Role of international aid in development

Amal Chatterjee
11 min readApr 8, 2018

Synopsis : The role of international aid in the development of other countries has increasingly come into debate and soul searching. Often such aid is hampered by the corrupt politicians and mismanagement so the emphasis of this blog is to be self reliant and seek aid only when new methods and technologies are needed .

Role of international aid in development

Source : Google photo

This is a topic that evokes strong reaction from certain quarters as people tend to get very patriotic when it comes to evaluating how much their countries are helping others. However, as an impartial observer I do have a few things to say about how some countries play their aid card to further their own interests and try to make recipient countries feel a sense of gratitude.

The prime culprit in this game of aid to serve its own interest is the United States of America with its vaunted USAID program with a symbol of clasping a black hand and using this sticker on anything they ever pay for.

Richard Nixon once infamously said “the United States does not give aid to other countries to help them but rather it gives aid to help itself”. If we analyse this statement further ,we come to find the truth behind it. One USAID employee in Haiti glibly said to me that for every aid dollar the US spends on foreign aid, more than 67 cents go back to the US. This is not a joke but straight from the horse’s mouth. There is a law passed by the congress that says that all the equipment needed for any project overseas must be bought in the US be it a vehicle or a paper clip. The exceptions are few and hard fought for.

The American Jeep dealer in Port Au Prince was a real rascal and supplied poorly built jeeps with city tires that kept falling apart within the year and needed constant welding and fixing but he made a fortune being the sole dealer of jeeps. When asked why he sold jeeps with city tires when the vehicles needed all terrain tires, he said it was not his fault.No one at the AID office told him about the all terrain tires so he did it cheaply and made more profit. The AID people are not field people and rarely go out of their air conditioned offices so I believe they did not know how bad the roads in rural Haiti were.

So very few cents to a dollar for the project itself remained in country to spend locally less the ever present corruption in recipient countries that siphoned off more of the remaining cents leaving only a pittance to run the project. The whole bureaucracy of AID that oversees the multi billion dollar aid program overseas is run from it’s Washington HQ where pencil pushing officers talk whole day of nothing but PIL ( project implementation letter) and such to demonstrate how important a work they are doing and how they are helping the poor Haitians or Afghanis who are so grateful for this aid.

Then they insist that US experts should be invited to the project site to give them advice on what to do and how to do it .These “experts” are then paid a hefty fee,air fare plus per diem that of course comes out of the project budget because these funds are earmarked for such “help” . One such expert wanted to come to Haiti and build a solar cooker when I asked for help in building a rice grain blower and sent him the blue print to do it. He said that such a complicated machine can not be built in Haiti which is a very poor country and does not have the facility or workshop to do it so he will build a solar cooker instead. Our project was an agricultural project to help rice farmers and it did not need a solar cooker so I put my foot down and refused to authorize this expert to come .

This raised some eyebrows and the expert was mad as a hatter . Who was this third world agronomist to stop him? Wasn’t it an American funded project? By the way ,there was a modern workshop in Les Cayes where all tools were available to build the machine but the idiot had never even seen a hand operated grain blower let alone know what it was supposed to do. I suppose he had never heard of IRRI either.

Then there was another expert who showed up with a small vacuum cleaner to catch mosquitoes to see if they were the biting type. This was an agriculture project which had nothing to do with mosquitoes so who invited him and paid for him?

On top of that came a horde of congressmen and other VIPs from Washington on “fact finding missions” but never mentioned what facts they were able to find. One of them took over my living room to make a political speech to a quickly gathered crowd of yokels who did not understand English. This congressman probably thought that he was a snake oil peddler and needed an apple crate to stand on.

We said no to any future clown who wanted to do the same again raising some eyebrows at the US embassy. Wasn’t I a third world agronomist who should have been grateful for the employment in a US funded project? You can draw your own conclusions but the fact is that I have met many such people who pretended to help the poor countries but actually did nothing of the sort.

The head of the USAID program in Washington once started talking to me in a very condescending manner and said that it was good that I was teaching those poor ignorant farmers in Vietnam new methods and techniques in agriculture. When I said that they were not ignorant and knew agriculture better than anyone , he did not like my response and terminated the meeting. This culture of condescension prevails through out the system and is widely resented by recipient countries.

There are a huge number of organisations that have their offices around Washington ,DC. and are called beltway bandits because they are after the piece of the American Aid pie. Their sole purpose of existence is to frequent the AID office to find out what new offers are in the offing, what kind of project proposals are needed to bid for the contract, how much money is earmarked for the project and what is the deadline for submission of the bids. Then they get to work.

They hire the “experts” who are dime a dozen in the US or elsewhere and these experts after a cursory visit to the project site and country, write voluminous reports called project proposal that details the personnel,equipment, cost and other sundry items and with this in hand the bandits then bid for the project. If they get the project , it means a land fall profit for them because the lion’s share of the budget for the project goes for the overhead expense for them in DC,the experts plus the mandatory purchase of equipment etc. which is part of the 67 cents to the dollar that must be sent back.

