One good thing about being a student is that it gives you a — very small — taste of development insignificance. When you work for an aid donor, let’s face it, your chequebook and your government afford you at least a little prominence in developing countries. As a student, if you’re lucky, when you wander into a government department, you might be able to drop the name of a friend of a friend, otherwise you are more or less on your own. You’re a privileged oddity, of course, which means, sadly, that you’ve still got a better chance of being aided than a local (although the flip side is that you likely don’t have any local knowledge of how things really work), but nevertheless — thanks to your lack of import — you still get a somewhat more accurate user’s perspective of how government departments function or don’t.
My student level experiences have been far from universally bad — across a range of government entities some very kind and capable people helped me out (thank you!), but there have also been government departments that I interacted with which were pretty awful.
In one department I was hit up for a bribe. A friend of mine had a similar experience except this time the guy doing the hitting was also drunk (mid-morning). It wasn’t just the outsiders who had problems either, a local friend was enduring endless delays courtesy of the same department.
When I told another expat friend about this he sighed sadly and said something along the lines of “oh man, but they’ve just put a whole heap of aid funded TA and capacity building work into that department.”
No doubt the TA and capacity building was much appreciated but the real problems in that particular department had little to do with staff capacity. And this is where I think a lot of aid work gets bureaucratic strengthening wrong. Too often we misdiagnose the afflictions of government departments. Sometimes it really is staff capacity, but often it’s broken incentives cascading down from the political realm or unhelpful norms. And all the TA and training in the world probably won’t be much use in treating these problems.
I discuss all this in more detail in this new blog post for the Development Policy Centre.