Waylaid Dialectic

November 28, 2011

Magnets all the way up

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:07 am

Still recycling old posts while in the field…

Laying waste to the competition (except for Owen) Chris Blattman wins the award for this week’s most sensible post by a development economist on aid agency work:

The problem, however, might not be with USAID. USAID springs from Congress, a Congress that uses its charity as an instrument of foreign policy, has little belief in country ownership, and no real stake in actual development. Congress just might be getting the aid agency it deserves.

In 2006 I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Robert Chambers. He was gracious, humorous, and dynamic (I’d been tasked with taking some photos of him speaking – all I ended up with was a series of shots of this grey haired blur standing in front of a whiteboard; too fast and too animated for my poor old point-and-shoot camera.)

In the talk Chambers used the analogy of spinning magnets to explain the dynamics of trying to make aid agency staff think outside the box, or do things a little differently.

According to Chambers you might be able to get the agency staffer who you’re dealing with to spin (think freely) but the problem is that they report to someone higher up, and if they’re not also spinning polarity kicks in and the junior magnet will get pulled back into line. And of course the more senior staffer/magnet is held in line by his or her boss and so on up.

The message I took from this is that you really need to instill wholesale agency-wide change if you actually want to see any real difference. And you need to get agency heads to change their way of thinking if you want to see that occur.

Fair enough. But – I wondered as I watched – why was the top magnet the agency head? Why not the Minister (politician) in charge of the agency? Why not then the media who report on what the Minister does? and why not then the public? (Who are only dimly aware of the agency in most cases and who get their knowledge of its work via the media for the most part – so the whole magnetism thing starts to get rather fuzzy and quantum physics like.)

The point being that if you’ve ever wondered (despaired) why the government aid agency you partner with is the way it is, a lot of the answer stems from the dynamics of politics. Wonder why aid agencies are regimented and risk averse? Well that’s because there’s nothing their Minister hates more than a scandalous headline in the local paper about some or other aid project gone wrong. Ever wondered why aid agencies have onerous reporting requirements? That’s because of public finance laws. Ever wondered why aid is sometimes skewed by the home country self-interest? That’s because it’s much easier for a vested interest to get the ear of a Minister than it is for an aid recipient.

This isn’t to say aid agencies should never be criticised. Or that they can’t be better or worse. Or to absolve them of every freakin’ form you ever had to fill out. But just to point out that the obvious answer to the question – why are aid agencies the way they are? – is politics.


1 Comment

  1. Please see my ruminations after re-entering a large aid agency last week after five years in philanthropy and working directly with local NGOs. Often times, it’s as if aid workers are fighting while propagating the very organizations in which they serve. See: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/11/26/hallowed-halls-or-ghost-towns/

    Comment by How Matters — November 28, 2011 @ 10:47 am

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