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On red soil

Aid shambles: ..too many bakers..

This is the second (explanatory) post of a three-part series taking a critical look at aid from Tanzania. The first part, including the cake analogy, can be found here.

It’s easy to criticise aid, if development woes of the past decades are all assigned to that. But to see why aid is functioning so poorly, it helps to remove ourselves a bit from the big picture and break it down into components, to see what is actually going on in the day-to-day of aid business. This is knowingly a very polarized view of a multi-sided debate, but it is done out of necessity to highlight the intricate workings of the aid industry on the ground.

The bakers

There is (unsurprisingly) a multiplicity of interests and opinions on how and what development in Tanzania constitutes of. So many, in fact, that it seems clearly impossible to ever accommodate them all. These opinions are formed by the President, high-level government officials, local government officials, foreign-/domestically-educated citizens working in international organizations, multinationals, private and NGO sectors, the man serving coffee in the mornings at the roadside, those sitting there drinking the coffee, the daladala driver, the farmer, the machinga, students, mothers, husbands, children, you get the point.

In comes the bilateral/multilateral agency where views are equally dispersed. There are programme officers, councellors, political specialists, statisticians, economists, development cooperation specialists, the ambassador, all engaging on different levels with Tanzanian colleagues, cooperation partners, friends and have some kind of view of development on the ground. The final orders however often come from faraway headquarters, where the views of country desk officers, area heads, department managers, under-secretaries of state and development ministers reign.

Now multiply this by 42. The number of bilateral/multilateral agencies present in Tanzania. The 17 bilateral members are: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany (German Embassy, KfW and GIZ), Ireland, Italy, Japan (Embassy of Japan and JICA), Korea (KOICA and EDCF/Korea Exim Bank), Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK (DFID), USA (USAID and MCC). The multilateral members working in Tanzania are: African Development Bank, European Commission, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, FAO, IFAD, ILO, IOM, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNCDF, UNEP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIDO, UNIFEM, WFP, WHO, and UN-HABITAT (source: Development Partners Group Tanzania).

Yes, you saw that correctly, the United Nations has 17 different organs in Tanzania. And while some have joint offices, most operations are still dispersed all around Dar es Salaam. Tanzania is one of the pilot countries for the One UN project aiming to realign and create a stronger identity for UN to respond as one organisation instead of many. Given the long and identity-seeking history of UN this process takes time, and thus the intended outcomes have as yet not been seen much in practice. In principle, UN should jointly send only one participant to sector- and thematic donor meetings – guess how that’s worked out?

To then say that aid harmonization is a challenge, is an understatement. It’s a joke. To align 42 different foreign actors views on a topic and then present one unified vision and plan of action to the Tanzanian government is… Well, difficult.

Let’s meet!

This brings us to where these common positions are being (attempted to be) formed: meetings. Oh, how people love meetings. Donor, government, main, cluster and sector/thematic working groups come together monthly, sometimes weekly to discuss ‘pertinent’ issues under their umbrella topic, whether it be on education, health, agriculture, trade, infrastructure, land, human settlements, environment, macroeconomy, poverty monitoring… The x number of areas covered in separate working groups do not all require mention, many as they are.

Most of the donors and government ministries are huddled around the city centre, giving it a village-like feel as you pass by the same faces everyday on the street, heading to your respective meetings. They may sometimes be called on a few hours’ notice, and the agenda might be set when the meeting has started, so preparation is out the window. But not that you need to prepare much anyway, since the substance of meetings is minimal, and process takes precedence. This cartoon (compulsory break for all readers!) summarises it tragically well, and I’ll delve on the specifics a bit more soon.

Lost in abbreviation

All this is taking form under the aid coordination and national dialogue structure, courtesy of JAST formed by the Tanzanian government and DPG to address issues related to MKUKUTA on HoMs, HoCs and technical levels. Didn’t get much of that? Lost in abbreviation one might say. Below is a short list of the ones I’ll use now and some extra, but I’ll spare you of the four A4 pages of abbreviations I got handed to memorise on my first day. Once you learn them, the full words shall never be uttered again.

Anatomy of a (GBS) process

To illustrate how these working groups, making up the bulk of activity and time of expat aid workers (when not busy sailing or going on safari with their families) function, I’ll take general budget support as an example. GBS is aid paid directly to a government account for development expenditure use – this is the government’s most preferred aid modality, and as it forms one of the largest chunks of aid money spent in Tanzania, donors are particularly wary about it. Hence the ridiculously complex and time-consuming dialogue structure so that donors can make sure the cake is being baked the right way, and demand for the right ingredients. Of course demand is a strong word and can only be spoken of softly, but you may call them ‘conditionalities’ upon which the future of GBS is based. For any outsider to make even little sense of how GBS disbursements come to be decided, I did a little chart about all the different working groups that are involved in the process.

Troika is the main donor coordinating group on GBS, consisting of the current, outgoing and incoming chairs of the group (one year stints seated by a GBS-donor HoC). Troika+ is another special grouping adding the World Bank and IMF into the mix, who however have their own mystery-shrouded meetings with the government outside the formal DP structure. Heads of Cooperation of different missions further attend two big meetings, PER-MKUKUTA for all DP HoCs and the GBS HoCs for those paying up this particular aid modality. The so-nicknamed GBS ‘fundi’ group (a Swahili word for ‘technician’) i.e. economists and the like feed into the HoCs meetings with their more technical discussions. The working groups on PER-Macro and PFM look at macroeconomic and public financial management trends, respectively, which feeds into CWG4, the overarching joint government-donor group discussing anything and everything related to the implementation of MKUKUTA from the macroeconomic and public financial management perspectives, hence also closely related to the development expenditures GBS is earmarked for.

