Depressing

Having had a bad enough night on Saturday, when Scotland gave up three tries to Italy in seven minutes and wound up losing the match, things got worse on Monday.

When in Almaty, I frequent an Internet cafe called Cafemax. It’s really very good: big, clean, bright, well equipped, etc. Even the coffee is pretty darned good.

So, there I was, well ensconced in my favourite corner, when two groups of young lads came in, taking up two tables on either side of me. Now, I’m getting older, but I’m not yet a crotchety old man. Still, to hear these kids (they were all about 17-18) depressed me: they spoke in nothing but Russian мат. That strikes me, in an Enoch Powell-y sort of way, as a real degradation of the culture.

The work that I was doing in the cafe made my mood even worse. I was doing a Russian to English translation of a monitoring and evaluation report of an international programme to support Kyrgyz environmental NGOs. These things are normally written in a rather flowery way, bearing very little relation to the facts on the ground, but making everyone — especially the faraway governmental aid agencies — feel very good about themselves and allowing them to continue to draw public funds for doing something they appear to know very little about.

What struck me about the report was that it pointed out just how little has changed in the 11 years since I first arrived here to work on a USAID-funded NGO support project. The same old tired approaches, the same complaints and recommendations (“more funding,” “help us connect with other donor organisations, etc.”) from the NGOs. I felt sure that I could have simply substituted a report from my earlier time here, and that no one would have noticed the difference. How many more “bulletins” (largely unread, in my experience,) can the taxpayers of the U.S.A., Europe or Canada fund? How many more times must a new programme be established, without even a cursory attempt to learn from the minimal success, and much more frequent failure, of previous programmes, to achieve the Golden Fleece of the conventional aid world – “impacts” and “success stories.”

Working in Uzbekistan brought those issues into sharp relief. We were under constant pressure from our Washington office, and from the local and Central Asian USAID Missions, to come up with success stories. Not “successes,” mind you. I would obviously agree that “success” is what we were all looking for, but this was “success STORIES.” This involved taking some completely insignificant event, which we funded, and “spinning” it into a notable success for democracy, women’s rights, etc. I even received two wiggings for not being “creative enough” in my reporting of these alleged impacts. No one was interested in knowing that we were NOT making even the slightest dent in the general repressiveness, poverty, extrordinarily poor health care system (more about that in an upcoming post, or anywhere else. Honestly, it looked as though we were just trying to shove money out the door, reaping the vast overheads for the D.C. offices, and not really caring a fig about what was really happening.

When Matt Bivens, who — prior to working for the Moscow Times — had worked for a USAID-funded market reform project in Almaty and written (hilariously) about the experience in Harper’s (the article, titled “Aboard the Gravy Train,” may still be someone in online archives,) he provoked a furious response from the USAID Central Asia Mission, but one that was extremely unconvincing and fell strangely flat. Why? Because Matt was right on the money – U.S. tax money, for that matter.

“Blame,” such as it is belongs to both sides. NGOs need to understand that, until they become relevant to their own “constituencies,” no amount of foreign aid can make them sustainable. Enough of the “experts” taking charge of a disadvantaged community’s agenda (oft unrealised by the community itself,) and spinning it into a money-maker for themselves and relatives. The only NGOs worthy of respect, in my view, are those in which people with a real stake in the expected outcomes are involved. Special Olympics in Kazakhstan, for example. It’s run by parent WITH disabled children, so they have a real stake in improving the lives of their loved ones. There are, of course, other examples, but they’re fairly thin on the ground.

On the foreign aid side, how about reading the reports of preceding projects and taking a real look at where they’ve failed, before attempting exactly the same approaches? As these reports belong to the donor, it’s not as if there are any real trade secrets in there that cannot be shared. Perhaps send a few people out who actually speak the language, or languages, of the area at issue? And, for God’s sake, try to do a little real monitoring and evaluation, not just a whitewash and all-round pat on the back, but one that looks for what REAL impact a project may have had, or at the reasons for its failures!

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One Response to “Depressing”

  1. Vilhelm Konnander Says:

    Dear Blair,

    I was going to write “how very depressing” when I saw that “Depressing” was the title of the post.

    Yes, it is depressing and in my experience, you are completely right. I wish it was different, because in some way we all want to make a difference, whether by voluntary work or foreign aid.

    Failure is perhaps too hard to realise, but not wanting to even consider learning from previous mistakes is next to criminal.

    I just wonder how many people in countries concerned have been negatively affected, when not being able to present success stories.

    It seems that the main line of combat still is that of “a far away country of which we know nothing.”

    Yours,

    Vilhelm

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