Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Development ... whatever happened to applied common sense!

Dear Colleagues

A friend wrote this back in August 2005 ... the Stephen she refers to is Stephen Lewis who at the time was the UN Special Envoy for AIDS. When I go back and I mine my old messages I find a recurrent theme about failure of the international official relief and development assistance community. I find myself asking why is it that so little has been done to address the problems ... and asking what could have been done differently. This is the what my friend wrote:
From: *** a friend ***
Wed, Aug 17, 2005 at 4:08 AM
Dear Peter, Kevin and Kris

I am just addressing those of you whom I know as I don't know the circulation of this list or who the others are. FYI Kris and I had a great meeting in Chennai 2 weeks ago:

I don't know why it is such a sore point and off limits - I have nothing but respect for Stephen whom I have known my whole life - but he set up his own foundation because he could not abide the development aid industry and felt that small grants into women's hands was the only thing that made any real difference. Perhaps it is that they feel that they need to toe the line on aid so that the right does not hijack the debate to justify why not to increase aid, but more likely I think that it is an indication of helplessness, in truth, no one knows what to do and no one knows the answers; and there is an industry around aid that is required to protect careers and professions.

My recent experience connected to a $10.7 million USAID program on women's rights where more than $6 mil never left Washington and the profit margins of the private sector companies [and in this I include the large NGOs that are now dependent on sub-contracting to the private sector] was an eye-opener for me - even though I knew this in theory - when I approached activists about trying to raise the profile of this scandalous activity I was told that it would put aid at risk as the right would use it to justify no aid increase, and that the trickle down approach was better than nothing...

At the recent World Economic Forum Africa Summit here in South Africa held just prior to G8, some of the African speakers decried this whole thing and called for the exposure of the funds that remain in the North in the hands of the Beltway Bandits – but that was at the same time that our Deputy President was indicted for corruption and the epidemic of politicians here being charged - albeit, at least in SA they are being charged....

And at the same time Mbeki announced the recruitment of local government managers from overseas as the lack of service delivery here in the new SA is leading to a whole spate of severe strikes and protests - while millions of rands worth to training funds to develop South Africans goes unspent....

And on and on .... and Peter, when those same African students graduate, will they go home to try to take this on in their own countries or stay in the US to work in the development industry, go to the World Bank, and send their remittances home so that at least their families can eat?

The Live 8 concert that Geldof forced on South Africa cost R3.5 million, no one came, and at the same time one of the foremost violence against women NGOs closed down after 10 years due to lack of funding, in a country with the highest rate in the world, and that money would have funded them for 3 years. They wheeled Mandela out in a golf cart to make his pitch about poverty but he can't even get Mbeki to take on Mugabe.
This message was in response to a post that I had made ... in turn in response to an article in India written by the founder of the Barefoot College in Tilonia and circulated by my colleague Kris Dev.

Freedom from poverty (experts)
Posted online: Monday, August 15, 2005 at 0230 hours IST

The intellectual activists behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) who sit in New York are making sure the goals will remain unreachable. Over the last 34 years, having lived and worked with the rural poor earning less than a dollar a day in India, I have ceased to be surprised by the incredible ignorance, stupidity and hype that's generated to tackle extreme poverty. Ever so often, jobless politicians find themselves heading Commissions. There is no shortage of funds for travel and workshops preparing pointless recommendations and action plans no one reads or follows. But how many have actually involved the poor in the making of these action plans?

Adviser to the UN secretary-general Jeffrey Sachs — with his promises of ending poverty — is just another one of the many getting his bit of temporary glory and he will fade away like Clare Short (remember her?) and her White Paper which promised the eradication of poverty by 2015.
Poverty is big business today. Thousands of jobs in the North depend on churning out sensational figures in glossy magazines highlighting how the poor will remain poor unless more funds are allocated. Never mind if these funds end up as $1,000 per day consultancies given to people who have never spent a night in a village. Not that these consultants have ever gone hungry in their lives, or drunk contaminated water, or walked 10 km to school, or trudged for two days for a canister of kerosene to light the stove. So when do we start educating them? Do they have the humility to listen or are they so arrogant that they know all the answers?

How do we start explaining to these insensitive "experts" what it feels like to face fear, death, hunger, starvation, exploitation, discrimination, injustice every day of their lives? How do we convey the urgency, impotence and anger these glorified paper pushers can never feel? If we are to believe Jeff Sachs, the problem is money. So what's new? Governments in the South are not that stupid that they cannot see that poverty is increasing. So is corruption and waste running into millions of dollars and none of the international donors are even talking about their series of successful failures. Is Jeff Sachs, the evangelist, hob-nobbing with film stars, singers, presidents and prime ministers talking about that? Of course not. But why not? Because it is not sexy to talk about mistakes.

