The problem with aid? That it must be spent at all cost.

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The problem with aid for development is that you must spend it. I was recently talking with a friend with extensive experience in the sector.

We had been discussing about aid effectiveness and decisions taken at the global level to make aid more effective and impactful as translated on the ground in the recipient countries.

My friend is certainly not a radical thinker nor is he negatively biased against development. He is a very good, honest professional full of common sense that has been working at different levels with different actors.

The discussions ended up around the simple, undeniable truth that the real problem with aid for development is that it is money that must be spent.

From the donors to the implementers at the grassroots level the stark reality is that there is  huge pressure to spend money even when it is  certainly not the best thing to do.

After all agencies have elaborate budget matrixes with clear, verifiable indicators accompanied by milestones (I think they still call them “smart”)  on how  financial resources must be disbursed no matter what. Each budget line is tied up with concrete outputs, actions that are implemented that, put all together, should be able to generate an expected outcome (I think they still call it log frame though terminology varies according to agencies and this is very confusing).

I know I am risking falling into simple generalizations. It is an undeniable  fact that out there are quite a few professionals who are serious and honest enough with themselves, with the beneficiaries they serve and the tax payers or donors they represent to reject out right this no sense logic.

But unfortunately development work is very well structured into a system; therefore it is very difficult to escape its inherent fallacies, the most important of which is that aid money brought from overseas must be spent no matter what the costs.

Of course there are cases when donors are forced to disburse aid because of flagrant corruption but these are more the exceptions than the rules.

Either we are talking about official donor assistance or long distance sponsorship, there is a great deal of work behind the raised money. There is a lot of expertise and knowledge to translate donations into coherent and possibly workable programs that hopefully will bear fruit on the ground.  

Most importantly there are great expectations back home. After all how could it be different especially when aid money is raised at the grassroots level by common citizens strongly motivated by the higher cause to help nations still developing.

The expectations are also not just among the grassroots donors but also among the highest ranking officers leading the official aid agencies. They have pressure from  elected officers to do their best to make miracles out of the official aid being disbursed. 

The politicians themselves are also under scrutiny from  national civil societies that in  past decades has made a very important case for more aid for development. In  most of the cases  civil society is very well intentioned, moved by the belief that aid is essential and instrumental to changing for the better the lives of millions of people living in poverty.

Some other members are actually part of the “industry” and here I do refer to the aid industry and to not for profit organizations advocating for more aid simply because they depend on it in order to survive. It is not that these organizations are evil, not at all.  They were created with very noble goals but there are always some risks in getting bigger and too much institutionalized.

 A good number of them are doing a fine job driven by passion and determination to put an end to inequalities and discriminations in  so called developing countries.  But at the same time there is a risk of conflict of interest among them when they do advocate for more allocation of aid money.

You can see it is a pretty complex mess. Very few organizations, I know a couple (The Atlantic Philanthropy based in USA and The One Foundation from Ireland) who set a deadline by which they will shut down their shops for good.

Managing aid money is not easy. Spending aid money in the right and proper way is even more complicated. The system does not help. The system actually does not incentivize decisions that might slow down rather than speed up the disbursement of aid.

After all  financial goals must be met no matters what. This obviously has huge implications on how aid works. Huge amounts of aid money could be spent in a much better manner with no rush and legal obligations from above.

I am currently involved in a fundraising drive for the organization I co-founded. I am not sure if it will ever work out but if it will I promised myself that even with access to resources in the future, our spending decisions should not be dictated by timelines and work plans only but most importantly by the common sense and a sense of justice that I hope we will never lose.

After all you can do so much even without funding. I met a few months ago with a successful CEO of a not for profit organization. He shared with me that they have became very big, they have a big budget and high number of staff. He somehow was missing the old times when there was no money but more passion and more fun.

Things done were the same but the spirit and way of working was different and I believe that the most difficult thing is how to strike a right and fair balance, certainly not an easy task.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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