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.

Is EDUN a success?

In 2008, as part of a conference goodie-bag, I received an EDUN t-shirt. The shirt’s tags indicated my shirt was made in Peru, from organic Peruvian cotton. The small pamphlet attached to it noted that the company, started by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, was focused on sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly fashions. I remember liking the shirt and the story behind it, especially because my job at the time had me focusing on economic development for small-holder farmers in rural Peru. I liked the idea that not only was the organic cotton produced in Peru, but instead of being exported as a raw material, the value-added product was created there in Peruvian factories, thus enhancing economic returns locally.

Me and my Peruvian-made EDUN shirt

EDUN’s mission though, according to Ali Hewson is to make a profit — not because the executive board needs the money but to demonstrate to other entrepreneurs that it’s possible to do so in developing countries, paying fair wages and relying on local raw material entirely processed and manufactured by local labor, from start to finish.

***

An article entitled “Out of Africa, Into Asia” in Friday’s Wall Street Journal explains how the company decided to move a majority of the production to China because of various issues with the manufacturers in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Delivery delays and quality problems were affecting the clothing line to the point where the company hosted “a party in the dark, at the chic cabaret venue The Box, to draw attention away from the clothes.”

According to the WSJ:

After putting around $20 million of their own money into the still-unprofitable brand, Bono and Ms. Hewson sold 49% of the company last year to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for about $7.8 million. LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, helped the company recruit new management and a new designer (Mr. Gregory left in 2007), and then tried to convince the founders to expand their sourcing horizons.

Currently, 15% of EDUN’s products are manufactured in Africa; this particular point led to an interesting conversation on Twitter about whether this means that EDUN is succeeding in its mission, or if in fact it has failed to accomplish what it set out to do. Some argued that EDUN was proving that it was possible to run a for-profit enterprise with a strong commitment to fair and ethical practices. Others – myself included – questioned whether EDUN could be considered successful given how much it seems to be deviating from its original intent.

***

I can relate to both sides of the argument here. Bono and his wife set out on a creative enterprise which they hope can become a model. As Hewson told the WSJ in 2009, EDUN is supposed to demonstrate that a for-profit business can be successful and ethical at the same time. This in turn can encourage other businesses to adopt new practices: sourcing products (and not just raw materials) from factories with strong labor and environmental standards in developing countries. These are obviously laudable goals that should be supported. However, my concern lies with the fact that Bono and Hewson didn’t actually prove that this was possible through EDUN, given all the issues they encountered in making their vision a reality.

In EDUN’s “mission” section of their website, it seems rather obvious that the focus is strongly on Africa. A rather tedious and unoriginal video of schoolchildren dancing in a school in the slum of Kibera and a slideshow of nameless organic cotton farmers adorn the webpage, along with a “Made in Africa”section, ominously subtitled “coming soon…”

The mission statement talks about about two partnerships: one with the aforementioned school in Kibera, and the Conservation Cotton Initiative in Northern Uganda with Invisible Children (everyone’s favorite advocacy organization) and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Leaving aside the merits of these two initiatives, they do speak to the rather small-scale scope of EDUN’s impact on African manufacturing. Which is precisely why I find it difficult to construe EDUN as a success: they have only very partially achieved their goal of having their fashion clothing line produced in African factories.

***

In the WSJ article, Ali Hewson makes it clear where EDUN’s priorities lie: “we focused too much on the mission in the beginning. It’s the clothes, it’s the product. It’s a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost.” Now this makes perfect business sense – a good company sells quality, in-demand products at the lowest possible cost in order to maximize revenues. What this suggests, though, is that the fair trade aspect of the mission – while still present – is not a priority. This is reflected in the decision to source a majority of products from China, with only a nominal portion coming from Africa. Furthermore, as EDUN’s website suggests, their efforts in Africa seem to be informed by somewhat vague principles and guidelines.

The problem is that EDUN, under these circumstances, is hardly demonstrating that “doing good while doing well” is a viable way to run a business. In fact, I’d argue quite the opposite. Their initial focus on product marketing (through celebrity ad campaigns and thanks to Bono’s superstar status) rather than on developing a viable, sustainable business model eventually forced them to rethink their model. This is particularly frustrating because EDUN could have easily sought to do its homework properly and anticipate the predictable problems they ran into. Saundra Schimmelpfennig wrote about this exact topic last year, and there are hundreds of entrepreneurs in the same space whose counsel could have been sought.

