Who's Setting The Aid Agenda

In my work overseas with various aid agencies I have found it most important and most critical to understand first, who is setting the agenda. Those people who best know their own problems and how to solve them? Most of us living elsewhere, therefore believe, and rightly expect local communities and the recipients of aid to be setting the agenda. Money is donated by the public or given by the government to assist these people and communities in solving their immediate needs and apparent problems. However, this is a very simplistic approach and you might be surprised to hear that this very rarely happens.

Imagine if you can, the number of people charged with the responsibility of delivering aid from one end of the chain to the other. Let us start with the government minister who thinks it worthwhile to extract a minimum of 0.4% GDP in the form of taxes from his constituents and the country in general, to fulfil his party’s pledge to reduce the suffering of millions across the globe. An incredibly laudable humanitarian gesture from a person who has much to lose by doing so. Alongside him, we have the proverbial, little old granny knitting jumpers, socks and hats for poor little babies starving in Africa. Another laudable gesture no less magnanimous considering her circumstances. It is my contention each of these individuals, located at one extreme end of the chain has an agenda; while both remain undoubtedly praiseworthy and righteous through to their core. We then have our high ranking bureaucrat; sitting in her Whitehall office or the Chief Executive Officer of our well known aid agency both charged with the difficult and complex task of delivering this aid effectively and efficiently to where it is most needed. They each have some idea of how best this money might be spent, or how these goods may be delivered. They have a vague idea, of who best to give it to but often lack the resources to monitor and report back to the minister and the granny with any great degree of clarity. Our bureaucrat and CEO will have to rely heavily on their colleagues in the field to explain just how well the job was done and precisely how many people benefited, and in exactly what ways. So the Minister and the Granny devise their plans to hand it all to the aid agency’s Head Office in London. Embassies are informed, the money and goods are then transferred, with just a little taken out to cover admin costs. The Regional Office of our most favoured aid agency receive these donations and scratch their heads. Time has passed on perhaps and that drought has turned to flood, those refugees stuck at the border have found a route through and disappeared and those starving babies have just died! Nevertheless, there are endless worthy souls and causes still to save and attend to.

Rest assured, funds and donations-in-kind end up in the hands of professionals. Men and women who have years of proven experience in the field; bright and shiny reputations backed up with lots of glossy brochures and magnificently presented reports giving the most convincing facts and figures, all backed up with individual case studies. These messages are further supported and reinforced through numerous retail outlets, media campaigns and cheery, hopeful individuals collecting money on our streets and in our charity shops back home. Our aid money and resources are, we are constantly assured, in good hands.

Staff in the regional offices spread across Africa, Latin America and Asia liaise with their country based personnel. They study field reports, pour over the facts and figures provided by the local and international media and their own public relations team. Then fully armed with extensive knowledge they advise on where, when and how best to target local populations. Drought conditions, hurricanes, cyclones, floods and all manner of natural disasters are confirmed by weather reports, journalists and locally based aid workers and government officials. Clan conflicts and security incidents are confirmed by security professionals, military advisers, satellite surveillance and combatants. Outbreaks of disease are confirmed though medical reports, clinical statistics, suffering individuals, overwhelmed and rapidly filling cemeteries. Local aid workers assigned to the field, living in nearby towns and villages are all too aware of the situation on the ground; the vast and ever-growing needs of affected populations. Their relatives and extended family members are likely to be suffering just as much as anyone else. Our media savvy and internationally recruited aid workers provide regular updates on the situation and add a degree of impartiality, neutrality and all the other adjectives any agency operating in the field needs to justify and protect itself from criticism. And so we have reached the end of the chain – the beneficiaries, stakeholders, clients, end users, communities, individuals, people or whatever the current terminology is.

The vulnerable know all too well the effects of drought, recurrent flooding, acute watery diarrhoea, rebel activity, all-out war, earthquakes and tsunamis. Similarly, they tend to know exactly what is needed to solve their immediate and most pressing needs. And here we begin to see the cracks appears. What the government minister has in mind and what is written in the report lying on his desk is so often different than what really needs to be placed into the outstretched arms and hands of those in dire straits. So where does it all go wrong?

I submit to you that it is in the hidden agendas set by each and every individual up and down the chain that determines the degree of success or failure of any intervention. The efficacy of any aid programme is massively enhanced when those varied agendas are most closely aligned. But achieving such alignment is a mighty task in deed.

As the Managing Director of my own company I, emphatically set the agenda. Every Wednesday at exactly the same time each week, my engineers and support staff would, like moths drawn to  moonlight, lay down their tools and move irresistibly towards our office meeting room. We had an immutable agenda with one specific, overall objective; ‘to improve our efficiency and efficacy in order to maximize our profitability’. We were indeed, a private company and had no other raison d’être. Our clients, past, present and future expected their projects delivered on time, within budget and to specification. Nothing else mattered to them. Consequently, business remained simple and straight forward in these two regards.

In contrast to business the Aid sector is hamstrung, from top to bottom, by the imposition of multiple and often conflicting agendas. On the surface of things, and in the press, and as expressed by various ‘mission statements’ everyone in the chain is there to serve the poor, to protect their rights, to feed the hungry, to give them dignity, solace, comfort and succour and to above all, ‘do no harm’. Yet one man’s hidden agenda can be another’s downfall despite all the nice words.

