A few days ago, I found myself in a conversation with colleagues about the funding challenges faced by some of the partner organizations with which I have the privilege of working. Sometimes they are taken away from their purpose—work for peace in Colombia, for example, or strengthening local farmers in Haiti—by the need to conform to modes of funding determined by Northern partner organizations.
That’s one of the issues I have with what passes for development and the discourse surrounding it. And so I was disappointed by the four-part series on “innovative ways to deliver aid in our conflicted world” published by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper last week (detail below).
Build partner capacity to engage with government and other movements
While North-to-South transfers of wealth, technology and expertise in the form of official development assistance (ODA) are still necessary (especially in the face of emergencies like earthquakes, floods and droughts), I think that changes in policy focus by governments bring about faster and greater change that can benefit larger numbers of people.
The Colombian government’s annual defence spending has been equivalent to 5.3 per cent of the economy (between U.S.$11 and 12 billion) in recent years, says Colombia Reports. If the government had no insurgencies and no U.S-enforced “war on drugs,” then it could bring its defence spending at least in to line with most other Latin American countries—about 1.7 per cent of GDP—saving about $9 billion that could be used in programs to return four million internally-displaced people to their land, or health-care, education and housing.
So, much of the effort of the Canadian churches (among which I work) over the past decade has been to support partners in their efforts for peace with social justice. And in Haiti we work so that partners will be strengthened in their calls for stronger roles for government in agriculture, health care, education and social housing.
The Globe series: more debate needed
The first part of the Globe series featured a World Bank economist who, in a useful but technical way, criticized project evaluation procedures—imposed, I might add, by Northern funding agencies. Encouraging partners to develop objectives, the results of which can be measured, helps to develop effective plans, but should not become a mere exercise in filling out complex forms.
The second part (by George Roter, co-founder of Engineers Without Borders Canada) called for moves beyond project funding (like building wells) and into the building of institutions that can manage water systems within national development strategies.
The third part—Samantha Nutt’s careful warning to non-governmental organizations about alliances with mining companies—sparked lively debate that carried over into other media. Nutt is a founder of the NGO War Child and the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid.
The fourth part was the argument that poverty reduction depends on entrepreneurs, not aid: predictable in every way.
Some of the reaction to the series (in letters and in an online forum Jan. 26) was a bit throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater. In the forum, Roter erupted:
“I’m increasingly frustrated by the intellectually vacuous chorus of people saying that aid doesn’t work and we should stop aid, without much more of an argument behind it. There are clear cases when aid has been critical to saving lives and helping sow the seeds for transformation. And there are cases where it doesn’t work as it should.
“The same is the case for the universal health care system in Canada, but few reasonable people would argue that we should completely scrap publicly funded health care.”
We need more robust debate about development—and the Globe and Mail could offer more than just a four-part op-ed series. (I like the Guardian’s global development page.) And those of us in Northern countries should not be taken in by aid critics who just want to keep the world safe for mining companies and low-wage, maquila-style assembly plants.