PHOTO SOURCE: www.blog.foreignpolicy.org
It's been A VERY LONG TIME since we've posted anything on our blog. I could make a lot of excuses (and valid ones at that), but we have more important things to talk about. Like aid. The good news is that we're back.
In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof authors an op-ed article titled Getting Smart on Aid. He highlights the Greg Mortenson debacle as an example of whether or not we can trust aid to go to the right things. Kristof raises some good points about finding the small, but most impactful pathways to make aid dollars go far whether that's providing deworming meds to children or focusing on education initiatives that empower young girls to reduce their HIV exposure. But there is an important piece that he, and the donor community at large have missed.
Over the years we have listened to countless perspectives on the long-term impact of aid. Remember the hoopla a few years ago around economist Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid? Moyo argued that aid in the traditional sense has done little for Africa - that even after more than $1 trillion in aid, the plight of Africans has not improved by leaps and bounds.
Then there was focus on Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and how the outpouring of band-aid style aid did (and continues to do) very little when it comes to building up Haiti in a manner that allows the country to withstand political, economic and environmental challenges that seem to hit it left and right. Some would argue that reliance on massive volumes of foreign aid creates a culture of complacency among Haiti's political elite when it comes designing smart, effective, bold solutions that will bring Haiti's people out of poverty and improve the country's infrastructure.
And finally there is recent discussion about the billions of dollars in non-military aid to Pakistan, which is supposed to go to community building, health, infrastructure improvements etc. in exchange for cooperation in uncovering al-Qaeda and fighting terrorism. What has actually come of that aid? Pakistan is increasingly volatile, questions about the authenticity of cooperation from Pakistan's military and government in fighting terrorism are swirling, and little progress is actually seen in improving health, education, water access, sanitation, jobs, roads and other programs that the billions are supposed to be earmarked for.
So what do we do with aid? We certainly need aid, but in what form? Maybe it's not about checks signed and money delivered. It's also not about just setting conditions on aid, because donors assume the capacity exists to actually meet those conditions.
Maybe the more appropriate model is one where we focus first on figuring out an exit strategy from a community, and what defines success for aid - not just how many people we help or how many things we build, but what kind of impact we actually want to have. Then reverse engineer your aid strategy and include technical assistance, infrastructure development, training and advocacy, and a solid plan to ensure your initiative or program can stand the test of time if funding goes away. That's the more difficult stuff.
Having spent many years working on the frontlines of HIV/AIDS, I was furious to read about so many AIDS clinics closing up shop in Sub-Saharan Africa, because international funding for HIV programs was being cut. I wasn't furious at donors or governments, I was furious at us - those who worked in this space for so long. We've made progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but we never asked ourselves - what if we run out of money? What do we do? What are the consequences of not having a contingency plan? Well, for the most part there weren't contingency plans - there was an assumption that money would always be there. Now it's drying up and people who need tests, treatment and support are being turned away. It's devastating and it's a disservice.
The issues of aid, what works, what doesn't and why are all complex. I think Kristof, in his piece, and the aid community as a whole, probably need to call out the fact that getting smart on aid is not just about figuring out smarter ways to make a difference. It's also about aid recipients having a contingency plan for survival, and donors working really hard to figure out a responsible and realistic path to the exit sign.
What do think? How should aid strategy change in our lifetime? What are we missing? What can we do better?