The London Review of Books this week has a very interesting article devoted to the impact of foreign aid in Afghanistan. Money as Weapon by Christopher de Bellaigue reinforces all my stereotypical prejudices against foreign aid. It is well worth reading. (Please note only subscribers can read the full article).
It is also very alarming. On a global scale it is easy to deduce the enormous damage that a lot of foreign aid is doing. But for me what is more worrying is the fact that even in the wildlife conservation world, I all too often see conservationists making the same or similar mistakes.Particularly the American BINGOs [Big International Non-Government Organisations]. Throwing money (and/or highly paid ex-pat consultants and managers) at problems rarely solves them, and all too often exacerbates the long term problem, and prevents projects becoming sustainable.
Also huge injections of cash from wealthy single donor agencies such as USAID can be very damaging. I was once a consultant to a USDAID funded project, and part of my role was to to see if it was possible to seek continuation funding to make the project sustainable. However, the other agencies I approached turned away from it, some simply because if it was USAID funded, and they thought it would be mismanaged. Others because it was simply over-funded, and some, I suspect out of pure distrust for anything funded by the USA government. Since the USAID funding is not only usually finite, but also rather fickle, it means that a project amply funded one year, can simply dry up the next.
Unfortunately this model also applies in some cases to even non-government organisations. Over the past 35 years or so that I have been involved in managing conservation projects, I have probably seen as many failures caused by too much money as I have from too little. Organisations that have to struggle for funding generally go out and get multiple source funding, and this is generally much more sustainable in the long term. Humanitarian aid is often used by governments spending huge amounts on armaments, corruption etc., to absolve themselves of responsibility. In the same way, all other forms of aid can be easily mis-applied.
This is a dilemna for the WLT, and one of the reasons we are so keen to demonstrate leverage effects. If we can use our modest funding to encourage government agencies to put in further funding (as has happened in India recently) then we really are doing an effective job.