Incompetent British Aid Agency Overwhelmed By Too Much Money

foreign aid

One of the only good things, perhaps the only good thing, that came out of Andrew Mitchell’s tenure as Britain’s aid minister was the establishment of a body called the Independent Commission for Aid Impact or ICAI. Its task is to scrutinize the UK government’s aid spending for its “impact” and “value for money”.

Setting ICAI up looked like a clever PR gambit by a Coalition determined to increase the aid budget even as it cut spending on defence, the foreign office, prisons and other vital institutions — especially given that the Department for International Development (DfID) had just been savaged by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee for financial mismanagement, vulnerability to theft and corruption, and for what the Committee’s Chairman, Margaret Hodge, called an “appalling waste” of public money.

Accordingly, many aid sceptics, myself included, doubted that ICAI would have much impact itself. After all, it’s a tiny organization largely dependent on outside consultants to carry out its assessments of DfID’s work. All too often these consultants are likely to be DfID contractors themselves.

However, the four commissioners are serious people (their number includes the Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner, John Githongo, whose persecution in Nairobi and flight to London was described by Michela Wrong in her fascinating book “It’s Our Turn to Eat”) and are doing a remarkable job given the resources available to them. They have turned an uncomfortably bright spotlight on the reality behind DfID’s press releases, and their latest report suggests that the department is no better today than it has ever been – only with more money at stake.

As you might guess from its title “Assessing the Impact of the Scale-Up of DfID’s Support to Fragile States” this latest ICAI report favours the management jargon beloved of both government and the aid business. But as you trudge through the wordy fog of its 75 pages, it is clear that the Commissioners are not impressed by many aspects of DfID’s efforts to make use of its increased budget.

The report specifically deals with what is supposed to be a government-mandated shift of the UK’s ODA (Official Development Assistance) over to “fragile and conflict-affected states.”

30 percent of the £12 billion this country spends on foreign aid will now go to these countries, all of which already receive considerable aid from the UK.

The ICAR report focuses on 6 countries which are considered “fragile states”: Pakistan, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Somalia/Somaliland and Democratic Republic of Congo. (The latter two were actually visited by the commissioners; the others were the subject of “desk reports”).

Other “fragile states” that are supposed to benefit from “scaled up” UKAid include Indonesia, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the Palestinian territories (per person, the most aided place on Earth), oil-rich Nigeria as well as more obvious candidates like Afghanistan and Malawi.

In plain English the purpose of the ICAI report was to evaluate whether DfID has made good use of all its extra cash and if its efforts are likely to make a significant difference to the future of “fragile states”. ICAI’s overall rating of the way that DfID has dealt with this “scaling up” is graded “amber-red” which means that “The programme performs relatively poorly overall against ICAI’s criteria for effectiveness and value for money.”

On one level it makes sense to send aid to “fragile states.” They are by definition the ones most likely to devolve into failed states and therefore become a security threat and a source of refugees.

The Cameron government has, notoriously, tried to market its lavish increase in aid spending by claiming that foreign aid is the answer to excess immigration and terrorism. It has also been embarrassed by media stories about aid to rich countries like India and China, so the shift was essential for public relations reasons.

But “fragile states” are also those where aid delivery is the most difficult, and where aid is most likely to be wasted, misused or stolen.

This ought to be fairly obvious. After all, in many fragile states – let alone in a failed state like Somalia — DfID workers can’t even travel to the areas they want to help, let alone monitor programme results or keep a close eye on local officials and NGO staff who have been entrusted with British taxpayer money.

You would hope that the inherent difficulty and riskiness of delivering and monitoring aid efforts in radically dysfunctional states would be something that Aid officials and experts are all too aware of.

You would also hope that they would be frank about this conundrum and long ago have come up with effective ways to confront those increased risks and almost insurmountable challenges. But as this report makes painfully clear, you would be wrong.

