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David Hoekema

Why Aid (Often) Doesn't Work

A modest report.

The story told in this sometimes dense monograph unfolds along familiar lines. Residents of the three major cities of an African country lack a reliable water supply even though all the pieces are in place: treatment plant, delivery pipes, and a government oversight agency. A European government responds by allocating funds to its international development bank, which in turn contracts with consulting and engineering firms to assess the problems, propose solutions, and carry them out.

Soon the work begins. Reports are written, project management timelines submitted and approved, allocations adjusted, extensions granted. All is done decently and in order, following the rulebook. But as each deadline approaches, the targets are farther away than ever. Early accomplishments prove in retrospect to have been illusory. Years after the initial completion date, many project goals are abandoned as unreachable, funding is cut off, and the consultants and engineers go home. And water continues to trickle out of some of the pipes, some of the time.

This is a development project of the 1990s, and everyone takes care to avoid neocolonialist errors of the past—relying on purely technical solutions, for example, and ignoring cultural differences. An experienced anthropologist from an lite university, Edward Drotlevski, is hired to implement appropriate cultural adjustments to the African context. In his reports, included here, we trace the project's halting progress. Another anthropologist, Samuel Martinosi, is an independent project advisor. The book includes both of their reports: Drotlevski recounts events as they unfold, while Martinosi describes the inherent conflicts and contradictions of organizational behavior that are revealed. For Drotlovski—and for the development banker and the consultant whose brief reports are also included—the project's failure to attain any of its major goals is a source of frustration and regret. For Martinosi, it is the predictable outcome of institutional practices that block any progress toward the goals they purport to seek.

Why, then, are these others not credited as co-authors of this monograph? For the simple reason that they do not exist but are the inventions of Richard Rottenburg, an anthropologist who has himself worked as a consultant to development projects in four African countries. This monograph, capably translated from the German, is an exercise in "experimental ethnographic writing": a richly detailed and assiduously documented account of a development project in a nonexistent African nation (Ruritania), administered by a fictional bank (the Normesian Development Bank) with the support of the development ministry of a nonexistent European country (Normland). The author explains that "the characters [are] constructed from the cumulative characteristics originally belonging to the various people I met during my tenure in the field of development cooperation."

What's going on here? Shouldn't social and political analysis begin in observation, not imagination? How did an editor at an eminent publishing house such as MIT Press hatch the idea of slipping a work of anthropological fiction into the "Inside Technology" series, listed between volumes on ethnography of industrial design and on traffic engineering? Has she found another job yet?

Perhaps she kept her job after all. Odd as it is, this is an important book: it demonstrates more persuasively than any number of works of conventional observation and analysis why development efforts in Africa usually miss their targets. Rottenburg shows all too clearly—with a freedom gained only by casting off his moorings to real people and real projects—how the "translation chains" by which aid is provided and progress documented produce a great deal of self-deception and very little actual progress. Projects do not fail simply because funds are misspent and goals misunderstood. They fail because, from the first stage to the last, they are organized to provide more reassurance than results. Aid is supposed to improve the quality of life in impoverished communities; but the mechanisms of disbursement and documentation serve mainly to sustain the funders' belief in its progress.

The conspicuous and repeated failure of development efforts in Africa is a theme of many recent books and articles. William Easterly's White Man's Burden (Penguin Press, 2006) documents misuse of development grants and notes how much has been spent to accomplish so little in public health and agriculture. Dambisa Moyo paints an even darker picture in Dead Aid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) of aid as the despot's friend, democracy's enemy, and destroyer of functioning markets. Cut off the aid, she pleads, and bring on investment capital instead.

But other voices, no less urgent, advocate increased aid to remedy dire poverty and epidemic disease. Op-Ed columns and talk show guests remind us how little it would cost to distribute mosquito nets, vaccinate children, and dig wells—far less than the United Nations mandate of 0.7 percent of GDP for humanitarian aid, a target that few wealthy nations have ever met. Rock star Bono calls on presidents and prime ministers, and on his fans, to support the One campaign. Bestselling economist Jeffrey Sachs foresees The End of Poverty (Penguin Press, 2005) in our lifetime, if only we dig a little deeper.

