address the issue of aid effectiveness. And, while the vigorous debate on the topic continues to further polarize opinions (see the Boston Review recent “Development in Dangerous Places” for a brilliant installment on the subject), while the same old promises are being made by the G8, the Conservatives are at least taking a crack at finding a solution to the deadlock.

For instance, while everyone’s attention is focused on the “MyAidfund” program, I think some of the ideas below – also suggested in the 64 page policy paper – are at least worth debating:

We will ensure the impartial and objective analysis of the effectiveness of British aid through an Independent Aid Watchdog. This will gather evidence about the impact and outcomes of different British aid projects and programmes, allowing the Secretary of State for International Development to make informed, evidence-based decisions about where spending should be directed […]

We will publish full information about all of DFID’s projects and programmes – including the results of impact evaluations – on its website, and have them translated into local languages. This information will be published in a standardised format so that it can be freely used on third-party websites […]

We advocate a more far-sighted approach. DFID should where possible make three-year rolling commitments and give indicative ten-year projections for aid. However, such a commitment on our part will require something in return. Projects and programmes must demonstrate that they are performing, delivering what they said they would deliver.

The last recommendation listed here is contentious for critics: for some projects, where measuring objective impact is challenging because of the lack of quantitative indicators, it will be difficult to retain funding. This would create an unnatural skew towards “delivery” programs which can effectively measure their results, but are not always the most transformative or sustainable. That said, the current lack of indicators shouldn’t preclude us from searching for new, creative ways to measure impact… Which a lot of researchers are doing already. It’s definitely time for the development industry to become accountable (much in the same way that the private sector is being held increasingly accountable for their social and environmental impact.)

Finally, one of their more praiseworthy suggestions, in my opinion, is the following:

There is a wealth of talent and energy in the many ‘little platoons’, small charities and NGOs who are making an impact on poverty in a thousand different ways all across the world. We want to support and bolster these organisations. Yet Labour ’s current funding rules are restrictive, with money earmarked for specific but limited sectors. 

In addition to the existing funding structures which exist, we will establish a demand-led, performance-based Poverty Impact Fund, worth £40 million in its first year. 

The Fund will be open to British NGOs and charities, working alone or in partnership with local organisations in developing countries. The Fund will invite submissions for projects and programmes to reduce poverty in developing  countries. Fund managers, drawn from DFID, NGOs and the private sector, will assess the applications, and allocate funds on the basis of their anticipated effectiveness in reducing poverty. 

The Fund will maximise innovation and enterprise, letting ‘a thousand flowers bloom’,tapping into a wide range of NGOs and supporting a wider range of projects than the current structures allow. To balance risk in the portfolio, the Fund will also support projects which are well-established and have a demonstrable performance record. NGOs will have a clear incentive to maximise the effectiveness of their work in order to secure and retain funding.

So there are proposing to work more closely – and fund! – grassroots organizations that deliver results. Without seeing the details (how exactly would the portfolio be “balanced”? Will 50% of funding go to well-established projects? More? Less?), it’s hard to say whether this idea can really work. But we should at least appreciate the effort to bring some new ideas to the table – Cameron and his party probably haven’t cracked the complicated issue of aid effectiveness, but their notion of “post-bureaucracy” might not be such a poor conceptual starting point. 

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of David Cameron…. Not a detractor either, but definitely not a fan