Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

USAID, compliance culture, and doing decent development

Andrew Natsios was in charge of the US Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2006, and he knows what he is talking about in this 80-page essay (summary here, also covered by Laura Freschi here). His basic argument is that USAID is now running so scared of the multitude of government bodies to which it is accountable that the effort put into compliance with the petty bureaucratic requirements of Washington bean-counters is squeezing out actual, you know, aid work. (I was referred to Freschi's synopsis of Natsios by John Ashworth's mailing list, which is mainly of interest to Sudan-watchers but sometimes carries more general material.)

It made a lot of sense to me. I have twice been on the receiving end of USAID grants and my view was that they were the donor from hell; the reporting requirements bore little relation to the nature of the work (in my last job, I spent hours diligently chasing up and submitting time sheets for my entire team, purely to comply with USAID demands; I am sure that - as I warned management before we formally applied for the grant - nobody in USAID ever looked at them), and indeed the task of servicing USAID's bureaucratic requirements was generally delegated to tolerant (and often very junior) colleagues in Washington rather than those in the field carrying out the work.

But Natsios' essay puts this in perspective. If USAID's demands of its grantees appeared insane to us, that was because the demands made on USAID by what Natsios precisely terms the 'counter-bureaucracy' were equally insane. From his account, my first dealings with USAID were at a particularly low point in morale in the mid-1990s. (It probably didn't help the dynamics between me and my AID interlocutors that my line manager in Washington was married to Natsios' then predecessor as USAID administrator, though everyone was entirely professional and correct about it.) No wonder the USAID officials I dealt with in the field appeared to be so paranoid; populist politicians in Washington actually were out to get them. 

I remember one occasion when I was instructed to wait in my freezing Bosnian office in Banja Luka on a Saturday afternoon for a visitation from the General Accounting Office, one of the many oversight bodies which kept USAID on its toes. Half an hour after the appointed time, a knock came on the door; it was a steamingly angry US Marine who had been nursemaiding the visitors from Washington and had come to bring me the news that it would be another two hours before they arrived. I had instructions from HQ that on no account was I to miss the meeting, but I did not engage with the GAO with terribly good grace once they did show up. I now realise that this was just one symptom of the arrogance with which the counter-bureaucrats treated the objects of their scrutiny.

Natsios does not argue that all accountancy controls should be lifted. He does however plead that they should be the right controls. Current practice is forcing USAID to look at shorter and shorter timescales, when a genuine development perspective requires committed funding and staffing for the order of a decade. The framework for judging development work is barely being developed; the framework for judging political aid (which Natsios rightly distinguishes from economic and social development) barely exists. Business paradigms can be useful for short-term projects such as disaster relief but should otherwise be taken with a pinch of salt.

If anything I feel Natsios is too nice about emergency humanitarian aid (or perhaps he just doesn't want to open that particular can of worms here). Everyone involved in post-conflict situations knows that as the single biggest element of international assistance it is also the single biggest locus of corruption and theft. Again, going back to Banja Luka, I remember the tins of tuna in the shops labelled "This Fish Is A Gift To The People Of Bosnia From The Japanese Government Via The World Food Programme. It Is Not For Sale." Normally this would still be legible under the price tag. I've seen a couple of scare stories in the media recently about humanitarian aid sometimes being abused by local warlords. Not actually news, guys; and simply impossible to prevent.

Natsios makes one comment with which I respectfully if partially disagree; that "many of the European aid agencies" also suffer "from multiple layers of regulation and oversight." Actually my experience with European aid agencies - with one exception - has uniformly been positive; they treat grantees and potential grantees as partners in dialogue and programming, in the confidence that we share a joint goal rather than that we are trying to steal money from them. The one exception, interestingly, is the European Commission itself, which has precisely the problem identified by Natsios of multiple and conflicting layers of regulation and oversight - in particular, the European Parliament tends to overcompensate for its lack of authority (both legal and intellectual) in foreign affairs by striking at the budget lines and demanding more financial reporting. The EU aid budget has had other problems, not shared by USAID, as well; but I found significant flashes of recognition as Natsios described the dynamics of international aid politics inside the Washington beltway.

It's a shame. The US has the biggest development budget of any single country (though shamefully remains among the lowest donors in per capita terms in the developed world); on political aid, the US has an expertise and ability that no other country can match. But the political credibility of this vital work seems to have tumbled off the wall of Washington discourse many years ago. While Natsios' article has mapped out the trajectory of the fall, I don't really see how anyone can put Humpty back together again.

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