Sunday, August 28, 2011

Impressions from Africa - Flaws in Development Cooperation

I was in West Africa last week for my work and I interacted with folks from the government, foreign donor agencies, and an international NGO. In that short week I saw a number of symptoms of what I consider to be flaws of development cooperation.

First symptom, there may be too much money channeled to a developing country at once. On the surface, there is no such thing as too much money for a poor country. In reality, donor agencies agree with national governments on the destination of the money beforehand. Even though there has been improved coordination among donor agencies and other development actors with respect to their cooperation with national governments, the emergence of several programs focused on the same sector at the same time is far from rare.

The problem with that is one of absorptive capacity as developing countries’ entities receiving the funds have to be in a position to use them efficiently and effectively. The realization of an insufficient capacity may lead the donor agency to agree with the recipient country to put together a sort of program management unit, in addition to the existing structure, the job of which is to make sure that the program is well executed. Setting up such a program unit costs money and thus presents a dilemma: should the program be initiated with the extra costs incurred (money that could be used elsewhere) or should nothing be done until the national capacity has improved?

I can’t help but think however that local resources, such as the donor agency’s country office if there is one or some dedicated team within the recipient entity that would be trained or short-term local consultants, would afford more economical solutions for an acceptable result.

The irony of the ill-timed convergence of funding is that donor agencies and other development actors getting involved are persuaded to do so because they see those other guys committing money. Match funding is often the magic word, donors being much more comfortable, including towards their own leadership, engaging in a program or with an organization when others do the same. This is certainly not a rule that only applies to development cooperation as in the private sector prospective investors often look for cues such as other investors getting involved to make the jump themselves.

Second symptom, some incentives can have perverse consequences. I lament the use of per-diems in the world of development cooperation. It is easy for me to say certainly, writing from my kitchen in Boston and having an easy life compared to the vast majority of the world population. What I mean by per-diem in this particular case is compensation often paid by donor agencies and other development actors to nationals of the country where they work (those can be government officials, scientists, etc.) for completing a given task, most often to attend a specific meeting or series of meetings or be part of a task force.

From the outside, the concept may seem strange as those invited to participate in these meetings do so in the context of their work, so why pay them extra? They already receive a salary or some compensation for their daily work. The reality in Africa in particular is that salaries are low, especially in some sectors such as civil service or academia, and providing that extra compensation gives those folks an incentive to show up but also represents a fair practice as it reduces the income disparity that those people often suffer relative to representatives of development cooperation actors or their own country’s private sector executives for instance.

So yes, it is totally understandable. Where I start having problem with this practice however is when those per-diems create perverse incentives. It happens when members of an ad-hoc task force formed to work with some government entity and donor agency for instance do whatever it takes to keep that working group alive, keen to continue to receive their per-diems and other benefits or perks that may come with those, and thus losing sight of the primary objective, i.e. for the task force to fulfill its initial objective before disbanding.

Of course, there will be a fair amount of jockeying and pretending about why the working group should continue to exist because no one can say openly that per-diems have become a bigger motivation than the substance of the work per se. But it is easy to see through that pretending and schmoozing.

At the systemic level the whole salary scale of under-paid jobs should be revamped so that disparities are reduced. In that particular case of per-diems the problem often arises from the fact that folks sitting in the same room, representing the national government, local universities, donor agencies, and international NGOs may have salaries that range from 1 to 5 or even more. That can only cause resentment. While some disparities are to be expected, that salary gap should be looked at seriously with a view to being cut down.

Third symptom, talent is being squandered. I can think of one guy in particular who is smart and has clear potential but seems to spend most of his time trying to figure out how to “play the system” in order to increase his level of influence and make more money. He is a government official, so again how to blame someone whose income is probably disconnected with his own abilities? Granted. But then I would say that in most African countries the civil service is far from being the only professional option for highly educated folks. Working for the government supposes an interest in serving – if it is not the case, why choose that career? And remember, I am talking about highly skilled folks whose professional outlook is not as limited as that of most of their countrymen.

When providing for one’s family is such a struggle, how can the general interest be a strong motivator for anyone? I don’t know. It is a tough one. I do know however that a lot of folks in Africa decide to serve their countries by working for their government and, also increasingly, by trying to create social value in the private sector. Maybe those are the true unsung heroes – they are never mentioned, but given the hardship they have to endure their commitment is remarkable.

Again, there is only a macro response to that problem of wasted human potential. Government agencies will never be able to attract and retain talent and tap into their people’s full potential if they don’t pay them decently (again reducing disparities with other sectors is key) and don’t get them to work on interesting and impactful initiatives.

Come to think of it, this is what development cooperation should focus on. What are the elements of Africa’s environment that inherently impede its progress and development? I hear talks about promoting an enabling environment. That is fine and well but the short week that I spent in Africa only showed that such fundamental aspects of an enabling environment as coordination of efforts among funders, a decent local capacity, fair compensation, and a dynamic governmental sector, are far from being in place.

It is difficult for me to be optimistic. Maybe this is my nature or just an immediate reaction to what I witnessed. Two non-African colleagues who have lived on the continent for 20+ years told me last week that they are optimistic about the region - because the new generation is different from the older ones and training and capacity building pay off eventually.

At any rate, it is only by addressing the fundamental flaws hampering progress in African economies and societies and plaguing the effectiveness of development aid that Africa will reach its potential.


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  2. Thanks for sharing your insights Philippe. I've seen similar things in Latin America, e.g ministry staff refusing to participate in projects unless a high per diem is offered...

  3. A bit discouraging I am afraid... Thank you, Andy!!