“Free” resources? How many (no-comment) strings are attached?

» Posted by on Nov 12, 2013 in Accountability, Africa, International aid, International non-profits | 4 comments

"Free" resources? How many (no-comment) strings are attached?

Is aid really free? We offer communities, households, individuals a lot — training, in-kind resources such as seeds/ tools or clean water dispensers, etc.  We also ask some in return, as that makes sense. We ask for in-kind labor (such as gathering gravel, sand to make up concrete or to improve paths to roads), and most importantly we ask for time, which may be some of our participants' scarcest commodity. 

I thought of this because of Google+ links to Blogger.com – and while Blogger.com is free, there are strong strings tied which force those who wish to comment, to join Google+. I had no idea logging into my blog to post comments would require others to join Google+ (I was already a member as was my one other friend who commented).  I wondered, why was I getting no comments on my blogs? Were these topics of no interest to anyone? Well, my saavy friend Mary persevered and told me of the barrier. Then it took time to unstring myself and this blog from Google+. (Don't get me wrong, I love Gmail, but having this tied limitation hidden is pretty sneaky, nasty even, deeply Google+ self-serving). 

In the same way, we tie aid in a myriad of ways. US food aid must be purchased (we have no more surpluses) and shipped on US-carrier ships and used by US international non-profits (distributed or sold) as well as the UN's World Food Program. A 2011 GAO study found that food that was shipped in this way and sold in another country for the cash proceeds to be gained by the non-profit for programming was uneconomical "The process of using cash to procure, ship, and sell commodities resulted in $503 million available for development projects out of the $722 million expended…. Ocean transportation represents about a third of the cost to procure and ship commodities for monetization, and [U.S.] legal requirements to ship 75 percent of the commodities on U.S.-flag vessels further increase costs."

We are not the only ones to benefit from giving aid. At a World Food Summit in the late 1990s which I attended in Rome representing the international non-profit CRS, some Scandinavian countries pledged seafood, Asian countries pledged technology (which were their high-tech brands) and we pledged wheat. None of these food commodities are particularly appropriate as they are not locally eaten and unfamiliar, but they were surpluses which these countries were willing to give away. A subtext of the technology was creating demand through this 'free' gift, much as our wheat donations to Nigeria after the Biafran war 40 years ago created a huge – and continuing- import demand for bread. While advocacy and research groups have illuminated and stopped the most egregious misuse of our taxpayer funds, and international non-profits also hire huge numbers of local staff, infrastructure, and channel resources into local economies, we must look deeply.

It is possibly the time 'string' that I find so frustrating because it is most hidden. As much as my time is valuable to me (and tracking down the free-the-comments took two hours), that much more it is for overworked poor households worldwide. Sometimes they are asked to walk miles to central distribution sites, change their marketing schedules to wait for trainers to arrive, come to meetings late in the day which is especially hard for women. Our aid competes with so many priorities of food or income production, childcare, eldercare, etc; they are much like ourselves but with far less power.  The best non-profits plan around people's schedules, bring distributions to them, ease their workload to interject additional responsibilities, ask them what their priorities are, rather than ours. 

I am grateful for one thing I did get for free, which was advice from two bloggers (how to disable my Google+ to enable comments www.mayura4ever.com, www.jenniffier.blogspot.com. Thanks. 

So how have you all found strings attached in your work?


  1. I loved this! There is always a consequence to AIDE. However, our responsibility is to thoroughly research which “strings” will bring more damage than good. The road to hell is paved with good intentions….we bring wheat in, great! Wait, really? So what happens to the local farmers? What happens to their economy? A lot of times the best way to give support is to invest in their own economy. I could go on and on…. That ever so elusive balance of support with out harmful enabling.

    • Xamayta, yes, even thinking strings exist and help people weigh the costs or benefits of proceeding is something to be aware of. Your comment helps me realize that in most development projects folks usually are so longing to opt in for the resources and training that our strings aren’t mentioned so much, we take it as a given they must participate and put in as well which is absolutely true, but too rarely do they get to set the terms.

  2. Thanks, Jindra – and a couple of thoughts. First, regarding the “strings attached” of food aid: I believe is one reason for WFPs “Purchase for Progress” – to buy food locally, supporting local production, and eliminating the time and transport expenses (including the climate warming pollution from transport). Such approaches may be examples of how there has been some thinking and learning over the years. Second, the “do no harm” addage should take account of the “strings” and, as you have noted, the demands on women’s time can be huge. Even those of us who have strongly promoted women’s leadership (at local or national or even global levels) have to acknowledge that democratic participaiont requires time that women often do not have (or time used at the expense of their families, their income-generating activities or their own health). Another example would be the “free consultants”, such as IESC or the ABA. Free experts require that local dedicate time to shepparding, preparing, and digesting the inputs – whether or not they are of the highest or most appropriate quality. (Yes, beyond “appropriate technologies, there is also “appropriate advice”!)

    So there are often strings attached. There are often opportunity costs. All should be incorporated into assessing the value of aid – whether from outsiders or compatriots.

    Thanks for the thought and discussion-provoking post.

    • Dear Anonymous- many thanks for commenting. Absolutely, I love WFP’s P4P for supporting local production, helping African countries feed each other! Yes, women are often the time-poorest and the more of us that realize this in our programming, the more we can accommodate (e.g. in SouthernAfrica, CARE put childcare ‘creches’ next to fields for easy breastfeeding access while women farmed!). Could you tell me what are IESC and ABA? And yes, you’re right again – free experts sometimes benefit far more than the communities as you’re completely right about appropriate advice. They sometimes want to talk far more than listen too :). Yes, if only we saw communities as our clients/ determiners of taking aid or not, rather than passive beneficiaries! Onward!

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