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 G8/G20 pointlessness

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman captures the essence of G8/G20 summits in this piece:

“We are seriously concerned about this most serious outbreak of seriousness,” said the head of the institution, either a former minister from a developing country or a mid-level European or American bureaucrat. “This is a wake-up call to the world. They must take on board the vital message that my organisation exists.”

The director of the body, based in one of New York, Washington or an agreeable Western European city, was speaking at its annual conference, at which ministers from around the world gather to wring their hands impotently about the most fashionable issue of the day. The organisation has sought to justify its almost completely fruitless existence by joining its many fellow talking-shops in highlighting whatever crisis has recently gained most coverage in the global media.”

(h/t Alanna Shaikh)

Pointlessness is a theme this weekend in Toronto, as small factions of violent protesters destroy property for no reason :

credit: Ryan Walker for The Torontoist

Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.

"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

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. 

Dead Aid Bandwagon

If you are a development nerd, you have probably read ad nauseam about Dambisa Moyo’s new book, Dead Aid. In the last few months, there has been an interesting debate happening between different schools of thought. Essentially, Moyo argues that foreign aid to African countries is one of the preeminent root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment (for lack of a better word), and that instead of throwing billions of (wasted) dollars into the hands of dicators, African governments should instead be given access to more private finance. 


Having worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, Moyo – who hails from Zambia – offers a refreshing perspective on the aid debate (which is typically dominated by white males… no surprises there, right?)


Her book unleashed an outpouring of commentary – some condemning her views, others wholeheartedly agreeing, and everything in between. I have been tempted to throw in my two cents, but the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that a) everything that could be said, has been said and, b) the debate over whether aid should be stopped or not is such a macro discussion that, ultimately, we’re getting stuck at the “50,000 foot” view – and that doesn’t really help move the debate forward constructively. Because, as we all know, foreign aid will NOT end – even if you were able to show by a+b=c that aid caused most of Africa’s problems, Official Development Aid (ODA) is still a critical foreign policy tool, and to call for its halt is unrealistic.

Anyway.  

Most recently, Francis Fukuyama voiced his opinion on the matter in Slate. He compares Moyo’s argument with another prominent African scholar’s views, Wangari Maatai. His piece, I thought, actually touches on a couple of really key issues, which most commentary on “Dead Aid” have failed to focus on. Excerpt:

Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control.

This view actually echoes what one of the most prominent French African scholars, Jean Francois Bayart, writes in his book “L’Etat en Afrique: La politique du ventre“. In this book, he writes that the “politics of the belly” – which is to say the political culture that is prevalent in Africa whereby rulers seek to accumulate power and possessions –  is not only the fundamental issue that has been plaguing the continent, but also a product of its very particular social, political and economic history. In his book (which I unfortunately don’t think has been translated into English), he describes how complex social and political networks arose in the context of colonial and post colonial sub-Saharan Africa, and how the polity that emerged is defined by an intricate interplay between foreign dependency, reliance on local (and often socially constructed) tribal or ethnic identities and leaders’ destructive desire to selfishly accumulate resources. 

Of course, given that we’re talking about a whole continent, generalizations are very hard to make – so while one can certainly find counter points to Bayart and Fukuyama’s argument, there is an element of truth to it, which to me captures the most powerful criticism of Moyo’s book: it’s not aid per se that’s the problem – it’s what’s being done with it, and how it’s being managed. And of course, Moyo knows this. But, as Owen Barder notes:

It seems to me that Dambisa Moyo has set up a false dichotomy between aid and entrepreneurship. Many of the things Moyo would like to see – better access to financial services, a better business environment, lower tariffs – can be (and are) supported by aid. 

It’s been frustrating to read Bono’s response to Moyo, as well as the reactions from a lot of people “shocked” that Moyo would call for an end to foreign aid. But, if (like me…) you subscribe to the Easterly school of thought that holds that most ODA ends up being horribly wasted and that an entirely new ODA regime needs to come about, then her argument, while virulent and, frankly, aggressive, makes sense. 

Just recently, from (of all places) USA Today:

Two United Nations agencies spent millions in U.S. money on substandard Afghanistan construction projects, including a central bank without electricity and a bridge at risk of “life threatening” collapse. 

In the current context, I think it’s great to debate the virtues (or lack thereof) of ODA – however, focusing on that macro question shouldn’t be a reason to turn our focus away from the real issue: today, there are millions of aid dollars at work – how do we actually make them work, with a view to incrementally decrease countries’ dependence on foreign assistance? 

Oh, aid effectiveness… You are hella elusive.