We have to look ahead. Learn from the past, think out of the box. Think about simple solutions (like mosquito nets). What about the other simple solutions people are already implementing and not waiting for their governments (too slow, too corrupt) or donors to act? Jeff Sachs has obviously not heard of them from his network of contacts because it is not mentioned in his Latest Report. So far, he has got it all wrong. What requires money is the top-down approach, the North-South percolation of ideas, methods, approaches, equipment and personnel. This has failed miserably. Instead of asking for more money that will inevitably be wasted away, he would do well to offer alternatives on how existing funds could be better spent. There is enough money for drinking water and sanitation if the experts listen to the low-cost, community-managed and community-owned solutions of the people. There is not enough money if they listen to the solutions offered by (un)qualified water engineers.

For the cost of one down-the-hole drilling rig installing one hand pump in one school (the stupid solution of the 'qualified' water engineer), it is possible to collect 15 million litres of rain water in over 100 schools and provide employment to 1,000 people for four months in the villages. Why is Jeff Sachs not pushing roof-top rain water harvesting in schools as a source of water for drinking and sanitation? Many reasons. First, because his high-powered team producing reports are not practical enough to hear about simple solutions like this. Small is not beautiful in their eyes.

Second, he does not want to look beyond the obvious and anger his friends who are water engineers and who are solely responsible for the colossal waste of money in the drinking water sector. Third, he wants to please everybody by keeping quiet on sensitive issues like corruption, wastage and incompetent management. He would much rather talk eloquently about the US being stingy and earn brownie points, than talk about transparency and accountability. He believes the problems faced in Africa was overcome 40 years ago in Asia. Totally false. He seems to be enamoured by India's impressive food production figures. But what about the 60 million tons of food rotting in government godowns eaten by rats while millions starved? The problem is distribution, not production.

Jeff Sachs reminds me of Einstein's definition of insanity: "Endlessly repeating the same process hoping for a different result." The barriers to development in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia is in the mind, not only in the soils and rainfall. A change in mindset does not need money. Taking the poor into confidence and letting them implement their own schemes does not require more money. As a wise politician once remarked: people cannot be developed. They develop themselves. But first it requires the government and donors to act as facilitators and take a back seat. Patronage requires money; participation and partnership do not.

What Jeff Sach's MDG approach to solutions fails to take into account is the incredible knowledge, indigenous skills and practical wisdom that traditional communities everywhere possess, which could be identified and applied today. It will require no extra money. The people have their own inexpensive solutions that would baffle the urban expert. Give them an opportunity and a chance to apply it for their own development.

If Jeff Sachs is serious about wanting to meet MDGs, he has to stop playing to the gallery. The answer is to demystify and decentralise right down to the community level. He has to list low-cost alternatives that have worked and stop listening to the paper-qualified experts who can only think of using him to raise more money and thus play into the hands of contractors, consultants, vested interests, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.

The writer is the founder of Barefoot College, Tilonia
My response to this post was as follows:
From: Peter Burgess
Tue, Aug 16, 2005 at 10:41 PM
Dear Colleagues

Kris certainly knows my views about the failure of development, and the sad state of affairs in the official relief and development assistance (ORDA) community, and the dysfunctional value chains that support academic research at the expense of value adding community activities.

A New York based observer of the UN has noted the brilliance of the Millennium Development Goals ... an initiative that is going to last 15 years so that nobody is really ever going to be accountable ... yet there is a huge budget line for studies and workshops and all sorts of other un-useful activities.

Some weeks ago I listened to Jeffrey Sachs, Steven Lewis and others at a student workshop at Columbia University in New York. Bottom line ... they wanted more money for development (MDGs) and AIDS. When I suggested that perhaps getting the existing money to be spent more usefully on activities that directly benefited the needy ... it was clear I had touched a sore subject and one that is absolutely "off limits". I wonder why. When I talked privately with some of the African students, they indicated that they had similar thoughts ... but that they also had to be careful since they wanted to graduate! So much for academic freedom and intellectual honesty. It really does not matter how big the pipe is when it is extremely leaky and heading in the wrong direction.

So thank you Kris for circulating this piece

Peter Burgess

No comments:

Post a Comment