Waylaid Dialectic

April 25, 2011

Aid and Corruption

Filed under: Aid,Governance — terence @ 9:24 am
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A couple of posts ago I wrote:

In the case of government donors additional problems include:

1. The fact that aid takes place overseas, which provides politicians plenty of leeway to do things such as give aid in a way that benefits powerful constituents of their own.

Over at the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog, a must read post by Mark Weisbrot, highlights the fact that it’s not just politicians who take advantage of this leeway.

[L]ast December…Lewis Lucke, a long-time US Agency for International Development (USAID) official turned influence-peddler, sued a consortium of firms operating in Haiti for $492,000, for breach of contract. As Lucke would have it (sorry!), he was promised $30,000 a month, plus incentives, to use his influence to secure contracts for these nice fellas. He got them $20m worth of contracts, but they cut him off after two months. The defendants in the case are Ashbritt, a US contractor with a questionable track record, and the GB Group, one of the largest Haitian conglomerates. Together, they formed the Haiti Recovery Group, which they incorporated in the Cayman Islands, to bid on reconstruction contracts.

Lucke was well-positioned for the job, having formerly been in charge of the multibillion dollar reconstruction effort in Haiti for the US government. (He was also previously the USAID Iraq mission director; we know how that reconstruction turned out.)

Politicians here are quick to blame the Haitians for the lack of progress since the earthquake, and corruption is often assumed to be exclusively a Haitian problem. But it is clear that some of it comes from outside. Maybe a lot.

For example, influence-peddling might help to explain why not a single US government contract for Haiti’s reconstruction in the last five months has gone to a Haitian company. In fact, out of $194m awarded since the earthquake, just $4.8m, or 2.5% of the total, has gone to Haitian companies. USAID has given out $33.5m, none of which has gone to a Haitian company; some 92% of USAID’s contracts have gone to Beltway (Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia) contractors. Now, isn’t that a geographical oddity? About 15.5% of contracts in January 2010 were “no bid”, which presumably could be justified because of the urgency; however, this proportion has increased to 42.5% over the last five months.

Since writing my previous post I’ve been pondering structure and agency in the world of aid. In that post I argued that a lot of aid’s problems were structural issues, and had nothing to do with the moral failings of Irish pop stars or NGO staffers. I argued, for example, that ‘poverty porn’ exists because it works (increases donations) and that it works because of the limited extent to which most people who donate to NGOs think about or understand development. I also argued that corrupt aid giving by government donors takes place because the impacts of aid are felt in other countries, and aren’t well understood, which affords actors in donor countries space to behave unethically.

I still stand by these points, but it is worth noting that not all NGOs resort to ‘poverty porn’ and not all former USAID staffers become aid brokers. Structure matters: the structural problems of US politics go a long way to explaining why US Aid is worse than Swedish aid, for example. But even within these structures people and entities do get to make choices, up to a point.

Which is another way of saying my previous post was all about trying to understand the hurdles that prevent us from giving better aid. It definitely wasn’t about exculpating people like Mr Lucke.

January 2, 2011

The Penn Effect

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:49 am
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Meanwhile, at Tales From the Hood J. tries to come to terms with Sean Penn. In the process penning (sorry, the pun was unavoidable) what ought to be known as the four styalised facts of aid:

  • Aid is harder, more complicated, and more expensive than you think.
  • It takes specific knowledge and skills to get it right.
  • There are no magik bullets, there are no fast solutions.
  • Many, many factors, utterly beyond the control of aid workers or aid agencies impinge on the success or failure of an overall aid effort.

To which I’d add.

  1. Like almost every other worthwhile undertaking from love to science, aid is a human endeavour, meaning that – just like everything else we do – we don’t do it perfectly. Human failings intrude. We make mistakes. We learn. We try to do it better. We still make mistakes.

And yet, despite all this – despite the difficulty and costs, despite the absence of magic bullets, despite the fact that there are simply some things that aid can’t do, and despite the fact that we sometimes stuff up spectacularly – when it’s done well, and well-intentioned, aid can work.

It’s a pity that reality isn’t less ambiguous than this. If it was, we wouldn’t have quite to deal with quite so much Celebrity Saviour Syndrome. Nor would it be quite so easy for the ideologically motivated Dambasa Moyos of the world to weave together mendacious ‘critiques’ of the ‘aid industry’. And, most importantly, the problem of global poverty would have long ago been addressed.

But that’s not the world we live in and so, for now, aid remains an imperfect and only partial solution to some of the problems our planet faces. But that’s still reason enough to support it.  And to be supportive of doing it better too.

October 6, 2010

Meanwhile in an example of evil at work…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 4:39 pm
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From Think Progress:

Last spring, the United States pledged nearly $1.2 billion in emergency aid to Haiti following its tragic earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and many more homeless.

Yet the Associated Press (AP) reports today that “not a cent of the $1.15 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding has arrived” to Haitians who badly the need the aid. This summer, both the House and the Senate passed a bill that would make $917 million available for Haiti reconstruction aid. Yet Congress must also pass an authorization bill that directs exactly how the money will be spent, and thus far, the U.S. Senate has failed to do.

The AP conducted its own investigation of why the Senate has failed to pass the authorization bill, and it discovered that a single senator “pulled it for further study.” After calling dozens of senators’ offices, the AP discovered that the senator holding up the bill is Tom Coburn (R-OK). Coburn spokeswoman Becky Berhardt explained that the reason he is holding up the bill is because he objects to the creation of a senior Haiti coordinator — a position that would cost a paltry $5 million over five years — when the United States currently has an ambassador to the country…While Coburn continues to hold up much-needed reconstruction aid over a relatively meaningless objection, “just 2 percent of [Haiti’s earthquake] rubble has been cleared and 13,000 temporary shelters have been built – less than 10 percent of the number planned.” There are estimated to be 1.3 million Haitians still homeless as a result of the earthquake.

Lost. For. Words.

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