Guest Post: No good winking at a Sheila in the dark!

Self-help group managing their money...A Cambodian Self-help Group (SHG) manage their money. (John Lawrie)

 Pleased to have a fellow aid questioner  and blogger John Lowrie sharing some of his experiences and frustrations from Cambodia.

Most readers will have no idea what this means, least of all its relevance to “Life after Aid”.

Nate will have no problem. I share with him 30 years in the Aid and Development business but our paths have not crossed until now.

The English, Americans, Aussies and I daresay all native English-speakers are indeed “divided by a common language”. So that begs the question “What chance do non-native English-speakers stand – of understanding what is going on?” Non-standard English – highly academic and technical – pervades “Aid”.

And then what about nuances such as “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil!”?

I understand Nate’s desire for a fulfilled “Life after Aid” or “Life despite Aid”.

Would life be better without Aid? Some say “just give the poor the money”, cut out all the bureaucracy.

For my part, I ask again, for the umpteenth time “Why can’t find we find a way to communicate meaningfully with the world’s poor and vulnerable?”

“Why is so much money spent before any of it reaches the poor? It is a fact that this is the case in almost all aid budgets?” It is clearly a flawed process; top-down; expensive, with no guarantee at all of real benefit to the poor? The only thing we know for certain is that many other people, none who are poor, do benefit disproportionately, on the way.

Now when Nate uses “Aid” in the short form instead of its usual double-barrel form, our United States colleagues will think we are referring to USAID.

I hope that USAID will not take too much offense if I pick on them. If they do, then please be patient. I am equally capable of offending UK, Australian, German and other “Aid” outfits.

Nate has questioned his impact and the impact all of us have in “Aid”. He explains himself very well in his blogs. (Part 1, Part 2). We hope that our efforts make a difference. We also hope for appreciation though this may not be forthcoming. After I notified the Cambodian Government my NGO was handing over to a local NGO having accomplished its mission after 18 years, we received no acknowledgment at all.

How do we judge impact in “Aid”? Well it would help if we can have “both sides of the story”, not just one.

Internet searches are great, aren’t they? Just enter into your search engine “USAID and Success” and “USAID and Failure”. What do you get?

For success, you get detailed guidance on how to write up “Success Stories”.

For failure…..nothing, just a list of items, exhorting USAID to acknowledge that it does exist, but they go unanswered.

The truth is donors, not just USAID, don’t want failures. Taxpayers, they wager, are all “Sheilas”, best kept in the dark. If not, they may ask awkward questions like “value for money?”

Some people resent me for pointing out the annual cost the United States Government spends every year to deploy each of its Peace Corps volunteers. (I do compliment the US for giving the figures.) It worked out US$54,849 each volunteer in 2015.

That is an enormous cost from a development perspective in a world where the poverty mark is set at around $1.50 per day per person.

A few weeks ago, the social media rumour mill was rife in Cambodia that the UN was forking out US$150,000 for a four-month consultancy. It is probably true. There has been no denial. I do know of one ICT consultant who offered me his services at a kindly-reduced fee of just $1,000 per day.

Around the same time, a USAID contractor blocked the plan of one of our most remote, poorest, indigenous community self-help groups, to spend $500 to repair their gravity-fed water supply system from the well up in the hills down to the village. “Somewhere in Africa, a water tower constructed with our funds fell over and killed someone” they explained “Since then, we have instituted very stringent rules concerning any construction.

I had the temerity to question their edict but was firmly slapped down by USAID:

“USAID is not permitted to get involved with issues between a prime partner and a sub awardee.  I’m not sure exactly what is being asked, but if you would like me to contact [xxxx] on your behalf, I am unable.”

Do these people – or those writing the rules – have any personal and direct experience of implementing development projects?

I persist in advocating the only process that really works. This is where you facilitate local people to produce their own solutions to what they regard as their development problems.

Unfortunately, this does not fit in with the rationale of most “Aid experts” who dismiss the notion as heresy, or maybe I am just speaking an alien language?

Little wonder that many of us agree with Nate about ‘the trouble with Aid”. Good luck in your after-life!

John Lowrie

For the record, the title phrase will be readily understandable by folks familiar with Australian English. It refers to a boy trying to attract a girl’s attention by winking his eye at her, but his effort is to no avail as she cannot see him in the dark. He must switch the light on. It is an apt analogy in the aid and development business where donors and external development experts go about plying their missions, while leaving beneficiaries in the dark.