Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”

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Next time you shudder at a another vulgar tweet of spiteful malevolence from the President of the United States, please try to console yourself by reflecting that there are decent people in the world who try to do their best to assist those who are deprived, poor and needy.

A long time ago I was in the United Nations Military Observer Group in Kashmir, and before I become deputy head I served on what we called ‘Field Stations’ on both sides of the Line of Control dividing that unhappy territory of astonishing beauty and diverse peoples. When I arrived in one of these, called Astore, way up in the mountains on the Pakistan side at about 8,500 feet (and close to Nanga Parbat at 26,660 feet), the Aga Khan Foundation, a singularly saintly organisation, was helping build a pipeline from the glaciers down the mountain to the Astore River, so that electricity could be generated in a station which they also constructed.

They brought electricity to much of the area for the first time, and this was a very big deal in these days. So in between going on ‘Field Tasks’ along the Line of Control to make sure that the area wasn’t being reinforced militarily to a dangerous degree, I chatted with such luminaries as the local village head, the schoolteacher and the visiting Aga Khan Foundation representative, from all of whom I learned a great deal.

The main thing I learned was that if you are helping somebody, make them think they are helping themselves. In fact it makes sense to construct your entire aid project so that those who stand to benefit from it are heavily involved to the point that if there is a problem then it is their problem. Don’t stand above it as a rich and well-meaning donor who chucks money at it and then walks away with a self-congratulatory swagger. Because if you don’t involve the local people in the project — which they very much want to see completed, of course — then disaster looms.

You must encourage them to come up with ideas, without being patronising. Ask, for example, “how do we get the line across that nasty bend in the river around where the glacier ends in summer?”

Now, as project manager you’ve probably got half a dozen engineers who could solve that problem in a heartbeat. BUT: you must ask the local people about it, because when you do what they suggest (OK, maybe tickling it here and there), they are very proud of this and tell everyone it was their idea. The word gets round.  There is a swell of justifiable pride.

Of even more importance: get the locals to themselves suggest that they do the building and other work rather than having it done by imported labour. If you involve residents they will in the future resist any outside attempts to interfere with what they themselves created, even to the point of physical protection. And of course there will be considerable economic benefits, although it is essential, of course, that management and disbursement of monies be closely controlled by the donor body. Sure, you will have to take time and trouble and money to train local tradesmen (concrete-makers, carpenters and so on) but remember — you’re in the improvement business; it all adds up, nationally, to establishment of more skills, recognition that education is important, and, above all, pride that We Can Do It.

In other words — make sure projects are regarded as local challenges and accomplishments. Don’t just throw uncontrolled money at development schemes in the hope that it will all stick, because as we’ve seen around the world, that sort of money tends to stick to people who aren’t interested one bit in improving the lives of their fellow human beings. And nowhere is this more evident than in Afghanistan where, as stated by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Mr John Sopko, the US has spent $132 billion on reconstruction projects.

A very large proportion of this money has been wasted. Many billions of dollars have vanished into corrupt pockets.  Mr Sopko told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper that “There is a lot of corruption, [but] most of what we have identified are just head-smacking stupid programs and really poorly managed and no accountability. Nobody is really held accountable for wasting the money.”

In his October 2018 report to Congress the SIGAR was blunt in recording that US money has gone to build medical clinics without electricity or water, schools without children and buildings that literally melted away in the rain. Also, corrupt local officials who were in charge of paying workers with some of the funds created what audits called “ghost workers,” civilian bureaucrats, police and soldiers who did not exist, then kept or diverted money recorded as being paid to them.  It’s a terrible picture, and while it is scandalous that US taxpayers have had their money wasted, it is even worse that the people whose lives should have been changed for the better by all these enterprises are still living in mediaeval squalor — if they haven’t been forced to flee from the violence that is endemic in that war-torn country.

Mr Sopko is dismayed and disappointed that “Even after 17 years of US and coalition effort and financial largesse, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least educated, and most corrupt countries in the world. It is also one of the most violent.”

What now?  Is anyone going to try to rectify this appalling state of affairs?  There might be a Trump tweet blaming Obama or France, maybe Canada, for the shambles, but it’s unlikely that he will do anything about the “head-smacking stupid” waste of money. He doesn’t care about human suffering, still less about trying to ameliorate it and improve the lives of countless millions who exist in conditions he can’t even imagine.

We need fewer Trumps and more Aga Khan Foundations in this unhappy world.


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.