EDUN failed to learn the lessons of their predecessors’ mistakes in order to make their model succeed has they originally intended. Instead of proving that their business model was viable, they seem to have proved exactly the opposite. If it Bono hadn’t had the ability to throw $20mm of his own money into the company when it was suffering financially, if he didn’t have the kind of prestige that would make LVMH purchase the flailing, unprofitable company, I highly doubt EDUN would still exist today.

***

I’m one to be supportive of daring entrepreneurship, both social and commercial, and I do have a lot of respect for people who have the courage to throw their energy into creating a successful enterprise. That said, when it comes to EDUN, I feel that the efforts were superficial, in more ways than one. Had EDUN done better research, they might have come up with a better model than what led them to be pretty much ashamed of the clothes that came from Africa (cf. the party in the dark to draw attention away from the clothes – for a fashion company!?) I don’t think anyone considering investing in African business would look to Bono and EDUN’s example as a model for success… In fact, I would imagine that looking at EDUN would discourage potential investors.

It seems that we don’t hold Bono to the same standards we hold non-rock star entrepreneurs. His mere trying to succeed appears to be enough to endear him to his supporters. Frankly, I feel Bono doesn’t deserve much praise here. If he was truly committed to supporting African cotton farmers, sellers and manufacturers, he could have invested in a few small or medium size clothing factories, for example. Industry in the developing world needs capital and improved operational standards, and there are several organizations which focus precisely on achieving this. The Grassroots Business Fund, for instance, makes equity, quasi-equity, and debt investments in the $250,000 – $1,000,000 range in agricultural and artisanal businesses, as well as access to finance and BoP services.

I understand: EDUN is a fashion clothes line, not an aid project. Fair enough. But then let’s see this for what it really is: one among many lines of clothing designed and marketed by a celebrity, with an ethical “twist.” To say that EDUN is a “game-changing” initiative is giving much too much credit to an enterprise which essentially failed to accomplish the mission it set out for itself.

Wonk love

‘Tis that time of the year again: long weekends and celebrations of national holidays, fireworks and hot-dogs. As I suspect many of you will be traveling this weekend (and throughout the summer), I thought I’d recommend one of my all time favorite podcasts: the Center for Global Development’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast. Usually hosted by Lawrence MacDonald, the podcasts usually last about 20 minutes and feature Center for Global Development (CGD) fellows, as well as other prominent guests. The themes discussed are always salient and topical, and the expertise is spot-on.

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Last week, the Wonkcast had an excellent episode on the Gulf of Mexico gusher and Africa’s oil boom (mostly about the latter topic, really), with Todd Moss and Vijaya Ramachandran. The New York Times reports that “as many as 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta over the last five decades, or nearly 11 million gallons a year.” Unlike the outrage sparked by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophy, the response to the relentless flow of oil into the Niger delta has generated little action. There are different factors affecting the situation: criminal activity by rebel groups, which illegally tap pipelines and fail to cap them, is one major issue. But one point which the experts in the Wonkcast insist on is the responsibility of corporations.

Nigeria has a weak regulatory environment, and many of the companies drilling for oil do so out of sight – literally. With offshore platforms left unmonitored by the government or other independent bodies, the safety and security precautions taken by companies are determined internally. This leads to several issues related to poor maintenance of facilities (corroding and unsecured pipelines), environmentally destructive practices (gas flares, which are the result of burning off natural gas recovered during the extraction of crude oil), and a general lack of accountability and responsibility for the social and environmental impact of natural resource extraction activities.

The Nigerian authorities – both federal and local – and natural resource companies share the responsibility for what is occurring in the Niger Delta. If they are not directly responsible, they are at the very least guilty of omission. Todd Moss speaks of the need to drastically improve the regulatory framework that governs natural resource extraction in Nigeria. I would add that companies also need to adopt much stricter standards, and embrace good corporate citizenship. As we are seeing with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the practice of putting profits and the bottom line ahead of any other concerns has to change.

