Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 1

There is often something immediately crass and altogether guileless in how the United States conducts international development activities. This is true of both the way agencies and branches of government attempt to give aid or engage in so-called ‘nation building’, how private organizations give aid moneys and in the candor of idealistic young people involved in development. Most importantly, the penultimate failing of aid and aid workers today is that they largely fail to meet the needs of the communities that they purport to serve.

The underlying problems seem to be that policy seem to fall into the following categories: (1) developed to meet some form of macro-derived foreign policy aim based on an a priori set of criteria and as a result is non-responsive to human outcomes, (2) agencies and/or individuals simply hurling money at problem regions, frequently driven by (3) celebrities or other individuals trying to experience messianic self-edification via international development.

In each of these cases, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s sufficiently silly comic quasi-roman a clef, The Ugly American appears to be the most appropriate comment upon US practice. Indeed, it is this tendency, a combination of willful cultural ignorance, a specifically American sense of wanting to be part of the “save the world” set and the notion that simply throwing money at a problem will solve it that exemplify the content of The Ugly American and render development patterns meaningless. In this essay I will deal with all 3 of these tendencies as a separate post.

(1) From a policy perspective, a couple of examples from my own experience spring immediately to mind. The first involved a State Department briefing being put on by a DC Think Tank regarding a new policy being jointly advanced by the State Department and Department of Defense at the height of the Iraq War. In those heady days of 2006, the government had finally realized that something wasn’t working and were finally willing to take a gamble on something else. As a result the Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs seemed to be one way.

PRTs had been in use for the last couple of years in Afghanistan and would factor heavily upon Bush's ‘new way foreword’ for Iraq, which later became ‘the surge’. The idea behind the PRTs is that they would be small, well-equipped teams designed to deal on a province-by-province basis with various reconstruction problems. The panel I attended was made up of the State Department official heading up the PRT program in Iraq (and who, like every state department official I met in Washington was a very blonde lady with a Virginia accent), an NCO who ran a PRT in Afghanistan (also a blonde lady with a southern accent) and filling in for a the scheduled DOD panelist, a think tanker who had studied PRTs (a blonde man with a Virginia Accent). So this quasi-Aryan super-panel was going to solve Iraq’s problems once and for all with a new, more culturally sensitive approach. I was skeptical, but nothing could have prepared me for what followed.

The PRT lecture itself was ludicrous in that, despite receiving very detailed information on the inter-agency nature of the PRTs, exact, to the penny, cost-accounting as to how the PRTs were to be funded by percentages by the different agencies, and what sort of state department employee made good PRT material; no one actually said what the PRTs specifically would do. The State Department lady seemingly joked about how they certainly hope to equip at least half the teams with an Arabic speaker in each of these 60 person or so teams, but noted that this goal wasn’t really ‘realistic’. She also stated that actually including Arabic speakers should not necessarily be a priority - which seemed a somewhat counter-intuitive to put it lightly, as the PRTs would be dealing one-on-one with Iraqi civilians in helping them rebuild the country. Actual communication or dialogue with Iraqis however seemed less important than the lofty goal of ‘fixing’ Iraq. Actually asking people what they wanted or needed is apparently not part of the State Department’s standard operating procedure.

What should have been the nadir of the presentation came when someone got up and asked something to the effect of:

"Well, we know these PRTs are going to be flexible, but can you give us some examples of what it is they do exactly in Afghanistan?"

Fair question one would think, however all of the panelists were hard pressed to say. Eventually, the state department lady decided she would give the question a go, noting: "We are teaching them proper professionalism. This means teaching Afghans that it’s unacceptable to wear sandals to work and things like that." At this point my already dropped jaw came unhinged. One would think that perhaps the Afghan sense of ‘business casual’ was not the pre-eminent problem facing that troubled state. Things went on to get slightly worse when, while discussing the possibility of political assassination of foreign leaders, which would "have drastic and harmful geopolitical consequences for the United States"; the state department lady had trouble controlling her very visible giggling.

A second anecdote that springs to mind involves the activities of USAID in Niger. USAID is a government run food aid organization that delivers surplus agricultural product to places in the world with food shortages. While this is an important and useful practice, the protocols under which USAID operates have severely hindered its ability to successfully combat starvation. Specifically, USAID will only issue food aid in cases that a child can be diagnosed with the medical condition starvation. This means the full distended stomach and everything else.

The problem with this procedure is that, once someone can be diagnosed with starvation, because the body has gone so long since having food, it stops to manufacture the enzymes needed to break down foods. What this means is that, if a person begins to eat again, they will likely die of stomach infection from being unable to handle the micro-organisms that live in everything we eat. Starvation requires hospitalization, careful monitoring and medications to jump start the system once again. As a result, rather than simply triggering kids who were just very hungry and could have benefited from the food aid, USAID instituted a policy that simply put lives at risk.

Additionally, the food aid itself was a corn meal mixed with sugar – something not part of the typical Nigerien diet. As a result, people did not know how to prepare this corn meal and found it distasteful. I remember being fed a large plate of it while serving as a PCV in my village in Southern Niger by my neighbors when they had me to dinner. They believed, as a westerner, I would like the stuff. Remember again, this was food aid issued to them by USAID in order to help prevent starving children from dying. It was a combination of poor policy, an unwillingness to tie food aid to education or culturally appropriate protocols and realities that saw it being fed to me.

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