Expat Assignments Abroad – Hard Truths About the International Aid Industry

By C. Davies in The Expat daily News

International aid is big business. Over 500,000 people are employed in it, many of them on expat contracts. Aid is a multi-million dollar industry in fact. The country where I live is more or less run by aid, over 50% of the government’s budget comes from donations, grants and loans.

When I was younger and contemplating an expat life I could think of nothing better than to be bumping along rough roads in a developing country, in my slightly scruffy linen clothes, visiting villages, listening wisely to local elders, and handing out food or advice. I fondly imagined sending home photos of me surrounded by beaming poor people, grateful for my help, and knew that I could use my skills to right the wrongs of my country’s colonial past. Naive, foolish and offensive, I know, but that was the image I developed based on the information available to me at the time.

I am a bit more cynical now!

Extended exposure to the aid industry in this country has shown me that it’s not the altruistic thing that I had thought. The main problem with aid is that it is not accountable. Business is required to set targets and report on success or failure to hit those targets. Repeated failure, mis-spending and lack of control are punished by dismissal, or collapse of the company. Lessons are learned from failure. Aid does not work like that. In fact, failure often leads to manipulated reporting to demonstrate success and good money being poured after bad.

Of course not all aid is bad, one only has to look at Haiti to see the amazing work that is being done in response to that disaster, and I have the utmost respect for the doctors and others working in appalling conditions to save lives. But it is quite likely that when disaster relief ends and reconstruction begins, so will the problems. Of course aid also has a role to play in rebuilding infrastructure that poor country governments cannot afford to invest in, but surely it also has a role to play in monitoring the quality and relevance of what is built?

I expect that you give money to charity, most adults in the West do. But what do you know about where that money really goes? What do you know about the, probably huge, sums that your country’s government spends in aid? These are questions we should all ask. After all we are part of the mass of humanity that urges politicians to cancel third world debt and “do something” about poverty. So we have the right to know where the money we want to see spent is going, and why this massive spend is apparently not working.

Here’s a hint. In many developing countries those responsible for administering aid earn salaries many thousands of times those of their local counterparts, they live in plush houses, drive luxurious vehicles and rarely get out into the field to see where your money is being spent. In fact, before your money has even got into the country a large proportion of it may have been spent on supporting the administrative arm of the relevant organisation in your own country. Aid agencies will argue that it is important to provide good conditions in order to hire the best people, and that home country administration and fund-raising is vital. But it’s a question of percentages, many agencies spend more than 20% of what is donated on looking after themselves!

The new concept in bilateral (i.e., country to country) aid is “direct budget support.” This means that large chunks of aid are given over directly to the local government for it to spend as it sees fit. A blind eye is often turned to misappropriation or mismanagement of funds, because the local government is ‘still learning!’

Where aid is directed through projects or programmes it may be invested directly in infrastructure for example, but often the amount allocated and the cost of doing the project well are not the same; so roads are built to lower specification, or not completed, hospitals are built in places where politics demands, not where the need is – and so on. There is a culture of arrogant blamelessness and a lack of introspection in the aid industry. These problems are not reported as failures so it is difficult for us, as the people giving the money, to see what has gone wrong, and by not acknowledging what has gone wrong and learning from it, the aid industry continues to pour our good money after the bad it has already wasted, always with an eye to keeping its people employed, and its budgets renewed or increased.

My cynicism has led me to move into the business sector, there at least I can see exactly what is happening with the money and the benefits we can achieve by creating jobs, training people and investing directly in them. Of course the aid issue is not as black and white as I am making out, but anyone wanting to understand more should get hold of a copy of Dambisa Moyo’s excellent book “Dead Aid” which puts forward the arguments for reforming the way we give. In the mean time, I don’t say you should stop giving, but I do say that you should ask for more information about where your money is going, so you can make an informed decision.


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