Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

October 15, 2005. A Tirade on Foreign Aid.

People liked the study I designed in July, so I returned to Malawi in October to begin implementing it. Which is nice, on the whole. But itís a curious business, too. People sometimes ask me what I do, and how I get these paying gigs in foreign countries.

I work on "environment issues in Third World development." Whatever that means.

Well, it has to do with foreign aid - that much-maligned government expense that some people think is ridiculous and extravagant. Actually we spend much less on foreign aid than most other developed countries, although people tend to think we spend a lot. When surveys have been conducted, people think that about 10% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and suggest that perhaps 3% might be more appropriate. But in reality it is less than 1%. And more than

half of that is for military assistance. Of the rest, some goes to food aid, emergency relief, and other humanitarian aid - you know, sending in help after the tsunami, African famine relief, military hospital helping victims of the recent earthquake in Pakistan. And then the bit that's left goes to "development assistance" - projects that are designed to help improve living standards in Third World countries by "teaching people to fish" instead of "giving them a fish."


The allocation of US foreign aid is quite political, which can lead to all sorts of weirdness. For example:

- For years, the overwhelming quantity of aid went to Israel and Egypt - it was their payment for agreeing to the Camp David accords. Nowadays a large share goes to Pakistan, in return for their help in combating Al Qaeda.
- If an elected government is overthrown in a coup, aid is cut off immediately. This happened in the Sudan and Pakistan, where lots of carefully planned projects were cut off in mid-stream and never resumed. Major waste of money and effort. More recently, of course, we resumed our aid to Pakistan when new political pressures intervened. Foreign aid isn't our moral response to the gross inequity between us and much of the rest of the world, it's bribery for going along with US interests.
- When Reagan came into office he immediately curtailed all aid for population and family planning. Bush pŤre maintained that policy. Clinton overturned it. The population groups were ready, and jumped in to claim a large share of the aid budgets. But Dubya reinstated it. Out went the population groups. Continuity in our policies? Overrated.
- When I began work in this field, housing and urban development were major issues in foreign aid funding. Then environment became hot. All of a sudden what we used to call sewers and trash collection became "urban environment." I became a hot property, having degrees in urban planning and experience working on environment. No matter that I knew nothing about sewers or trash collection.
- A significant share of environmental aid for Africa goes to elephants. They are big. Congressmen know what they are. Probably Congresswomen do, too. They've seen them in the zoo. Elephants make good press. They are easier to envision than, say, soil conservation, and much more sympathetic than garbage trucks. They also eat the sweet potato crops of poor African villagers and are destroying the ecosystems of South African national parks through their sheer numbers. But that doesnít matter, theyíre elephants, we must support them. And block aid to any country that allows sustainable culling.

Congress is skeptical about foreign aid. One way to justify it is to be able to argue that it creates work in this country. So aid must be spent on US consultants, US

consulting firms, US goods, and plane tickets on US carriers even if it's the least direct route from here to there. If you provide a car or computer it has to be made in the US even if only Japanese equipment can be repaired in country. This leads to employment for folks like me, at least.

Another way to justify foreign aid is to show that it has measurable impacts. This is hard. It leads to endless attempts to design monitoring systems. And it creates a bias for projects that show results fast, so Congress will stay interested. But I work on monitoring, so I canít object that much.

All of this is complicated by the staffing system. Foreign aid is administered by the US Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department. AID staffers spend their time overseeing consultants who do all of the technical work, as well as much of the project design. Staffers work on two to four year rotations. Consultants work on projects that run from two to four years - sometimes with extensions, though one rarely knows much in advance. So no one can really plan long-term. Other countries design their foreign aid projects somewhat differently - the same person can spend decades in one country, really learn the place, know the people, stay on a project long enough to make it work. Not the Americans.

Okay, so youíve got the general picture. Now, what do I do in this muddle?

Well, for starters, those consultants who do the technical work for a few years are employed by consulting firms, mostly in

Washington DC. AID puts projects out for bid, and the firms submit proposals. The winning firm sends a team off to the field Ė usually one or two Americans who will work overseas for a few years, a lot of local professionals, and local support staff. The projects rely heavily on short-term technical assistance. Iím one of those short-termers, going in for anywhere from a week to several months. This Malawi project is a very long one for me Ė a few weeks is more typical.


But what do I actually work on? Well, I usually work on environment issues - luxury to some people, "sustainable development" to others. While environment groups in rich countries worry about biodiversity hotspots or pollution or global warming, in very poor countries environment is really about agriculture and forestry and water use. Biodiversity is a luxury. Pollution? Well, as people have often said to me, "so, nu, we should only have some industry to pollute!" (Okay, they didnít really say ďnu.Ē)

In sub-Saharan Africa everyone is very poor. They depend on agriculture for a living and forests for fuel. There are too many people for the available land, and often not enough water to grow much of anything. They often canít afford fertilizer, and anyway, when rainfall is erratic itís risky to use agrochemicals. If it rains they will increase yields, but if not, they will burn the fields and make matters worse.

So, what to do?

There are lots of approaches, though itís not clear that any of them work. Some are technical fixes - help people build structures that retain rainfall, encourage multi-cropping, plant trees to keep the soil from blowing away and provide fuelwood. Others are legal - change land and tree tenure on the theory that people will manage resources sustainably if they own them. In my Malawi project, the focus is on finding economically viable activities that will let people increase income in ways that create an incentive to manage resources sustainably rather than ďminingĒ them. Beekeeping is a biggie. Ecotourism. Green labeling for curios made from sustainably harvested cedar. The consensus seems to be that tree planting doesnít pay off if you donít subsidize it Ė but itís not totally clear that anything else does.


So what do I do in all this? I work on data, usually. Sometimes Iím not sure I believe in anything, but other times I think my one true conviction is that itís worthwhile to make decisions based on objective data and clear analytical thinking. Not based on congressional politics, local politics, who bribed whom, which consulting firm wowed someone with their fancy software, which animals have the biggest profile or the longest nose, or any other such irrelevant criteria.

I design systems to monitor the impacts of projects. I help people sort out what kind of data they might need to better manage their environment. In Malawi Iím trying to estimate the economic value of the natural resources Ė what they would be worth if they are destroyed, what they could be worth if they were sustainably managed. The data are so bad, though, that I may not even believe my own results. I try to convince

USAID to spend its money on systematic ongoing data collection. Since systematic ongoing data collection entails a ten or twenty-year commitment, and USAID thinks in terms of two to four years, this is difficult.


I may be truly demented to think this is important, but I do. When I'm not too busy feeling cynical, at any rate.

I was going to tell you about what Iím doing in Malawi, but that will have to wait. This piece has gotten long enough already. And the pictures are all quite irrelevant Ė how can I illustrate a tirade about foreign aid? So I figured Iíd just show you some pictures in case you were getting bored.

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All text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.