It's Still About People, not the Countries, Right? (and Other Debates about International Development)

Humanitarian Aid in Dem. Rep. Congo in Kibati ...Image via WikipediaLet's get the obvious stuff out of the way right away:
1) International development is complicated. Even though it does not feel that way, international development is still a fairly young field field when compared to diplomacy, domestic policy or national security.
2) I am passionate about the topic and eager to learn more but I make no claim  that I have enough perspective or experience to fully grasp all the intricacies of the subject. My point of view is that of a person from one of the poorest country in the world, with field experience in health system in developing country and some awareness of the current academic debates. I am just trying to lay out in layman's terms the topic of debates in international development.
To the matter at hand, let's list the hot topics and how I understand them:

a) Humanitarian vs. development aid:
- You probably read the many articles asking why the international community is so slow or doing so little to help with the natural disasters in Pakistan. You may not know that there are also other natural disasters ongoing in Niger and Madagascar that draw little attention as well. Humanitarian aid is the equivalent of your 911 call at the global level. We know for a fact that some 911 calls are more quickly answered than others, depending on the location of the call. The answer to why 911 emergency services sometimes don't respond to calls could provide insights into the lack of responses in humanitarian aid.
I think most would agree that whatever is necessary to get 911 responses to the most number of urgent callers should be done.
I also suspect that many people who think that development aid has not produced much results in some regions become reluctant to donate for humanitarian aid. It is unfortunate that there is an amalgam there but it is understandable. In mnay places where drought is cyclical, the lines between humanitarian and development aid are often blurred anyway.
It just makes me wonder whether when we bemoan the lack of efficiency in aid, we might provide people excuses for not contributing when a catastrophe strikes.

b) Professional workers vs Crowdsourcing in Humanitarian aid:

Much has been said on either sides of the conversation here. I like a spirited, smart conversation as much as the next guy so the back and forth between Patrick Meier and Paul Currion was insightful. I am worried though that the debate was escalated to a point where a consensus best protocol cannot be drawn out. I don't think that there is any doubt that professionals should have the final say in conducting aid but there's got to be a way to incorporate local citizens in information gathering. I believe that the latest deployments of Ushahidi have hinted at such consensus.  Whether contribution from the crowd is really adding critical value depends on the situation but from my outsider point of view, engaging the most affected citizens through technology adds a  psychological  positive aspect that may prove invaluable.
World map indicating Human Development Index (...Image via Wikipedia

c) Efficiency vs Wide range impact. 

International aid comes mostly from taxpayers money. Therefore, especially in the times of economic recession, it should be used in a manner that provides the most positive returns, a notion that is still a bit of a challenge in the aid sector ( although much progress have been made).
Determining what programs work best is the subject of a whole field. But there is an argument to be made that if reducing poverty worldwide is the first priority, more funding and effort devoted to this cause cannot be that bad, can it? In other words, the sheer amount of means and will committed to would induce some incremental change.
This notion has been shut down by many experts, and it is not only  about size of the funding and potential dead weight, it is also about the number of different NGOs trying to tackle the same problem in their own "pre-carre". There is such a thing as too many NGOs diluting the efficiency of the overall effort.  The conundrum of the collective action problem is multiplied by hundreds at the global level. Still, if we agree that there are no one size fits all solution to development, maybe having multiple NGOs is not such a bad thing.
Small NGOs are also easier to measure in terms of impact. The key is probably in being able to coordinate the whole lot more efficiently.  
Government has also often argued that NGOs can phagocyte the health system of a country by taking away health workers from public hospitals and therefore argue that aid should funneled through the government to prevent this problem.
This is discussed further down in the sovereignty portion but there is an assumption here that government will do the right thing and we all know that is far from a given (same goes for NGOs btw).  It would be easier to make sure NGOs have a horizontal health programs covering all aspects of health rather than redirecting money that may not have been there if gvt were solely in charge. One could also argue that Gvt pay want to pay their workers more if they really want to prevent brain drain.

d) Self-justifying  vs Self-sustaining the sector 

The elephant in the room is that for the aid sector to survive and raise funding, it needs to show that the problem they are trying to tackle is a pressing need. Therefore, solving the problem sometimes can take a back seat to fundraising. This is also true for non-aid related international agencies who rely on donations from countries for everyday expenses. But the aid sector is clearly not as sordid as what some may believe. Aid workers would rather not have to confront the challenges that they face on daily basis. When they do, they will try to fix it with all their experience and skills but it's not easy. So no one should expect aid workers to work for free; yet the people they help are usually not able to pay for their services.  Fundraising is a must for any NGOs and it takes resources. I don't have a suggestion here but just like school teachers and health workers, aid workers are part of an industry that just cannot be expected to self-generate enough funds to be sustainable. And just like those professions, I don't think anyone would advocate that we just do away with their contributions to society.  I have seen first hand what happened in places where aid was needed and yet absent. Not humanity's  finest hour.
The first flight of aid from the United Kingdo...Image via Wikipedia

