Small talk is the only way

14 Jun

International aid is overwhelming. It’s just so… big.

There are all those big countries – Africa, Asia – which look even bigger compared with the little Northern Irish golf-course town of Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, where the G8 summit will take place next week.

There are all those big-word problems – starvation, malnutrition, disease.

And there are the big, big, BIG issues in the way of solving them – the big costs, the big local power-wielders and the big C – corruption – that is stopping that aid from taking effect.

When the G8 summit meets next week, it will be looking at the big picture. But at the same time, international governments and, in particular, the aid agencies campaigning around those big issues, need to be able to take a step back and focus on the small – small communities, small projects, small incentives and – perhaps controversially – small counter-incentives too.

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

This was the message from the Overseas Development Institute, which released its Unblocking Results report last week.

Unusually, the report looked at how international aid agencies can actually help tackle poor management and corruption, rather than focusing on the obstacles they create.

It took several success stories as its starting point from Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda, covering development projects in water provision, health, pay and attendance and government policy. Details are on the ODI website, where you can also watch the Q&A and talks that went alongside the data release. The crucial link between their success was that they were all local.

And the main message was: don’t go blundering in.

A lot of aid agencies,  from Farm Africa‘s smallholder plot builds to Send a Cow (no prizes for guessing what they do), already do this “small, local” stuff.

But the crux is that these projects need to be sustainable in the long-term – and not just so they carry on when the agencies move out.

It goes for the planning too. Local people understand the benefits these projects will bring to their community. When they are involved in building the projects themselves, they have more of a stake in the whole process. It’s part of establishing business and control. And in an environment where ‘land-grabbing’ by big foreign investors is rife and destructive, it is especially important to make village farmers are part of the economy as well.

But, as the report pointed out, that there’s still the tendency for ‘external actors’ to try and give advice to local people or administrators. Not only does this come across as patronising; external actors often don’t know what’s best because, on their own, they don’t understand the cultural background that can be specific to a certain village. A health worker programme in Sierra Leone, for example, worked particularly well because it had local officials directly providing specific services, goods and improvements. But it wasn’t only that – the officials were also involved in the programme from the start. The aid agency came in almost at their request – and they were given the task of carrying it through, ensuring concrete results came out of it, and keeping it permanent.

By contrast, a budget support programme, also in Sierra Leone, was mostly built by an external aid agency, which designed the ways of punishing corruption or indiscretion among officials. That programme dealt with the direct problems it was faced with when it was set up. It isn’t proving nearly as successful as tackling new problems.

Of course, there’s always that Catch-22 question of how far you have to work with corrupt officials to get results.

But, as emerged when I spoke to Heidi Tavakoli, research fellow from the centre for aid and public expenditure, the “can’t beat ’em so join ’em” maxim can be very effective and tackle the corruption too.

Discussing “non-financial incentives”, she described how, in parts Africa, poorly-performing officials are ridiculed at large, well-attended, official meetings. A bit unorthodox in the West – but, she said, it proved highly effective in very reputation-based societies.

Again, this comes down to the small talk. Reputations, local solutions – but (like one of those official name ‘n’ shame meetings) placed in wider forums for review so that projects don’t stagnate. So one eye is always on results.

Aid Agencies also need to take the G8 as a call to review their own policies. Every aid agency needs to focus on establishing solid roots in local communities so they can identify opportunities when they come up, rather than trying to force a pre-set agenda. This is how they will make a lasting impact – even if both ends and means have to be reviewed in the process.

The money is needed, certainly, and hopefully the County Fermanagh summit will provide.

But this is also the time to make sure that money works.

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