Efforts to promote the value of corporate social responsibility have been gaining in importance in recent years. The notion of “triple bottom line” (people/planet/profits), for instance, is becoming the dominant approach to full cost accounting, which takes into account the full economic, social and environmental cost of operating a business. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index “comprises the leading companies in terms of sustainability around the world. It captures the top 10% based on long-term economic, environmental and social criteria out of the biggest 2500 companies worldwide.” The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as well at the Global Reporting Initiative, are other examples of new accountability systems that are changing the way in which companies report on their activities. What ties all these initiatives together is the move towards taking into account all of the dimensions – economic, social, environmental – which a business necessarily impacts.

Another initiative, this time led by executives in the natural resource sector, is the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). The ICMM’s mission is to help its member companies make their social and environmental commitments in line with sustainable practices, and to increase the overall sustainability of their operations. Having worked with the ICMM in the past, I can attest to the quality of the organization’s work. As far as I know, there is no similar initiative for the oil and gas industry.

Because of the nature of the natural resource extraction business,  negative externalities caused by these activities are often not on people’s radars. It took a massive disaster in the Gulf of Mexico for the general public in the United States to question the practice of deep-water, offshore drilling. In our day to day lives, we are not exposed to the environmental and social consequences of natural resource extraction – out of sight, out of mind.

For the estimated 30 million people living in the Niger Delta, however, the effects of poorly regulated oil extraction have very tangible consequences: destroyed ecosystems, depletion of fish stocks and wildlife (impacting the livelihoods of local fishermen and farmers), hampered agricultural production, pollution (leading to many health issues), insecurity (due to the presence of armed criminal groups), etc. Amnesty International released a comprehensive report last year, where these issues are explored in depth.

One of the solutions discussed by Todd Moss to decrease poverty in the Niger Delta is the institution of direct cash transfers to the local population. Under this scheme, the Nigerian government would redistribute 10% of its annual dividends directly to individuals in the region. By by-passing state coffers, and thus the possibility of funds being misappropriate or mismanaged, direct cash transfers are seen as a way to beat the “oil curse”, which has plagued natural resource rich countries with poor governance. This method of redistributing revenue is being used in Alaska since 1982, and Moss has been advocating for this approach to be adopted by West African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria.

In the podcast, Moss notes that this direct cash transfer proposal is creating strange bedfellows: on the one hand, progressive liberals believe that this allows citizens to have a stake in the wealth of their country, and, on the other hand, libertarians love the idea of cutting out the government middle man. Moss points out that the dividends paid to citizens should still be taxed by the government, in an effort to keep accountability loops. Nevertheless, I wonder about the indirect effects of such a system.

For example, under this system, the incentives for government accountability in terms of natural resource wealth management are reduced. In other developing nations, the approach has been to strengthen both the regulatory framework and redistribution channels, and to build the capacity of government agencies to manage natural resource wealth. While direct cash transfers may be a good short term solution, in the long term, it does not help resolve the overarching challenge of poor governance.

In my mind, building the institutional capacity of resource-rich countries is the most critical element of turning the “resource curse” into a blessing. Chile and Peru are examples of countries that, not very long ago, were struggling with poverty. Both of these nations have instituted reforms and focused on attracting and managing foreign investors and natural resource companies. The government of Peru has a complex taxation and redistribution system in place, which seeks to ensure that the wealth generated by mining is shared based on principles of equality.

A study by the Fraser Institute supports this view (emphasis mine):

“The authors of the report, after considering new and existing data, come to the conclusion that whether a country benefits from natural resources depends largely on the integrity of its institutions and economic freedom — government bureaucracy, legal structure, property rights, monetary policies and international trade. Simply put, the higher the level of economic freedom a country enjoys, the greater the benefit from resources.”

For Nigeria, direct cash transfers can probably help alleviate poverty to some degree. Nevertheless, I don’t think the egregious violations of human rights, the environmental destruction and insecurity will subside unless: 1. the government of Nigeria improves governance and regulation, and 2. natural resource companies self-impose stricter standards for safety, security and work much harder on mitigating the negative social and environmental impact of their activities.

These aren’t short term projects, but they should accompany any initiative that seeks to diminish the negative impact of natural resource extraction in the region.

On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”

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.