You see, the Minister has the unenviable task of getting himself re-elected every four or five years and he needs to show results; on a grand scale. It maybe his task to ensure that young people in developing countries stay firmly rooted and situated in their own country and somehow lose all desire to travel to his. He may have to convince his supporters that despite the ugliness of war he is doing all he can to mitigate the inevitable collateral damage and to protect innocent civilians. Ultimately it is his task to increase his popularity among the masses and get himself re-elected to office.

The Granny in her dotage has time on her hands. She prefers to remain seated and has endless yards of wool to dispose of yet the grand-children no longer require winter woollies as they are away to university these days. She has been a stalwart all her life helping out whenever and wherever she can. Now money is tight and her pension is just enough to fill the electric meter with a few coins each day. And yet those pictures of starving, snotty nosed children still stare out at her from the TV screen in the corner of the room during each and every commercial break. She takes a second, closer look and recognizes the young man she likes and admires so much from her favourite soap - 'Coronation Street'. His sincerity is so ardently projected through the screen and those kids are suffering so badly she just has to do something and gets right on knitting.

The senior civil servant now has a budget to spend and not an insignificant one. Suddenly she has a million pounds to effortlessly shift off her desk and account for. On top of that, she has a crazy timeline to adhere to and a Minister to please by ‘Close of Business’ today. Her team is small and have done it all before despite some complaints whispered in the hallways and corridors that money was wasted and did not, all get to where it was intended. She has no time to follow those rumours now. Her priorities and those of her staff should be aligned with the minister’s and ways should be found asap to find partners in the field who know what they are doing and have a track record of delivering the goods. She looks up and down the chain and makes her call. Keep it clean, no hint of loss, corruption or impropriety, keep everyone happy, busy, efficient, productive and informed and perhaps, and just perhaps this time round she’ll get an OBE for being the critical link in the chain! Something to propel her forward in life and to be rightly proud of.

The Regional Manager (RM) looks out of his office window on a chaotic street scene in a chaotic third world city. For him, it has been, undoubtedly a very nice and pleasant experience living here for a few years. Good food, pleasant company and time enough to enjoy a bit of life in this exotic locale. The kids have enjoyed the culture, made their friends, had their freedom to explore and run wild as we all did in the days of our youth in Europe, America and elsewhere. A perfectly reasonable salary has gone a long way in this impoverished country but the RM has deserved his perks when considering the almost nightly power cuts, the intermittent bouts of diarrhoea and tropical diseases suffered and endured by all the family. Then, there is the ever-present fear of casual muggings on the street and/or worse kidnapping by radical fundamentalists. Perhaps, and despite his intimate knowledge of the culture and sector, gained through years of living in the bush he might just have to eventually move back home. Back home to give the kids the chances they could only ever have dreamed of. So one more project to complete. Let’s get it done and dusted with the minimum of fuss he thinks. Let’s avoid that nasty trip beyond the city limits; no need for that at this late stage. There are younger more excited graduates and endless interns eagerly waiting in the wings for that very chance. No need to be so radical any more. It hardly worked then, why should it now. The Regional Manager had some great ideas and was full of enthusiasm then but alas youth undid him and nobody took him seriously. With an unblemished record of doing good it is time to move on.

Into the field we find a mixed bunch. Too many types to talk about coherently in fact but here are a few standards. First the adrenaline-junkies. Full of fire and crazy schemes to get things done to make the world an immeasurably better place under their intense guidance. Like religious fanatics only they can be right and if only the beneficiaries knew what delights he had in mind for them – they might be a little more cooperative! The adrenaline junkie needs to move fast, solve the problem quick, needs everyone to understand his point of view so those eagerly waiting in the next country can benefit from his experience and passion. Agendas for him are a waste of time as are most things; just got to get things done and move right on as quickly as possible.

Then we have the actual religious-fanatic, as opposed to the merely religious (with whom I like to identify for the record)! She is overly sincere. With every shipment of aid comes a wholesome dose of God. Every ‘Focus Group Discussion’ bears the hallmarks of her undying passion and sincerity. Within most ancient, conservative societies people find it easy to respect one another just as much for what they have in common as for their differences, but throw an evangelical in the mix and watch the fireworks explode. The religious fanatic has but one obvious item on their agenda and the meeting can be over pretty quickly.

Other types include the anthropologist or volunteer who needs more time; endless time in fact and for whom nothing can be done at pace. He knows his people inside out and is there to protect; has earned the right to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. He has a unique insight into the lives of these unique people and is so insightful even they are baffled by his inestimable knowledge!

Then we have the first class graduate with nothing left to learn and everything to give looking enviously up the greasy pole to an office with all mod-cons, air conditioning, internet and a comfy bed for the night. They are no sooner in than out but all is well since they write a top class report in no time at all explaining that all is well.

In deed there are many, many types to be found on the front line. The majority are sincere in their wish at least, to 'do no harm'. The old adage goes that every one of them is either mad, missionary or mercenary and this classification seems watertight to me. If you want to know for sure, best take a closer look at their agenda and figure it out from there.

Now finally, we come to those at the extreme end of the aid and development chain. Despite the numerous images on our screens we hardly know them at all. We know their numbers; even by their age and gender. We know them by their maladies and we know them by what they have received to date. But for the life of us we hardly know them at all. Rest assured I tell you, from the Minister down to the aid worker on the ground we all know they have been catered for!