Friday, February 08, 2008

Corruption: ours and theirs

In the Independent today there is an article on Britain's aid payouts which it claims are "open to corruption abroad". Abroad mark you, abroad. I'd like us to what exactly corruption is, and whether it's brown skinned foreigners who have a monopoly on that particular human failing.

It's a big topic so I'm going to concentrate on a particular talk I went to a couple of weeks ago and people can draw inferences if they so wish. Mark Ward is one of the top people in USAID which, as the name implies, is the US government's body for allocating aid. One of his jokes went something like "Here at USAID we're not an En-Gee-Oh - we're just a Gee-Oh." Well, I laughed.

Ward had just come back from Pakistan where he'd been running the operation, the second largest in the world (no, the biggest isn't Israel, as Ward pointed out "We just write them a cheque.") and he was very clear about what his objectives were when he first returned to Pakistan to head up the company.

He was in a difficult position because the Bush administration had, prior to 9/11, stopped all government aid to Pakistan. Realizing their mistake they were forced to go in anew. His objectives were that USAID was to deliver fast, visibly and without scandal – he’d also have to account to the US government as to whether their “aid” was money well spent. The implications of these priorities were, in my view, eye opening.

Now, Ward came across as a very able and interesting man. Someone it would be pleasant to share dinner or have a session on the Dreamcast with. However, the content of what he was saying, when you stripped away the benign smiles seem, well, unsatisfactory.

Firstly, the fast. How do you deliver fast? Keep to the urban areas and deal with the easiest problems. Now, that’s an interesting use of aid don’t you think? Are we talking about delivering lasting change in the infrastructure here? Is this a recipe for helping the most needy in society – like those who live in poverty in the most isolated communities? Nope – they don’t get a look in.

There was an exception to this in the case of Kashmir – as there is no way of delivering aid in a purely urban environment there. So he concentrated on convincing everyone that they could “build a private sector to attract foreign investment.” So if there's a profit in it today your kids will get an education otherwise - hard cheese.

Secondly, the visible. We can see immediately that if your priority is to be seen to be doing good things it means your concern is more about PR than it is about relief and assistance. But it also dictates who you work with. So, for instance, someone asked Mark about working with the government and already existing institutions in order to deliver quickly – by injecting cash into pre-existing structures. Sounds a reasonable idea if you want to improve local education with your bulging wallet, you go to the schools and colleges that already exist. Yes?

Sorry, no. If USAID assisted Pakistan's government to improve hospitals who takes the credit? The Pakistani government, even when people know that USAID was involved. That wont do. If your aim is to make people in Pakistan like you it isn’t enough to do nice things – you have to be *seen* to do nice things, even if that means holding back effective delivery.

Lastly no scandals. Ward focused on creating what he called “bomb proof projects” i.e. ones that would not collapse if the workers were murdered. He told us he’d feel pretty bad if he hired US workers, got them to come all the way to Pakistan, and then they got killed. So he hired local help instead. He “indigenized the programs” so that when aid workers were killed it wasn't Americans coming home in body bags and the other workers would be more likely to stay in place.

I'm genuinely not saying Mark Ward is a racist. I am saying that he values the lives of Americans more highly than those of local workers in terms of the objectives of his mission. I should also point out he thought locals would be less likely to be killed than US citizens - which is almost certainly true.

So the plan in Pakistan, in summary, was to make the US government look as good as possible whilst allowing the people of Pakistan to take all the risks. Where there was a choice between effective, long term delivery and the visibility of USAID it was style over substance every time – as policy.

This may or may not make for good US foreign policy, from the perspective of the White House, but I remain to be convinced that this makes for effective delivery of aid in the interests of the people of Pakistan.

1 comment:

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I don't know if you ever saw this letter i wrote to the socialist about corruption, but it's more prevelant in the 'frist world' than the 'third'