What’s the effect of aid flows on people “on the ground”*?

I’ve re-delved into the twister world of thesis research and have decided to use this blog as a way to jot down my thoughts…without arrows and with minimal use of numerical orderings (although I read a great article somewhere about an efficient professor who writes all of his email correspondence with numerical ordering and no complete sentences unless absolutely necessary…which I will link as soon I as find it).

Three interesting reads: Aid Chain by Tina Wallace, Lisa Bornstein, and Jennifer Chapmant; “Teach a Man to Fish” by Susan Watkins and Ann Swidler; and More Than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Jake Appel

Aid Chain is a relatively short book on the process by which Ugandan and South African NGOs get funding from the UK, the rise and influence of “rational management” and “logframes” on development, and the resulting prioritization and time management problems NGOs face as they need to fill out more and more paperwork, in specific ways, and requiring actions that are at best, reinforce an oversimplified picture of development to donors and at worst, keep time, resources, and attention away from the true clients, the Ugandans and South Africans and their communities that are meant to be helped by the NGO programs.

Positive Feedback: The book provides a very clear story of what’s happening to aid flows by giving a great summary of the history of aid flows. It elucidates very clear linkages between the grant process, what has led to the current grant process from critical theory, economic, and managerial points of view, and what are the wide ranging effects of the current grant process. Most important chapters: 1, 2,3, 4, 6

The authors also clearly give credit where it’s due — telling, even as they’re not able to show (for reasons discussed below) the many years of work and many people heavily involved in the project.

Negative Feedback:  The authors, partially because of interviewee confidentiality constraints, rarely provide specific examples of the negative effects of the current papery, jargony, log-frame filled grant process (a description I’ve summed up from their book, which does not present the process quite so elegantly) and use often vague though effectively scathing critiques.  The book could ultimately be made stronger in its country context chapters on Uganda and South Africa if it could better describe its anonymous NGOs beyond small, medium, and large. Perhaps the fault is partially on the funding and time constraints for which the authors apologize  at the beginning of the book.  Nevertheless, it could have presented specific stories as examples that development workers and donors could recognize. Although the author does make use of the couple of organizations by name, it seems that the authors more successfully showcased their own opinions and agendas on the NGO’s issues than they did the problems of the grant process and aid flows.  For example, using an example of a HIV/AIDS NGO, the authors complain that donors forced condom usage on a village where condom usage clashed with cultural and religious traditions in conservative Uganda. Whether or not that’s true, the example instead of compelling readers, who are of the development workers and donor stock, might quickly the judge the book by their opinions on this contentious issue rather than the important and less controversial meat of the book. Examples speak, fortunately or unfortunately.

A book that uses examples well and is more appreciated by development bloggers than Kristof’s Half the Sky is More than Good Intentions. As Chris Blattman recommends, I will buy it for my mom (or at least lend her my university copy) so that she will finally know what I starting to do with my life. Reads as quickly and compellingly as Kristof’s Half the Sky with a fair bit of evidence for the good programs it highlights. I enjoyed it for the short humorous anecdotes of conversations with the authors’ friends in Africa such as on p 34-35 on Ghanaian women’s addresses (answer: directions by way of landmarks) as well as the conversation (can’t find the page number now) on how many people does a interviewed man live with –different depending on the question you ask him. The book does a wonderful job of showing different logics that are common to individuals from developing countries in a pragmatic and non Western/Eastern or Northern/Southern or Racial way (or any of the other common “excuses”/”explanations”).  And what I think will be especially appreciated by my co-blogger are the explanations of ways to test whether development interventions are working and how, introduction to behavioral economics, and the fun experiment on testing for “trust”. I think the book could have been published differently by having the harder evidence provided as an addendum at the end of each chapter.  The authors could have explained a bit further why some experiments adequately controlled for differences but I guess the book really is geared for the average educated but non research interested Joe (and perhaps I need to get cracking on the appendix).

Finally, Teach a Man to Fish is one of the most interesting, comprehensive and coherent articles I’ve read. (I’m even more psyched that I get to work with the authors this summer). It, like the other two pieces above, encapsulates a lot of the experiences I’ve had interning in South Africa and Tanzania and the authors present their argument in a easily and accessibly logical way. At the same time it manages to achieve a lot of things at once: spin and less radical/mono-disciplinary usage of Foucault, Ferguson and critical theory; makes the policy solution very obvious and provides a space for donors to come to the conclusion because argument stays away from labeling donors evil, neo- colonialist, etc and instead concentrates on side effects and labels them side effects; and it also neatly folds in issues like evidence-based projects, social stratum dynamics, the necessary and realistic uses of patron-clientelism and real (not judged negative) perpetuation of patron clientelism. I’m not really doing the article justice but I do recommend a read.

Basic argument: HIV/AIDS  programs and the goal of sustainable projects by way of local participatory self-reliant groups have failed to create the desired direct effects of sustained local groups that provide HIV/AIDS services because donors, in light of the international ideology of sustainability, pay for training and minimal materials in hopes that groups will rely on their own resources. The indirect effect are societal effects – for the lower classes, the authors show that the development industry and programs have been inserted into already existing expectations that things come and go like the weather. For the middle “interstitial elites”, training has provided language that reinforces their elitism and helps to justify their salary-lessness as they act as volunteers for the projects; training also provides the elites with networks that provide access to patrons. The ebb and flow, competition for NGO salaried positions reinforces the importance of patrons.  The authors even bring in an important and overlooked factor – the overstretched and fragmented work life of the urban elites as elites do not only their jobs, but also often are in charge of meeting with donors, showing off projects, etc making it increasingly difficult to do even one job well.

*”On the Ground” referring to Blood and Milk’s article on calling development areas “the field”, or “on the ground” etc. Good Article, sets up a fun challenge of alternative ways to present working in Malawi this summer.

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