Your Cynicism is Not Helpful – We Have to Play the Long Game to Impact Poverty

Development assistance has become so political. It can sometimes be difficult to understand why when the main point of aid is to help people; to provide access to good health care, quality education and public safety, to name the most critical. But lately there is so much cynicism around development assistance because it is so difficult to clearly see where it ends up, dollar for dollar. Indeed some ends up in the pockets of politicians and private contractors, but if that were a rule rather than an exception, the business of development assistance would have dried up long ago. The problem is that there are unreasonable expectations that development assistance will translate into tangible benefits in the immediate to short term. And this creates an on-going (and in my opinion unhelpful) debate about whether development aid should be channeled through government or go directly to those most in need in the community.

I have previously argued here that the most efficient use of development aid – and the most impactful when it comes to government services and a need for sustainable change – is to channel it through government. Governments are the only institutions that will accomodate the need to scale up results over time. The problem is that the countries that have the most need of aid generally also have the weakest governments. Poverty becomes a vicious cycle – when the government does not have the capacity to drive econmic development and create jobs, there is very little tax base from which to collect from to improve health care, education and public safety services, so governments focus on what they CAN do, which is, at the very least, pay public servant salaries (and even that is not always possible and requires donor budget support).

This is why development assistance that is channeled through government necessistates accompanying capacity development – not just capacity building through the writing of polices and regulations and a few trainings, but the full deal – focussing on institutions and systems, not just individuals, to deliver services better (read more here). So it was therefore very disheartening to read Angus Deaton’s recent article ‘Aid for Poor Nations Can Hurt Them’ (here) in which he argues, quite cynically, that ‘Unfortunately, the rich countries are making things worse. Foreign aid — transfers from rich countries to poor countries — has much to its credit, particularly in terms of health care, with many people alive today who would otherwise be dead. But foreign aid also undermines the development of local state capacity. This is most obvious in countries — mostly in Africa — where the government receives aid directly and aid flows are large relative to fiscal expenditure (often more than half the total). Such governments need no contract with their citizens, no parliament and no tax-collection system. If they are accountable to anyone, it is to the donors; but even this fails in practice, because the donors, under pressure from their own citizens (who rightly want to help the poor), need to disburse money just as much as poor-country governments need to receive it, if not more so.’

Oh, certainly there are those that use the system to their own ends, but to say that governments need no contract with their citizens and that donors are only interested in disbursing money and not in ensuring that money is doing the job that it is supposed to do is an insult to the sector – to the people in government who genuinely work for change and poverty reduction, to the active civil society groups working tirelessly to support change and hold governments accountable, and the donors providing the funds and support for capacity development and poverty reduction.

The problem here is that too long in the aid sector can make one cynical – one too many bad experiences begins to colour one’s opinions and undermines the ability to see the big picture and remember that it is a long game, with ups and downs, inherently involving bad people but far more well-intentioned people, and shifting landscapes in the faceof new challenges such as an integrated global economy and climate change.

The main point being made here is not to discount development assistance or the governments that receive it. Sustainable change takes a really long time. Working through government, together with the support of civil society, is the best option. The world is facing immense challenges; facing them head on with hope and a positive attitude is our only option.

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