29 April 2011

Aid Myths Expanded

John Norris of the Center for American Progress writes the five myths about foreign aid in the Washington Post. Here is a listing of a the five; if you go to the original article you can read his explanations.
1. Republicans hate foreign aid.
2. Foreign aid is a budget buster.
3. We give aid so countries will do as we say.
4. Foreign governments waste the aid we give them.
5. No one ever graduates from U.S. foreign aid.
I would like to add a few more with brief explanations as to why I have included them. The comments section is free for debate, tweaks and further suggestions.

6. Overheads are an effective way of evaluating an organization

I have written a long-ish post on this subject. In short, I argue that it is the end result which should carry more weight. Apple is evaluated for the quality of the product, not for how much it costs to research and produce it. Overheads should not be entirely ignored, but they are a weak indicator when taken alone in the evaluation of an organization.

7. Aid has been a resounding success/failure.

The answer is in the middle. Even some of the most bullish adherents to either of the phrases admit that there are instances where aid has failed and succeeded. Aid has done good. Of anyone, Owen Barder has done the best job explaining that aid has in fact worked without being a blind cheerleader or a complete cynic. Anyone who claims either of the two polls is overstating his or her case.

8. Good intentions make bad aid permissible.

Ben Harper sings, "Cause there's good deeds and there is good intention, / They're as far apart as heaven and hell" in his song Ground On Down. OK, that is a bit over dramatic, but cut him some slack since it is a lyric. Regardless, the point is to highlight that good deeds and good intentions might not alight from time to time. Because someone has the best of intentions does not mean that s/he deserves a free pass from criticism. They also should not be torn to shreds either. The recent allegations against Greg Mortenson and the gift in kind debates are good illustrations of the problems with seeing only good intentions while ignoring the impact on the ground.

9. The world's poor are unable to help themselves.

This might seem obvious, but ideas still do start from the point of view that we (meaning the program implementers) are the only ones capable of lifting the poor out of poverty. We certainly do have a part to play in supporting development, but it is problematic to assume that it is something that only we can do. This line of thinking creates a paradigm of a helper and the helpless which creates a position of power over others rather than seeing them as partners.

10. Those in the field/academia are out of touch with what is 'really happening' and the solutions that are needed.

Much like number 7, this is something which people like to hold onto on either extreme. One of my favorite comments that I see time and time again is something like "I am actually doing something here in the field and you are doing nothing in your cushy tower." That variation pops up a lot and has even been leveled against people who have significant field experience. The other side of the coin will say that the solutions have been found at it is incompetent workers who are mucking it all up. Both are wrong and this is a big problem. We need some distance to look at what is being effective. At the same time, we need people implementing programs and providing the feedback to say what is feasible. Both have to work together and neither has it completely right.

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I will stop at 10 to keep it nice and round. There are many more to add to this list and I am hoping that you will contribute.

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