Corruption. Now I've said it, fear is our greatest barrier


That wasn't a typo.  When I started working in international development, and quite regularly since, the need for us international development agencies as intermediaries has been that we are the defense against corruption. That it is our money, that we must safeguard it. It needs safeguarding, that is true.

Absolutely there are politicians all around the world who have robbed their people blind — Zaire's Mobutu, Philippines' Marcos, Iraq's Hussein, Nicaragua's Garcia, Romania's Ceaucescu and for that matter America's (VP) Agnew.   It's absolutely true that they exist, and that corruption exists at all levels if allowed. But who should safeguard it? Most local non-profit staff, local government staff I know are as passionate about doing development well as we are, but their institutional capacity, strategic planning, computer systems/ financial management systems are weak. Most have low capacity to absorb anywhere near the hundreds of thousands of dollars we have on offer.

Yet they can have allies. Most households and communities are extraordinary stewards of resources — remember, many of them, our clients, are living on less than $2.00 per day.  Talk about stewardship — managing to live on this amount.  The communities I have worked in in Africa, Latin America and the Balkans have no patience for corruption among them – and deal with it swiftly- nor should they have patience for a lack of good stewardship of those coming to help them. Yet these communities and local non-profits aren't often entrusted with the design nor the stewardship. When we flood organizationally weak local non-profits or even ministries with money, when their organizations' absorptive capacity is low, there is no way money will not find other channels. When we start at the top and not the bottom, when we don't build in financial safeguards that ordinary people can check, how else would it turn out, even here in the 'developed' world?

Why do we do it for them? Because we so deeply want to help alleviate suffering. I believe our fear is the key. Fear that it won't be done as well as we would have done it, that working with communities will simply take too long, that our work won't be maintained so we lag and build in sustainability at the very end of the project because we know how to do it best and are too rushed implementing to think beyond the mandated project-funded-close out.  We are also afraid of fostering dependency on us, so we shut down fast at the end, after the time we pre-set (2, 3, 5 years later, without analysis of how ready the communities are for shutdown). We sometimes even don't start up projects that are desperately needed to prevent suffering because we are so afraid of creating dependency down the line, but that is for another blog…

Some of us may even fear that we would lose our jobs and our own non-profits would close if we planned for our own phase over to indigenous non-profits, rather than seeing it would immeasurably add value to build capacity and more equity.  So the industry is self-maintained, little capacity is built for handover, and the millions of dollars, euros, yen circulate from developed to developing with a lot of short-term wonderful activities and improvements but without much sustained impact.

We are also afraid that if the money is not spent, we won't get more so we sometimes close our eyes to the lack of absorptive capacity, our hurried pace not allowing local government, NGOs, even communities themselves to participate. Time to Listen's research, mentioned in another blog says that that is hundreds of communities' greatest wish – to participate, to captain their own development.

In 1991 when I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in Mali, NORAD (Norway's equivalent to USAID) was in the late stages of transferring its programs to Malian direction. They had a wooden board outside their project transparently showing pages of their project's budget, expenses, and balance of funds by line item (granted in French, not always accessible some to illiterate folks in Bamako, but easily accessible to normal educated folks in the capitol).  I had walked over because I saw Malians standing there, reading it. Radical, and sure enough, when I returned in 1995, the program was all-Malian designed and led, and the only Norwegian input were funds being sent from ongoing donors.  Yet in the course of writing this blog, I went to look at whether this trend continued, and it hasn't. One-third of NORAD's funding was going to Mali's public sector and local organizations, but two-thirds was going via Norwegian non-profits.

Should this continue? Sigh. What are the clearest incentives for financial and power handover to (hopefully-soon-to-be) well-funded, capacity-built local non-profits and local government and empowered communities?  Trust, with safeguards such as robust systems, institutional capacity building and more time. The funds are, after all, for them.

At l'Aquilla in 2009, President Obama committed to investing $20 billion in food security — agricultural development programs to help fight world hunger, where he said "we believe that the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where it's no longer needed — to help people become self-sufficient, provide for their families, and lift their standards of living.  And that's why I proposed a new approach to this issue — one endorsed by all the leaders here — a coordinated effort to support comprehensive plans created by the countries themselves, with help from multilateral institutions like the World Bank when appropriate, along with significant and sustained financial commitments from our nations."  This kind of development, country-led and internationally supported is the only sustainable path.  Development projects are multi-million dollar investments – don't we owe ourselves and our clients time to optimize the use of these funds? Time and trust are the way forward.

What do you think? What fears do you have or think others have that are barriers to sustainability? What would you do?