A friend of mine once told me how these experts always carried their laptops with them and could be seen furiously typing away while on a plane or in the airport waiting lounges. Report writing has never been easier these days thanks to Google . You can get any amount of information in the internet but their report would usually start with a paragraph like “ In a very poor land locked country of Afghanistan where people live on less than a dollar a day” etc. Copy and paste feature is made for these “experts”.

I have mentioned here the USAID but may countries have similar modus operandi and have even stricter rules on how to spend the project money, who gets to spend it and how much of it must go back to the donor. They insist that the project manager must be an American if the funding is from America or European if the funds come from Europe. They do not trust a third country national with their money but once in a while they hire someone like me who can then be a thorn on their side.

There are however some surprises once in a while. There are some ex Peace Corps people who join the AID and bring with them their extensive field experiences. They understand the poor countries better because of their first hand living experience there and know what it takes to make a project successful so they push hard within their system to give a person like me a helping hand as they did in Haiti. But they are few in number and are often overlooked.

Now let us analyse the impact of the aid policies on the recipient countries. I have sat through many meetings between the donors and the recipients as a facilitator or sometimes as a translator and got to know the real feelings of the receivers of aid. Often they flatly refused to abide by the strict rules they must accept before the project agreement is signed because they want to be free to decide how the money is spent ,where it is spent and how much must remain in the hands of the recipient country.

Often such meetings ended up in a failure to come to an agreement and the visitors were sent back to the airport after a meal in a restaurant where the waiters were told by the host to send them the bill later and they disappeared . The visitors morosely ate their meal alone and went back to the airport to write their report .They always carried their laptops.

I have often felt a strong sense of resentment the poorer countries feel that is growing toward the donor countries that impose so strict rules and lay the ground work for mistrust that works like termites eating away at the foundation.

The donors will do anything to get a project going somewhere and will invite the minister or head of a department to Washington or Brussels all expenses paid to
make them agree on a project because it is a lot easier to do it in DC or in Brussels than in Bamako or Niamey but some times it back fires.

I have been told again and again that the donors must not underestimate the capability of the locals to run a project because they can often do it a lot cheaper and more efficiently than the foreigners. They too have many highly educated people with Ph.Ds who are smart and can be project managers and they should be given full authority on how to run a project , hire people and should have full participation in writing the project proposal that is suitable to their needs. Instead of a top down approach ,it should be a bottom up approach so that the project helps the poor in a solid well managed way.

They scoff at the experts who take a great deal of money to tell them what they already know and feel that such a waste of money should be stopped. They want the staff to be better trained so they want them to be sent to international research centers or other such places but such demands are often not met. I was invited to a conference in Tanzania when I was working in Mali but the Canadian employer refused to sponsor it giving no reasons. I was entitled as an international staff to participate in international meetings .

There are many such issue that plague international development that need discussion at the highest level. I often dealt with callous program officers who were outright ignorant about the local culture and treated people badly creating ill feelings all around. One such fellow went to a remote village in Mali and asked villagers what their problems were so the villagers very eagerly gave him a long list of their problems thinking the “blanc” will do something about it. But the “blanc” was just making cheap talk not realizing that he was raising the expectations of these poor villagers.

So from my experience I know that the real development can only come when donors and recipients can sit down and thresh out all the issues that divide them and do it openly with the aim to help the poor in a concrete and measurable way. People give money but they always want something in return so the aids are always with strings attached. It is important for the poor countries to know what those strings are and whether or not they agree to the terms that are often dictated by the donor’s home offices.

There is a classic example of waste of aid money in Afghanistan where a multi million dollar gas station was built where practically no one had a car or a school where there were no teachers and the Talibans threatened any one attending such schools. The gas station or school could be built by the locals at the fraction of the cost but the contract was given to Americans. This sort of thing goes on everywhere . No one goes back to check a few years later if the gas station is still in use or the school has trained teachers and students attending there.

The money spent by the AID for the irrigation canal in Haiti is another example of waste where the contractor stole money from the project and built canals with less cement and more sand resulting in crumbling canals that brought water no where. At first the more powerful farmers who were also a part of the militia called ton ton macoute in Haiti took most of the water up stream for themselves leaving very little for the farmers down streams . This caused many conflicts and even deaths.

There is a real need of development be it in agriculture, education or infrastructure development or health care. The national governments always struggle to meet these demands because they do not have the resources or due to widespread corruption that exists at every level that siphons money away from the projects. The government officials elected or not tend to fill their pockets first and give only lip service to developing their country.

As I have written earlier, there is no end to corruption anywhere. It exists everywhere .Only the degree varies from country to country. There is corruption whenever money is spent for anything anywhere so that is a fact of life.The idea is to find a solution that can channel most of the aid money to those who need them most but a country never develops with foreign aid. The poor remain poor and some people get very rich stealing the aid money. Such countries remain aid dependent and can not bring development to where it is needed. The real development has to come from within the country and for that to happen ,you need a responsive elected government that thinks first of it’s people.

But that is a very tall order anywhere.

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.