Waylaid Dialectic

November 14, 2011

3 Roles for Aid

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:02 am

Still recycling old posts – this one from not too long ago on this blog; recycled because I think the distinction made is a useful one…

There are effectively three types of aid (excluding disaster relief), each with it’s own different type of success.

1. Development aid. In this, aid is a somewhat effective tool for sustainably transforming countries. For shifting them from a sub-optimal state to a better one. This is the aid of Jeffrey Sachs books and development agency rhetoric. This is the ideal.

2. Band-aid aid. This is aid that makes no pretence at changing societies. It’s simply about improving people’s welfare in the absence of systematic change. This is the sort of aid that might ensure that people get basic health care over many years, even as their country stays poor. I don’t use the term band-aid pejoratively here: if you’re bleeding, a band-aid helps. And, even if you never significantly change the development trajectory of a country, if you help its people, by reducing the number who die from disease or who are crippled by it, then you’re likely making the world a better, happier place.The improvements generated by this aid aren’t usually sustainable in the sense that they stop when the aid stops (although, arguably vaccinations fall into this category and their impacts can be sustainable.)

3. Keeping it together aid. This is aid which aims higher than band-aid aid, but which doesn’t pretend to be transforming anything. This is aid which tries to keep states together and functioning even if it’s not transforming them. It’s aid that works in the short term (when it works) and which may have a long term impact, not through developing anything but through providing at least a little bit of space for development to occur indigenously.

Imagine a person seconded from Inland Revenue in New Zealand to the tax department of a Pacific Island government. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that she’s not aspiring to build the capacity of her replacement. Rather she’s just tasked with getting the tax system working somewhat. She does it for 10 years, and her (New Zealander) replacement does it for 10 years and his replacement does it for 10 years. That’s 30 years in which life has been just that little bit easier for local businesses and when just a little bit more money has made it from domestic tax returns to the ministry of health and out to medical clinics. And over that time the growth of businesses has changed the economy, and with it the political economy. And ongoing provision of services has changed people’s expectations. (As well as increased their education levels and the like).

Like I said, it’s the first type of aid that most aid agencies and politicians talk about. This is also aid that rarely, I think, succeeds on its own terms. It turns out that development is too complicated, aid too cumbersome, and the ability of external agents to effect change too weak, for this type of aid to succeed often. Not often isn’t the same as never – it probably sometimes works. But success is less common than one would think from the rhetoric of aid. And I think we kid ourselves much of the time regarding the potential for type 1 aid to work, and end up wasting money.

I’m a big fan of the second type of aid. This, I think, can work — and it’s probably where aid has had its most major success in improving welfare. The main argument against it is that you have to give it in perpetuity, or at least for a long time. But, hey that’s what we do with our own welfare state. No one in New Zealand says “we’re funding a health service now so that one day we won’t have to have one”. I’m comfortable with aid as a global social safety net, as part of a global social contact of sorts.

I’ve never really thought about the third type of aid but, if we were being honest with ourselves, I’d say that much of our ‘capacity-building governance-strengthening’ aid, when it works at all, works — while it works — in this way. It holds things together. And by doing this probably improves people’s quality of life and enhances the space in which development can occur.

Success in aid type 1 would be ideal but success in aid types 2 and 3 does still help. And I think we’d be a lot more successful in aid across the board if we were much clearer, and realistic, in what we were trying to achieve.

Better, I think, in most instances, to concentrate on type 2 aid, and use the modalities most likely to make it effective. And maybe devote more time and thought to type 3 aid too.

Most of all though we need to be realistic. ‘Perfect,’ as the old saying has it, is often the enemy of ‘good’. Likewise, in development the ideal is understandably tempting, but it’s also too-often the enemy of at least getting something done.


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