February 28, 2012 by Ben Ramalingam
On Friday last, Good Friday, 2012 we loaded up our gear including a film crew of students from DIT, 5 bags of cement, GPS and all our various regalia, to travel to a well site using precious fuel, over a bumpy road only to find that the well that the Chiefs had agreed to dig hadn’t even been touched in the 5 day period.
Now this is the type of failure occurring all over Africa every day. In our case we were dealing with people we didn’t know but some who were referred to us by another NGO. We didn’t do our job properly, because we talked to the Chiefs and men, even though we only do all our arrangements with the women as the prime movers. We slipped up badly. We had a plan to film the well on Friday, make the slab and on the following Friday complete the job. This was our plan, A bad plan. If the community don’t participate, there’s no plan. We know this because we have learned, that if it’s women’s business you talk to them. We know this, but we had a momentary rush of blood to the head. We will never repeat this mistake again. Of course constantly revisiting bad plans happens all the time in Malawi, so the locals are sensitised to this approach!!
If there were people around on our first visit we would have discovered an area polluted by aid. The EU paid for one school block, which is now in a poor state. Another prominent member of the Aid business built another block, by providing all the money. There was no voluntary community involvement/participation.
There was a sponsorship plan in place for children. We met them, with their documents showing their name, number and name of sponsor. I’m sure the sponsor got the smiling picture and the letter maybe, but I’m also sure that the heads covered in scabs, the poor clothes, the lack of school fees, or whatever else was promised would disappoint, a little, at least.
As a general rule we don’t work with people who have become beggars as a result of Aid without input. But strangely this is what we found
I’m sure the proposals called it development aid, with high ratings for aid effectiveness. There would also be these wonderful reports, of sustainability, strategic planning and whatever the new buzzword might be on the day.
Oh! what did we eventually do, after all the interviews and filming was done? We said goodbye to the kids and let the chiefs know why we were leaving with our cement, never to return.
On our return journey, we met a group of women, the real people of Malawi, explained what had happened, told them how to reach us when they were ready, and had their well dug. We’ll soon get a call, build the well in close proximity and have clean water for 122 poor souls and up to 500 children at the school.
We work, we say, is about Inspiration, Education and Challenge. This is what we mean by challenge.
Malawians, particularly Malawian women are capable of developing themselves if we leave them alone and support them with what they need rather than with what we think they need.
Luckily I came home to find this amazing blog by Ben Ramalingam to whom I am deeply grateful for my restored sanity and a renewed belief in how we approach things
In the beginning, the Donors said, “Let us make development in our image, and in our likeness, so that we may bring about changes in developing countries”. And other Government Departments replied, “Yes, but not too much change, and not all at once, who knows What might Happen.” And the Donors did reflect upon this, and after a time they did say, “Let there be Aid Programmes”.
And lo, having completed the appropriate paperwork and then randomly recruited staff members on the basis of spurious social connections, the Aid Workers did create a great many Aid Programmes upon the land, with rather fewer in the sea.
Now at first many Aid Programmes were formless and empty, there was darkness over any possible engagement with intended beneficiaries, and attribution of impact was absolutely nowhere to be seen. With naught else to look at, the Donors did peck at the financials like bureaucratic vultures.
And the Donors did say, “Let there be light on this programme”, but there was no light, merely quarterly reports cut and pasted from other endeavours. But the Aid Workers saw that the reports were sufficient to get the donors off their backs. They called the reports “evidence-based” and they did construct programme narratives, after a fashion. And there were visits and some more reports.
And the Aid Workers said, “Let there be a separation between us and the communities we seek to serve, to keep us even further away from messy reality, lest our donors seek to explore this area further, nobody needs that”. So the separation was made and the people ‘under’ the programmes were divided even further from those people ‘above’ them. And it was so.
The Aid Workers called the separation ‘our new decentralised structures’ and occasionally ‘our new national partnership modalities’. And there was more reporting and the first mid-term reviews.
And upon reading the reviews, the Donors said, “Let all the programmes under this sky be gathered to one place, and let duplication and waste disappear.” But it was not so. Instead the Aid Workers did gather in the bar and Grumble about it over numerous beers. The next day, the Aid Workers said those programmes whose representatives had gathered in that bar formed ‘a new Coordinated Operational Network System, or CONS’. And the Donors did scratch their heads, and then said, “Well, Okay”.
Then the Donors said, “Let the programmes produce results: monitoring systems and impact-bearing evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, according to their various kinds.” But again, it was not so. The programmes produced reports bearing more narratives and nice photos on the front. But the content was heavily skewed according to pre-defined objectives and indicators that could have been copied off a cereal box.
And the Aid Workers saw that it was rather woolly and vague, and were satisfied. And the Donors saw that it was not Actually very good, but would at least keep the Right Wing Press off their backs for a little longer.
And the Aid Workers Head Offices said, “Let there be journalists and blogs and tweets to separate the donors – both individual and institutional – even more quickly and deeply from their cash. And let our Woolly Results serve as signs to mark our fundworthiness. And let there be pictures of children, ideally being hugged by tired-looking pretty white girls.”
And it was so. Head Office made two great lights—the greater to shine into possible funding opportunities, and the lesser light to identify photogenic but hungry looking babies. Head Office also invited the stars and celebrities, after their Compassion-Fashion-Kicks. And Head Office saw that it was good.
And then one Aid Worker did Stand up and Say, “Let our Programmes be shaped by those we seek to serve, and Let them tell us what is good and right, and let us shine a true light into these programmes of ours, so that a light may then shine forth from them. And let that Light be Truly called ‘Development’.”
But the other Aid Workers did say, “Shut up and sit down, What are you playing at, Dost thou wish to get us all into the Deep Excrement?”
Thankfully the Donors were too busy creating new Declarations of Aid Effectiveness, within which all new and existing efforts should be fixed, according to their kind, and so did not notice.
And so this Aid Worker did leave that place, and became a Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist.
The other Aid Workers blessed her departure and said “Come back when our next mid-term review is due, and verily your rates will be good.” And they were.
And then finally the Donors, after yet more ambiguous reviews, did say, “Let your programmes prove their sustainability, such that we shall see how they continue after we reduce core funding.” And this Exit Strategy they all did promise to abide.
And so, after more grumbling, questionable reports, and beers, the Aid Workers did leave that place to work in areas which were more aligned with the Donors current priority interests. And so it happened that National Partners were left to wind the programmes down within one year, albeit at a fraction of the original cost and with Minimum Overheads.
And then, two more years after that, New Donors and their staff members did arrive, and they did say, “Let there be an Aid Programme Just Here.”
And, lo, it was so.