For a start, DfID’s apparachiks both at home and abroad seem to have assumed that simply spending more money would magically make any such difficulties disappear. As the report puts it:

The targeted volume of expenditure and the planned pace of the increases was out of step with the capacity of DFID, its partners and, most importantly, the countries themselves to deliver. It has taken DFID four years for scale-up to start to deliver impact. Transformative impact in fragile states will take a generation to achieve and is dependent upon development of in-country state capacity. This was insufficiently recognised at the start of scaling up, where increased funding was directly linked to assumed greater impact.

DfID’s failure to make good use of the cash being thrown at it by the Cameron government isn’t at all surprising. And the failure is not simply the problem of a department lacking sufficient staff to deal with a torrent of money.

Although it takes a lot of euphemistic verbiage to say so, ICAI clearly believes that arrogance, incompetence and a lack of honesty have played a big role in DfID’s failure.

First the arrogance:

It was not clear to us that DFID takes sufficient account of the views of community beneficiaries when designing programmes. We believe that this is particularly important in fragile states, as beneficiaries may have very different ideas about what they expect the state to deliver.

In other words, DfID’s staff display that Aid Industry reflex of assuming they know just what the locals really need, a tendency that harks back to the missionaries and imperialists of the 19th century, and which irritates the hell out of aid’s purported beneficiaries.

Then there’s the incompetence.

You can get a sense of it from this passage:

In DRC Police Reform, for example, the original design of the programme revealed limited understanding of how police institutions operate in a French/Belgian model; and a key term – accountability – had no direct French translation and meant little to Congolese stakeholders. In DRC, DFID is now seeking to ensure that staff have some proficiency in French and provides intensive language training before staff arrive in-country.

As for dishonesty – again an institutional problem throughout an aid industry that is too often more concerned with marketing than actual results – the ICAI report more than hints at the way it hinders effectiveness:

The levels of achievement to date have been modest… There are good reasons for these lower levels of achievement in fragile contexts but there needs to be openness and realism about the long-term nature of the effort required to reduce fragility.

But much of DfID’s failure to do much good with its extra money comes down to that willful naivety about “fragile states” (and third world governance in general) that characterizes so much of the Aid Industry. As the ICAI report blandly puts it: “Some of DFID’s programmes in fragile states appear to assume that the government is an active and collaborative partner and that a key objective of development programming is to build its capacity.”

In other words, these idiots haven’t yet registered that they are dealing with regimes, states and officials that aren’t in the business of good government, that aren’t motivated to do the best for the people they nominally serve, and are much, much more interested in predation on behalf of themselves, their families and their particular ethnic or tribal group.

Where DfID’s teams haven’t registered this, it is partly because they are engaged in business as usual, or as ICAI puts it, using conventional methods appropriate for normal or less fragile states. But it is also because almost everyone who works for the department is terrified of being “judgmental” about third world societies.

And that brings you to the nub of the problem, and the fundamental reason why DfID has found it so difficult to recognize that:

  1. the places where aid seems to be most needed are the same places where it is least likely to work and most likely to be misused, stolen or wasted; and
  2. many of the governments and organizations to whom DfID likes to give money have already proved they are useless or malevolent when it comes to making use of foreign money, and
  3. giving them yet more money is a monstrously wasteful and selfish fool’s errand – unless you have some effective means of supervising or even controlling their operations, something which is all but impossible outside a quasi-imperial framework.

The reason is that DfID staff, like so many people in Big Aid, are wearing ideological blinders. They have to keep on giving money to governments that are ravaging their own societies, and they have to pretend that local officials are akin to our own, rather than bandits and exploiters.

Otherwise they would have to surrender their core conviction that “fragile” (i.e. chaotic, corrupt, impoverished and dysfunctional) states are that way not through the fault of their own governments and elites, but only because of a lack of money, resources or technology, and/or because evil foreigners have wrecked them.

That’s not going to happen soon, and it’s why the UK’s bloated aid effort will continue to be wasteful, inefficient and a kick in the teeth for the British taxpayer.

Jonathan Foreman is the author of Aiding and Abetting – Foreign Aid Failure and the 7% Deception.


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