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Re-Examining Policy on Aid

Author: Varun Vidyarthi

Aid comes with a lot of goodwill and often with sacrifices on part of the donor. But the process of giving and the message that goes with it distorts the outcome. Aid agencies have tried to overcome the problems by being “professional” by enabling a process of building ’vision’, ‘mission’, ‘outputs’ and ‘indicators’. A good attempt no doubt, but this has not significantly changed the situation. Written records on paper often have little relation to reality on ground. 

Is there an alternative?

It is best to examine the reality at both the donor and the recipient end. There is need for deeper reflection on questions like “What are we trying to achieve?” together with ‘For Whom?’ and the ‘How?’ It is also important to examine the reality at the recipients end with questions like ‘Who are involved?’, ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’. The answers are usually uncomfortable and tend to get relegated to the background; the output being filled by volumes of reports with photographs and indicators in gloss finish: the burden of aid.

If we wish to look at the issues afresh from the perspective of policy, it might be useful to reflect collectively on the factors we control and those we don't. Perhaps some ground work could be done together in multiple seminars, with different stakeholders, to form the basis for any intervention. 

Accordingly, some possible questions for reflection might be:

  1. Are we promoting the process of building institutions for sustained economic and social change at different levels?
  2. Are we helping to put in place a process of accountability, monitoring and governance with the participation of people as far as possible?
  3. Are we promoting a process of empowerment and self help among the most disadvantaged to enable development of leadership from below?
  4. Are the technical skills offered and the inputs proposed appropriate to the real needs and conditions of the people?
  5. Is there a process of genuine dialogue and deliberation that is not distorted by the interests and perceptions of the local elites?
  6. Have we initiated a process of building qualified and experienced trainers with clarity of vision and skills to lead the process of information dissemination and process details in both the government and non-government sector?

We will be able to assist the recipients of aid, if we are able to build a resource pool of persons and institutions at our end too. No process is perfect. It is the willingness to seriously reflect and be ready to change that is important.

At the recipients end, it will be important for the aid process to help people raise such questions themselves and develop preparedness to conduct ground experiments to test out the propositions with the limited aid resources available.

Every evolution is a struggle and is messy as it involves challenging the status quo, making mistakes, opportunities for renegotiation and reorganization. Are we prepared to include this in our agenda?

Some ground experiments at the recipient end could look like:

  1. Identifying, building and testing trainer capacities for appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes? What really works?
  2. Partnerships between different combinations of the state, civil society and business groups to conduct the experiments on economic, social change in different areas?
  3. Similarly to foster partnerships for the development of infrastructure, education and health that is more accessible to the poor.
  4. Enable self help, self governance and self reliance processes to manifest from below upwards.
  5. Enable development of science technology institutions that retain contact with people’s institutions.

A tall order indeed. Most of these exercises will not be easy to undertake; so it will be important to dialogue and deliberate with different sections of society to identify talent, leadership and partnership possibilities. Even a little progress on these fronts would open avenues for greater synergy among institutions at both ends and will be the greatest gift of aid programmes.

I recommend having a seminar series on the subject to bring in multiple thoughts without boundaries. After all we are dealing with our own future.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Re-Examining Policy on Aid © Varun Vidyarthi 2013.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.