Rottenburg takes no sides in this debate. He simply documents a single development project of the sort that must be completed before international investors will open their checkbooks. A reliable water supply is essential in attracting new businesses and industries. Electricity, roads, a functional system of commercial law, and internet accessibility are no less important.

The Normian government's decisions to rehabilitate Ruritanian water systems follows the development script and builds foundations for future economic growth. And the task seems simple and straightforward. Purification plants and distribution systems were built in the early years of independence, when a bold vision of the nation's future held sway, but have suffered from neglect. Also in place are a system to regulate water prices and an administrative staff to handle billing and collections. All that is needed is to pinpoint and remedy the defects and leaks—both literal and figurative—in the system.

But nothing is simple or straightforward. When workers begin mapping leaks for later repair, customers complain of the delay and stop paying their bills—if they ever paid in the past, after the collapse of socialism necessitated utility fees. Just how many users are free riders is impossible to determine because of inconsistencies and omissions in customer records. Every attempt to update the records brings new errors and inconsistencies, from a variety of causes—lack of established street names and house numbers, payoffs to keep a household undocumented, and so forth. For Martinosi this exemplifies "list autophagy," a "mechanism that leads existing lists of facts and figures to become invalid during the period of their use."

As a result, there is virtually no progress to report in attaining any of the project's objectives. But this fact must be concealed from the Normian government. Project reports are prepared in assiduous fidelity to mandated standards—Rottenburg includes photographs of several examples—but they simply enumerate all the complications that have arisen, requiring revised timetables and additional allocations. The water system remains in utter disarray. But thick binders filled with reports conceal this fact and ensure uninterrupted progress in another dimension: the steady disbursement of allocated funds to the consultants and to their agents in the field.

Rottenburg's narrative nearly lapses into cynicism at times but then steadies itself with heavy doses of social science jargon. Some of the phenomena that are described, in the impartial voice of the anthropologist-observer, boggle the mind. A recurring motif is the difference between the "official script," which everyone pretends to follow, and the "unofficial script" that is actually followed. In the former, the funding source simply provides the funds with which the recipient pays appropriate agents to complete the project to its specifications. But the reality is quite different: the funding source sets the specifications and tells the agents what to do. The recipient of aid—the community whose problems are being addressed—must simply go along with what others have determined to be in its best interest.

This exemplifies "the principle of policy-based lending," in which funds are disbursed for purposes chosen by the funders, regardless of the recipients' priorities. Success turns on whether the consultants involved collude successfully with the recipients in pretending that local needs are being served. The goals of the official script will never be met, as everyone knows. But attainment of the more modest aims of all the parties except the funder—an extravagant and uninterrupted flow of consulting fees and local grants—can be assured.

What delight Rottenburg must have taken in his freedom to attribute behavior to his fictional characters that he has observed in real individuals whom he cannot name! Anthropology spills over into comedy when he describes high-level meetings between government representatives from Normland and Ruritania to review the status and significance of the project. The lower-ranking officials know a great deal about the project, but they are not important enough to be given the floor. So the most senior officials conduct all of the negotiations, with little knowledge of the project's prospects and objectives. And each party finds it helpful to redirect blame for its own failures onto the consultants, who have no opportunity to respond.

In the end, Rottenburg's droll account of a development project that didn't happen is more honest than any actual case study. Miscommunication and deception, it is clear, are part of the very fabric of developmental aid. The problems of poverty and disease are real, and the intent behind Western aid programs is laudable. But the repeated failure of such programs to achieve their aims, and the persistence of the problems they are supposed to remedy, reveal deep and perhaps irreconcilable differences between the realities in which donors, recipients, and intermediaries live.

Readers of Far-Fetched Facts will not abandon all aid initiatives, I hope. But they will approach them far more cautiously, with lower expectations and higher awareness of the many ways in which they may fail. And if they are invited to help build an eye clinic in Ruritania, with a team of experts from Normland, I would advise them to send their regrets.

David Hoekema, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, is spending this semester as a Fulbright Teacher/Scholar at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.

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