Foreign Aid, Bad Driving, and Other Tales of Woe by Alan Tidwell

Local villagers in Nijrab in the Kapisa Province of Afghanistan receiving humanitarian aid, January 2008. Image: U.S. Army. An Australian colleague once told me a story of watching two cars collide in an otherwise empty car park early one Sunday morning. The drivers, unknown to one another, shared only one goal of finding a parking space among an abundance of free spaces, yet somehow they managed to run into one another. Abundance sometimes breeds its own special kind of futility, whether one thinks of parking spaces or government budgets.

In the world of humanitarian and development assistance, more money certainly buys more stuff such as more medicine, more food, and more fuel. However, more money does not necessarily translate into getting more done, and sometimes it has the opposite effect.

Consider these examples from Afghanistan as told by Major Clare O’Neill, a combat engineer from the Australian Army who is currently at Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies as a visiting Fulbright scholar. In 2006, a drought that ravaged Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, received attention from a well-known NGO. The NGO funded the Provincial Director of Education’s management of the provincial delivery of food. Local food distribution was to be done through schools, thus incentivizing school attendance. Empowering the local leader to run the project seemed wise at the time because of his local knowledge. However, unknown to the NGO, the local Provincial Director sold the food on the black market in Kandahar, pocketing the proceeds. O’Neill explained, “A few boxes of food were kept by the Provincial Director at the boy’s high school for the obligatory photo shots when required. In 2006, people in Uruzgan were genuinely starving, and many died as their weakened bodies did not survive the winter months.” Damning further still is the fact that when the funding body was informed of the failure to distribute the food, they “insisted that it had been distributed and explained they had a report from the Provincial Director” confirming the food’s delivery.

As second example of poorly managed aid, a contractor from Kabul arrived at the Tarin Kowt Hospital to build an ablution block while, at the same time, Afghan government officials in Kabul approved an NGO project to build toilets in health facilities throughout Afghanistan. The combined lack of consultation and limited physical space created a problem. The proposed ablution block site was the same site where the hospital mortuary was to be built. Further confounding the location of the ablution block was its proximity to a well and the women’s hospital. Ignoring the wishes of the hospital staff, the contractor built the block. Once completed, photographed, and reported back to Kabul, the locals then destroyed the building in order to make room for the mortuary. According to O’Neill, “The ablution block project reeked of top-down good intention and an organization standing in front of a map of Afghanistan with pins to place. The toilets were a demonstration of a project with a set number outcome and outsider’s version of a golden solution. Back in Kabul, the quantitative measure of effectiveness of toilets built was a delusional success.”

Sometimes, however, things do go well. O’Neill noted that, in the Uruzgan Province, the Afghan Health Development Services (AHDS) provided health care, which was run by Afghanis and funded by western donors. With staff based in Tarin Kowt, the AHDS empowered the Principal Doctor to make on-the-ground decisions regarding health priorities with community consultation. As O’Neill explained, “The key to success was the professionalism and foresight by the Principal Doctor.”

In 2006, health facilities in Uruzgan Province were dilapidated, and its services were poor. From 2006 to 2010, AHDS, working with the Provincial Reconstruction Team, expanded and made health care more accessible. “The total number of active health care facilities in the province increased from 9 to 17 over that period. The number of health posts doubled to 200, and community health workers (CHWs) increased from 130 to 300, of whom 100 were women,” O’Neill explained.

All in all, big budgets can never replace good practice informed by local knowledge. With people on the ground, better choices can be made. As O’Neill argues, in insecure settings deemed too dangerous for aid agencies and NGO’s, the best local knowledge comes through the military. More broadly, Mary Anderson’s mantra of “Do No Harm” sets the bar too low. We need something better than that: consult, plan, and spend wisely and locally while at the very least doing no harm.

I offer this not as a rationale for doing more with less, but rather as a warning. Ambitious and large missions can sometimes replace wise planning and problem solving with poor practice. Cuts to humanitarian and development assistance create real obstacles to getting good work done, yet poorly conceptualized, badly managed, and faulty implementation of projects equally threatens the effectiveness of aid. Or as my Australian friend observed, “An empty car park is no excuse for bad driving.”

Alan C. Tidwell is currently the Director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. From 2001 through 2004, he was a program officer with the United States Institute of Peace, where he focused on conflict resolution and education. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury, England, a master of professional ethics from the University of New South Wales, and an M.S. in conflict resolution from George Mason University.

Relief and Development