What I learned in 20 years of technical assistance

When I started my first assignment as an adviser working for an international aid agency, I knew very little about the theory and practice of development assistance.

In February 2000 I was hurled into the chaos of post conflict reconstruction in Kosovo with no experience in aid work and no qualifications in development studies. This is not uncommon. Aspirations that aid practitioners should have relevant country knowledge, ‘understand the context’, and be aware of good aid practices, are often jettisoned as aid organisations and consulting firms struggle to find people who are willing to work in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, environments and also have the professional skills needed to deliver the project.

I’ve learned a lot more about development since then. I hit the text books after several years working as a technical adviser in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Solomon Islands. Although the history, politics and culture in these places were completely different, many of the problems they faced were similar, and so were the technical solutions proposed by the major aid donors. I felt a need to better understand what foreign aid was all about and how it was supposed to help.  

In academia I found a world of jargon and theories that often seemed to have little relevance to what actually happened in the field I worked in. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand this discrepancy. The conclusions I’ve reached will be familiar to many people.

Academic texts and carefully researched donor reports contain many good ideas and basic truths. Innovations such as aid effectiveness declarations, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, MDGs and SDGs, adaptive programming and capacity development – just some of the hot topics in aid in recent decades – have no doubt had some positive impact, or at least steered people away for the most harmful aid practices.

But it seems that almost all good ideas soon become mired in the bureaucracy and routine of aid organisations and think tanks, becoming merely slogans and acronyms and form filling exercises. They generate conferences, reports and workshops, and may change the language used in project plans and progress reports, but have limited actual impact in the real world.

Many of the currently fashionable ideas in aid are in any case not really new. One of the fascinations of academic research was reading articles and reports published in the 50s and 60s which expressed essentially the same ideas, and made the same recommendations for improving aid outcomes, using slightly different terminology.

Plus, although they might be good ideas, they also tend to create extra work and administrative overhead for beneficiary governments. The best qualified staff are assigned to gathering statistics for monitoring reports. Normal activities in government departments are suspended while senior officials prepare for the next donor delegation. Meanwhile the minister is constantly travelling to Paris or Washington or Seoul for yet another high level conference. There have been times in my career when I have felt that my main role as an adviser was dealing with the information requirements of aid donors – taking the weight off my local counterparts, while they dealt with the real problems.

Another important lesson I learned over time is that local people in developing countries do not lack ‘capacity’.

People and governments in developing countries often do quite complex things quite well. They may lack money, facilities, education, security and good leadership, but they are not incapable of getting things done, when they want to.

Yet aid projects almost always declare ‘capacity development’ as one of their main objectives, as if the government would be helpless without their help.

I puzzled over this for quite some time and wrote several academic papers about the history and meaning of the idea of ‘capacity development’. It’s a complex issue, but the problem, it seems to me, is simply that the things developing countries do are not necessarily the things donors think they should be doing. And the things they think they should be doing look remarkably like what people and governments in the west do. How they set up their political system and their public sector, how they organise their economy – even down to how they manage their diary.

Not that there is really anything wrong with this. The institutional arrangements, work practices and values of the west have clearly been associated with the achievement of very comfortable living standards in those countries. Learning from them might not be a bad idea. But so many capacity development programs, despite claims to the contrary, come down to imposing a ready-made blue print, usually the one that is most familiar to the current visiting consultant.  

Why does this continue? It’s fairly simple. Foreign aid is a extension of domestic policy, subject to the same political cycles and ideological turnarounds. Any good new idea that would make aid really effective will falter if it runs counter to donor country requirements for accountability and control – and most of them do. This is unlikely to change. Unfortunately, developing country governments, and those who want to help them, have to make what they can of it.

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