As the year draws to a close, the PAF working groups begin buzzing. Countless pages of indicators need to be evaluated. Underlying processes (UPs) are, as the name says, processes that should be working in the background. More focus is given to temporary process actions (TPAs) which show processes that should reach some pre-determined threshold, with or without a baseline. Most important are however outcome indicators (OIs), which should show clear results. If all goes according to the donor recipe, these should all be marked ‘satisfactory’. Often OIs however fall short of the desired outcome and thus a long process of discussions back and forth ensues, where the government tries to explain why their efforts should still be deemed ‘moderately satisfactory’, while DPs would like to mark it ‘partially unsatisfactory’.  Why does it matter? Because it is on these arbitrarily chosen indicators (from inflation to coffee trade figures) and haphazardly decided grades that decisions about whether to continue, stop or expand GBS are (at least figuratively) made.

Now all the hours spent in meeting rooms debating over PAFs, TPAs and OIs culminate at the Annual National Policy Dialogue, a five-day spectacle held in November/December each year. The two first days are dedicated to national discussions on the poverty reduction strategy, taking stock and looking forward including presentations on selected development measures and ideas. The three last days are an Annual Review of General Budget Support, where the issues already discussed over and over again are discussed, over and over again, with the planned end result of a ‘satisfactory’ review and a continued basis for GBS-inflows. The shenanigan is attended by a chock-full room of sleepy participants by the fourth day, ranging from the Minister of Finance, other high-level government officials, members of parliament, development partners and civil society.

All wrapped in a very nice language of development partners, mutual cooperation and understanding, sustainable development, pro-poor growth. The phrases are used so often they seem to have lost any original meaning they might have had. Not that these language games matter that much in the end. It’s just talk in a litany of process. Who is poor, why, what can be done about it are not in focus.

What about projects?

In all the official dialogue on development in Tanzania, stakeholders are government ministries and departments, ‘development partners’, select private companies, select NGOs, academia and.. That’s it. Never mind the poor people, never mind asking anyone in the rural village whether their most urgent and important need is to have foreigners come and tell them about [insert jargon].

Which brings us to projects, more often than not chosen and implemented on shaky grounds. Their consideration may be based on personal contacts, preferences, larger trends and less on needs directly identified or expressed in the country or community. It is the donor countries’ chance to really add the ingredients they thought were missing from the cake. While most projects do have good intentions, they are not always fully thought through. The basic project-length of four years is not enough to follow bigger changes through for example in institutions, while proper follow-up is a rare thing because of resource (time and labour) constraints in donor country offices. Much more could obviously be said. For a sector-specific review of problems involved with projects as well as basket funds, have a look at this excellent (and more concise) blog post on “Undertaking” Tanzania’s Water Sector Development Programme? posted on Daraja.

Back to the bigger picture

The UN has created a software, AMP, where donors can project their aid disbursements for the following three years. This information feeds into the Tanzanian MTEF and budget process allowing better information and planning of a budget that still relies up to around 30% of GDP on aid inflows. Yet donors lag behind or seem reluctant to commit. In times of austerity and credit squeezes in the North this may be understandable, but to then keep on barking about conditionalities and complain constantly about the unrealisticness of a budget, when information valuable for planning the said budget is not even allowed, seems paradoxical.

At the same time, what has already been committed for a particular year is not always straightforwardly being disbursed. Donors like data and proof on how efficient their aid has been – if data is lacking, which it often is either due to obvious circumstances and capacity constraints or the government’s demonstrable lack of interest in providing such on time, then country and project officers in charge of particular portfolios are unenthusiastic in paying out yearly installments as before, in the face of accusations on aid not being spent efficiently and possibly giving a ‘too lenient’ sign to the government in that it doesn’t matter whether reports and data are delivered or not. But orders are orders and budgets are budgets, at least in donor countries. If x amount of money has been allocated to a certain item in the aid budget, then it has to be paid out. Payment pressure is a vice, and loads of promised dollars, pounds and euros await to be mobilized before they expire. And we still want to talk about increasing aid and reaching the 0.7% of GDP target?

One easily gets lost in all the dialogue, process and performance assessments. Who were we actually working for? Who were we supposed to help? Teach to fish? Lift out of poverty? Sorry, I forgot.

Now if you’re reading this, congratulations are in order, you made it through my marathon post! As the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea will sweep frontpages of international media outlets between 29th November and 1st December 2011, it’s worthwhile keeping these background workings of the aid industry in mind. What actually matters, which decisions do we want to see being taken at the meeting? I’ll provide my views in the final post of this series, coming soon.



2 thoughts on “Aid shambles: ..too many bakers..

  1. 17 UN agencies in Tanzania – whatttttttttt?! that’s nuts!! very interesting to read about how aid actually works on the ground…
    loved the cartoon!!!

    Posted by Fla | 29 November 2011, 08:29
  2. This is one of the most concise and organized summaries i have ever read on the topic of why aid does not work. However, consider the possibility that you are missing the point of aid. Hypothesize for a moment that the first objectives of the bilateral/multilateral agencies are to accomplish self-serving economic and political gains with the host country and with their core constituents. Under such a structure, what the aid looks like, how it is administered, and whether it is effective in helping real people are of vague relevance. Using the evidence that is presented in this article, run the analysis again using this hypothesis, and decide if aid is effective. Also try to correlate the trade imbalances between the host country and donor countries with the amount of aid awarded.

    Posted by Mark | 29 November 2011, 15:10

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