Thursday, March 13, 2008

Politics, aid and competence in post-war Sierra Leone

A story from the Concord Times in Freetown (via reports that UNICEF, the World Food Program and the Government of Sierra Leone recently signed a $100 million three-year plan of assistance.

The story quotes UNICEF representative, Geert Cappelaere: "I am particularly happy and proud to witness this joint signing ceremony of Country Programme Action Plans (CPAP) by UN agencies with the government of Sierra Leone. It is a clear demonstration that children are indeed central to the national development agenda. If we are truly committed to addressing the millennium development goals and making a difference in this country, there is definitely the need for stronger partnerships among development partners including the UN system."

The question I always have with these announcements is: will this money be well spent? Perhaps, but the prospects are somewhat dim, according to a recent report from the European Network on Debt and Development, EURODAD, and the Campaign for Good Governance from Freetown. The reason? Aid in Sierra Leone seems neither efficient nor effective and pretty much ad-hoc.

First things first
Sierra Leone is clearly dependent on aid. Cue inspirational music. Rising like a phoenix from the smoky ruins of a bloody 10-year civil war, the government of Sierra Leone has done what it can: presiding over a relatively free and fair election in 2007; continued work on the shattered infrastructure; cleaning out of decades of poor governance and mismanagement.

Now, cue somber music. While the country has undoubtedly become more stable, seven out of 10 people still live on less than a dollar a day. It’s an aid dependency, this country. The government takes in only 57 cents on every dollar budgeted, forcing the international community to come up with the rest for the government to even exist.

Poor conditions aside, the track record of aid and development remains spotty in Sierra Leone. Some of the problems are common shortfalls of aid and development everywhere. How does one tackle the age-old question of priorities: How much more important is it to build government capacity (while at the same time trying to decentralize its institutions) than providing basic needs to the population?

Other common problems persist on ground: Schools get built, but no one is qualified to teach in them. Somebody pays to construct clinics, but they lack medicine and health care professionals.

The war against common sense
Yet some problems seem inherent (or even worse) in Sierra Leone than elsewhere. Donors are currently implementing 265 different aid projects, but most of them are currently unknown to the government, which has a hard time collecting information on competing aid projects. Parallel governance structures seem to spring up everywhere, like the decentralization secretariat (funded primarily by the World Bank), the HIV/AIDS secretariat and Governance Reform Secretariat (funded through Dfid), “as a way of donors pushing their priorities whilst bypassing government structures they do not trust,” the authors note.

At least a quarter of the government’s budget comes from major donors providing direct budget support, which supposedly reduces reliance on these parallel systems. (See our short debate on budget support). One problem, the authors argue, is that this support comes with many a string attached, meaning the government must perform difficult tasks, such as distributing certain amount of bed nets or conducting major civil service reform before it receives any funds. These conditions are a common aid practice, but sometimes they are so onerous, everyone else in the developing world ignores them. For example, the report sites the fight between some donors and the government over the idea of how the government procurement office should work, which Bretton Woods institutions would like all governments to open up to bidding by international firms, a move being resisted everywhere. Because of the fragile nature of Sierra Leone, any suspected conflict with one of its “major partners” puts necessary programs at risk.

Project ownership is another issue. Because national governments have been distrustful in the past, international aid organizations have simply learned to bypass them, fostering an attitude of go-it-alone.

From the report:

Donors are struggling in Sierra Leone to respect the commitments they have made under the Paris Declara­tion on Aid Effectiveness, particularly around “ownership” and the need to relinquish control over allocation of aid resources and the policy agenda. A chicken and egg situation exists with the prevalent lack of trust between the government and the donors and donors’ continued practice of heavily conditioning their aid, setting up parallel project units to control their aid and trying to mould policy-making.

The continuing isolation of citizens and civil society from aid distribution policies is another major problem. (And a pet issue of EURODAD). A fine example: The closed-door negotiations between government ministries and major donors. Perhaps more tellingly, members of civil society were not invited to a discussion regarding the $13.9 million Education for All – Fast Track Initiative.

While a definite lack of transparency exists at the government level, donors are also to blame. Oftentimes they do not provide the public with timely information regarding their work in the field. Report requests from government agencies supposedly overseeing aid are sometimes ignored. NGOs often don’t understand the realities of power on the ground, and local citizens (and groups) are often unable to change the direction of unfeasible or unrealistic projects.

The authors’ underlying argument is this: A more informed citizenry will demand stronger responses to their problems from both development organizations and the government. Perhaps these groups are unwilling to give citizens a decision-making role; or, perhaps they just simply don’t have the capacity themselves to bring other people on board.

Finally, the checks aren’t arriving on time. In 2007, the government received a whopping $26 million less from donors than it had budgeted for, a total that is a few million short of the complete USAID budget for Sierra Leone. The minister of finance complained that these ghost funds were his largest worry because on a daily basis, he does not know how much the government can spend.

If you can’t anything nice…
Even in the most functioning of countries, getting aid to work right is a difficult task. But in Sierra Leone, it must be extremely difficult task. I am somewhat of a cynic, so I am likely find blame in both parties – crooked, incompetent governments and development organizations who care more about selling pretty calendars than poverty reduction and building capacity. Anyway, after reading this report, one finds that both sides appear extremely serious about turning Sierra Leone around. It’s a doubly hard task when the need is so great. However, the country suffers from the nexus of extremely high demand and, as the title points out, a culture where old habits die hard. Thinking outside the box sure has turned into a cliché. But somewhere down the road, it would be nice to find a better way. Here’s hoping they get it figured out.

1 comment:

Faith said...

Hi, I'm a 9th grade English teacher in Houston, TX. I'm doing a unit of study on international issues and would like to use this blog entry to present my students with informative editorial writing.
Do I have your permission to do so?