From development to transparency…

Too often people think that Civil Society are formal NGO’s: following Habermas’ theory of public sphere we take civil society as a space rather than a set of organisations. It may be thus termed the civil domain. Civil domains are nested in a larger sphere, the arena. In this arena conflicts of power are fought out – in cold and hot wars. This two-sphere model lends itself to an analysis of power in and around a country or an issue.

Many constraints arise in the interplay of economic, political and military forces in a ‘public arena’, where state and non-state actors contest for power in ways strongly influenced by geo-politics. Oil and diamonds, etc. as well as security. In that sense natural resources have – de facto – the same effect as development aid (especially where it is used for budget or sector support). The effect is disastrous for democracy in a way that Dambisa Moyo describes as the ‘reversed Boston tea party’: ‘no representation without taxation’: money for public expenditure does not come from the local taxpayer but comes ‘from above’: ergo: the government holds the civilians ransom, the base for clientelism is there.
International development agencies are currently fixated on project-based strategies, including support to NGOs as vehicles for relief and ‘development’ services and for ‘advocacy’. We argue that the priorities should instead fall on domains and arenas: multiple – courageous – actors, rather than institutes.
We – as development practitioners – have a problem here, that cannot be solved simply and that is mainly given by the catch 22 we’re in: we know that we should support activists and grassroots organisations, but our money comes from governments that have made accountability more important than effectiveness …
Because of the sometimes absurd regulations we are almost obliged to spend the money to large NGO’s that we know to be ineffective…. (but write good reports…).
So I don’t know the solution for the overall problem, but I know that some – smaller – northern NGO’s are trying to bridge the gap I described and that sometimes through ‘umbrella NGO’s’ the money can effectively end up where it needs to be.
What my argument boils down to: let’s act together, let’s go on, or let’s find more ways to support those people who deserve our support and to people that have the courage to enlarge the public domain trough media, public debates and everything the like.
We admire courageous people in non-democratic and corrupt states – so let’s try to be a little bit courageous and defy the actual discourse in international cooperation where it works to the detriment of those who really need it.

The paradox of aid….

Some time ago I was in Nairobi for an evaluation of a global youth organization. I worked mainly with youth groups in Kibera and Mathare respectively, two ‘one million inhabitants slums’.

These hard working youngsters (all under 30) do hardly get any support from the international development organizations and not a shilling from their own government. Still they have over 50 members each, run small schools for orphans, organize ‘micro-credit groups’ themselves, have some money put aside for income generating loans (with 500 euro you can start a complete water distribution point, where 10 youngsters are busy with), run health advice for single mothers, etc. etc.

At night, back in my hotel I read in the papers that the minister of education has answered to the accusations of DFID from Britain that 30 million pounds have disappeared: He admits that it is at least 1 million pounds and that officials in his ministry have received the money for receipts manufactured by themselves. By the way: the minister stated that he would not resign, because he did not want to suffer for the misbehavior of his juniors… so much for the ministerial responsibility…

So the bilateral support for education in Kenya is now withheld by the UK government… Anyhow I saw with my own eyes that ‘education for all’ in Kenya (that is the programme Britain contributes to) means ‘income for the few’: no cent had been spent by the ministry of education nor by any civil society organizations to the 150 school kids in Mathare: shacks serve as schools (educated by volunteers from the community)…
And of course this kind of things do not only happen to British development aid, it happens all over the place.

What do I see in this example – one of many?
• In the first place it supports Patrick Chabals analysis (see ‘Southern Africa: Civil Society, Politics and donor strategies’(2009) to which I also contributed an article on Angola) that ‘power is about the control of resources’ – development aid is but one of the resources the political class controls – through the state…
• Further I saw once again that where the need is highest seemingly ‘chaotic’ and disorganized groups of volunteers take the lead and do something. Groups that are very seldom linked with registered charities and NGO’s (that can receive our international funds).
• In the third place it is clear that in the ‘aid arena’ the grassroots organizations are indeed in jeopardy (I quote Chabal again) because they do not meet our bureaucratic criteria – which paradoxically have come into life above all because of public outcries – specifically because of frauds like this story! So: because of the fact grassroots activists get no money from the government (that is subsidized by development agencies) aid on al large scale is frozen – so they will never get any money…. Do you still wonder why many people in sheer disbelief want to go and bring their own money to Africa? I can understand it better and better….