e) Trade vs Aid:
The most well-known and debated subject in international development. I would just refer you to Attiyey/Mwenda vs Bono,   Pr. Sachs vs Pr. Easterly,   D. Moyo vs O. Barder Vs P. Collier
because it would do the subject no good to try to summarize it here but if you want to understand the complexity of international development,  make sure you follow those discussions and then read C. Blattman's take so that you are not totally at loss and refusing to engage further in the field.
I will just comment quickly on two points that is often made here by proponent of trade. Aid is only helping corrupt government by either feeding them or allowing them to not take care of issues that NGOs are providing. I think this need to be thought-through more thoroughly.
There are no evidence that a corrupt government would care for those issues in the first place. The important measure to take is not to stop providing the service but to highlight that the government is not pulling its weight  and that budget allocated for these issues are not followed through.
The other point is that the aid provided is often conditioned in a way that only certain companies can benefit from the cash provided through aid. I believe that these practices are the ones that undermine the credibility of the aid sector the most and need to be done away with quickly if a transparent conversation is to take place.

f) Sovereignty (State-Directed Development)  vs Inference (International Involvement)  

This topic is quite personal to me because of its current implication in the history of my homeland of Madagascar.  Pr Kohli argued in his book "State-Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery" that cohesive-capitalist states have been most effective at promoting industrialization. it emphasizes the role of the state in providing the structure for a sustainable exit to poverty. In the end, the State will be the one factor that decides the fate of a nation. This is not great news for many African nations who have seen their share of poor leadership from head of states, mediocre governance that resulted in a few military coups in the recent years. A solution that would involve an increased role from the private sector and civil society, bypassing the errors of the State would be more than a welcome sight.
In a now infamous economic experimentation to ending poverty,  Madagascar has tried to see how a large scale development project  lead by foreign entities would pan out for the agricultural growth of a country that has resources but lack the means and the know-how. The experiment failed before it began as sovereignty of the land  was deemed more important that the potential fall out of the investment. Now the "Right for Madagascar to decide its fate for itself" is again being thrown around by the populist transitional government to prevent foreign mediators from brokering an exit to the crisis.
Don't get me wrong, I understand the concept of a sovereign nation, I am also keenly aware of the negative implications of foreign inference in the  development of a country (colonization and occupations of all sorts come to mind).  But let's be real, if poverty alleviation and true development of a country is the final goal, all contributions (national and foreign) should be welcome. All solutions, foreign and national,  to endemic corruption  at the governmental level (that push Gvt into pillaging its own national forest to sell logs illegally) should be welcome.
When the coup happened in Madagascar, one of the resulting resolution from the US  was to cancel the AGOA Trade agreement. Pr Easterly at Aid Watch discussed the issue in details. I understand that there is a need for punishment for leaders who undertake coups or any actions that threaten human rights. But the reality is, thousand of workers were thrown in the streets as a result of the AGOA annulment. The government then blamed the US for taking jobs away from Malagasy workers. AGOA was an effective project in alleviating poverty. I don't think aid ought to be tied or conditioned to the action of a corrupt government. Development is after all about helping the people right ? Punishing its citizens economically has done very little in putting Madagascar back on the track of democracy. People in most of the places I know that need aid are functioning in spite of their government, the only economic pressure that would work is the freezing of foreign assets of corrupt governors, but that solution is rarely implemented.
The take-away points is that when in doubt about a program or a policy, people in development ought to ask:
1) Is this action going to affect the people of the region I help in a negative way ?( the good old "primum non nocere" thing)
2)  Would this make sense if I try it back home?    
3) Is what I am trying to achieve crystal clear with the people I help?
4) Will this still run when I leave ? Did I teach someone something?
Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. On point d), "aid workers" do not simply fundraise to support themselves but to be able to work full-time in the sector and thus contribute to the population alongside whom they are working. Fundraising therefore does not need to take precedence over solving the problem but is rather an integral part of the solution to the problem. The caveat being that the whole fundraising proposal must be properly thought through with the population for whom the eventual funds will serve.

  2. Hello Matt,

    Thank you for weighing in and making that point clear. A big omission on my part for not emphasizing the need to have the input of population it serves as a central requirement of fundraising for aid. I was wondering if there was any known techniques that would make fundraising less time-and-capacity consuming for agencies.

  3. Hello, i learn your blog sometimes and that i own a similar one and i used to be just wondering if you happen to get a variety of spam feedback? In that case how do you prevent it, any plugin or something you may advocate? I'm getting a lot recently it's driving me mad so any assist is very much appreciated. Anyway, in my language, there will not be a lot good supply like this.