The 'aid effectiveness' craze

Last week in The Guardian, fifteen leading economists, including three Nobel prize winners, argued that the many billions of dollars currently being spent on aid are achieving very little. Why? Because they do not tackle the root causes of poverty and climate change. 

We agree with the analysis and are calling for help from experts in the field to help us do work that does tackle the roots of the problem. 

In this article, we highlight the key points covered by the Guardian and then ask:

What is an NGO to do? 

We're not solving poverty

Development NGOs have locked themselves into a pattern of projects that stimulate a lot of activity, achieve great results on a micro level, but create very little systemic change. This is a huge failing, we were meant to 'make poverty history' as far back as 2005. We haven't and individuals donors (even ours) should be asking why.  

A paradigm shift is needed, NGOs can't go on delivering projects that leave the root of the problem unmoved. At TGT we would like to start a programme of work under the title 'Striking at the root'; this is what we need your help with

The Guardian article, feels like a challenge to the Development NGO sector and we encourage you to read it in full. We have drawn out a few quotes from the piece to highlight the key arguments. We offer up a few perspectives (not a defence) from a small UK Development NGO that enables climate change adaptation in Nepal's mountain villages.

Global poverty remains intractable: more than 4 billion people live on less than the equivalent of $5 (£3.80) a day, and the number of people going hungry has been rising. Important gains have been made in some areas, but many of the objectives set by the millennium development goals – to be reached by 2015 – remain unfulfilled. And this despite hundreds of billions of dollars of aid.

This is an uncomfortable truth, not just for the Development NGOs who have been running projects in the developing world for several decades, but also for their supporters and donors. It begs the question: Why, if we have been giving billions of dollars in aid for over 40 years, are more than half of the world's population still living on less than £3.80 a day? 

Aid projects might yield satisfying micro-results, but they generally do little to change the systems that produce the problems in the first place. What we need instead is to tackle the real root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change.

A critique of TGT funded projects, which are by no means unusual in the NGO world, would likely point to this weakness. We have produced numerous very satisfying 'micro-results' especially for those communities we directly engage with. These are very valuable to those who benefit, life changing in some cases, but not not enough. We are doing very little to tackle the root causes.    

Donors increasingly want to see more impact for their money, practitioners are searching for ways to make their projects more effective, and politicians want more financial accountability behind aid budgets. One popular option has been to audit projects for results. The argument is that assessing “aid effectiveness” – a buzzword now ubiquitous in the UK’s Department for International Development – will help decide what to focus on.

Aid effectiveness is something we are very aware of. Many TGT projects are education focussed, either through our Higher Education Programmes, or through interventions like Farmer Field Schools and Climate Change awareness. And we of course want to be effective. The success of these sorts of programmes can be measured by metrics such as the number of new crops farmers can grow and sell; our partners report on these regularly. But, aid effectiveness for education programmes can be a little bit intangible, the results are hard to measure and quantify, especially in the short term. 

More tangible in the minds as donors are projects that involve installation of physical infrastructure. This is why so many NGOs use fundraising calls such as '£30 a month buys a coffee pulping machine' or '£10 a month provides a rainwater harvesting pond.' 

But the real problem with the “aid effectiveness” craze is that it narrows our focus down to micro-interventions at a local level that yield results that can be observed in the short term. At first glance this approach might seem reasonable and even beguiling. But it tends to ignore the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and underdevelopment. Aid projects might yield satisfying micro-results, but they generally do little to change the systems that produce the problems in the first place. What we need instead is to tackle the real root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change.

It seems impossibly difficult for a small charity like TGT to strike at the root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change, but there are ways to respond as we have previously discussed. We need to work out a way to do it and then bring others along with us in common cause. 

What is an NGO to do?  

The Glacier Trust will continue to invest in 'micro-interventions'. The race to adapt to climate change is very much upon us, we know that our project work is effective and doing nothing is not an option. 

However, we want to go further and need expert help to do this. The Guardian points to the macro-scale structural factors that shape economies and hold people in poverty. The usual narrative we hear to explain this, especially in the global North, is that there are 'corrupt national government officials' who siphon off aid for their own ends or lose it in a maze of bureaucracy. Things are obviously far from squeaky clean in Nepal (or in just about any other nation - rich or poor) when it comes to national governments, but the most damaging, structural, problems are harder to explain and uncover. Numerous vested interests are happy for it to remain that way.

Over decades, as the IMF, WTO and World Bank work with rich nations and multinational companies, trade and aid has been set up to favour the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Indeed, it can be argued that 'poor nations are developing rich ones'. 

To date, we have found only found one paper (published in 2010) that outlines Nepal's trade relationships and how structural adjustment programmes have shaped the national economy. Things have moved on and we desperately want to learn more. Please write to us if you can help us develop our understanding further.

We want to design ways to lobby for the sort of structural changes that are needed to systemically challenge the root causes of poverty and inequality in Nepal. 

Please share this article and please write to us to get involved with our efforts to 'strike at the root.'