Sri Lanka’s thinking public should scrutinize development aid projects here. What if some of them are failing to help? Or worse?

Angus Deaton, last year’s Nobel Prize winner in economics, stakes his career partly on the critique of international development aid. He argues that aid retards governmental responsibility toward citizens by providing assistance that governments should be providing themselves. Development aid is no substitute for good governance and actually deflects its emergence.

Deaton’s critique does not apply to emergency assistance and not so much to health initiatives like fighting and treating diseases, which have “saved millions of lives in poor countries”, as Deaton concludes. His critique applies mainly to initiatives in boosting living standards. “If poverty is not a result of the lack of resources or opportunities, but of poor institutions, poor government and toxic politics, giving money to poor countries —particularly giving money to the governments of poor countries — is likely to perpetuate and prolong poverty, not eliminate it,” writes Deaton in his well-known book, ‘The Great Escape’.

Deaton’s is not the last word: he has his critics on the subject despite his Nobel Prize. It can also be noted that, in Sri Lanka, lots of foreign development aid is not routed primarily through the government, but through non-governmental implementers, which then enlist government agencies as partners. Despite both these caveats, however, Deaton’s skeptical viewpoint should cue Sri Lanka’s thinking public to scrutinize development aid projects here. What if some of them are failing to help? Or worse?

Neither government nor the press feels any natural interest in investigating how worthwhile development aid interventions may be. The money, after all, presumably comes from donor country taxpayers, not out of Sri Lankan pockets. Who cares if that money is spent wisely and well? It presumably helps beneficiaries, it creates some domestic jobs at least, and it does no harm in any case, right? Press coverage tends heavily toward feel-good stories on ribbon-cutting launches and successful (self-reported) achievements. Ill-considered and failed projects are yesterday’s news, and reporting on them would require serious investigation.

Since incentives for such investigation may seem lacking, I would like to suggest some. Through critical analysis of past and prospective initiatives, it might also: 1) cut wastage of government and private funds and energy in support of dubious projects (Sri Lankan resources are sometimes at stake, in other words); 2) cut wastage of beneficiary time and energy participating in such projects; and, in some cases, 3) prevent outright damage to beneficiaries.

Neither government nor the press feels any natural interest in investigating how worthwhile development aid interventions may be

Dubious and unsuccessful interventions stem from various causes: unsound theory, ideological proclivities, inadequate capacity and competition for funding. International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) do not face the kind of market competition that forces private firms toward sound practices. This means that substantial discipline towards sound practices must come from their own organizational professionalism. I shall recount two anecdotes—one that points at how fundraising imperatives may skew programme planning, another that points out how ideological priorities and poor organizational capacity can harm aid beneficiaries. Both anecdotes involve the same donor and the same INGO implementer, with donor and INGO both headquartered in foreign capitals. Those facts, however, are incidental to my theme.First comes a story of a grant application. A major donor here offered several hundred-thousand dollars to organizations for projects that would enhance community group effectiveness in promoting improved living standards. Offshore and domestic non-profits alike submitted short-form, first-round applications known as ‘concept notes’. How to catch the donor’s attention is a big part of the concept note game. Only those few organizations whose concept notes get selected can compete in the competition’s long-form second round, which picks the actual grant winners.

For reasons unknown to me, my organization identified amelioration of the human-elephant conflict (HEC) as our proposed initiative in living standards enhancement. We would help farm communities to work together to protect crops from elephant damage, thereby boosting incomes. Specifically, we would convene community group discussions on optimal methods of protecting crops from ravaging jumbos. The rub came when we consulted Sri Lanka’s leading HEC scientists, who advised us that community group discussions could accomplish little in reducing crop damage by elephants. Such discussions could only recycle or re-combine methods and tactics already shown to be ineffective over the long run.

The HEC experts recommended a project focused on the installation of temporary electric fencing around vulnerable crops. Contact with such fencing is noxious to elephants, but not harmful. Fences can be taken down after harvest, so as to minimize off-season impact on elephant ranges. My organization quickly rejected any grant application centering on electric fences, however. Headquarters advised me bluntly that the donor would have no interest in funding electric fences. The focus needed to be on community planning and the implementation of varied HEC mitigation techniques.

Headquarters was probably right that the donor would have no interest in funding electric fencing (boring!!), even though there could be plenty of community engagement on issues like the extent, siting, expense and maintenance of the fences. We wound up submitting a proposal on HEC mitigation through ‘community planning’ as to various techniques, a proposal judged by our consulting experts as completely worthless for actual HEC reduction. Why do that? Because ‘community planning’ was where the donor’s money was. Humanitarian aid organizations need to fund themselves, of course. But there’s something troubling where the quest for funds starts to ignore whether they would get usefully spent. (Our proposal survived the concept note phase, but did not ultimately secure funding.)

My second story is more troubling. The aid programme in question aims at persuading challenged rural households to instal biogas units for their cooking needs rather than using firewood. Gathering firewood is tremendously time-consuming for the women and girls who mainly do it. The time required may pull girls out of school and keep their mothers from pursuing income-generating supplements to farming and husbandry. What’s more, cooking with firewood looses tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, making it a major greenhouse factor in aggregate. Hence, promote biogas units: good for females, household income, education and the environment. Families scoop up nearby manure and stash it in a fermentation dome, where it decomposes into methane gas and a residual slurry that can be used for fertilizer. Captured in the dome, methane flows through pipes and valves to the kitchen, where it fuels cook stoves. No muss, no fuss, clean and green.

There are problems, however. Units cost households something on the order of Rs50,000, depending on circumstances. To function properly, units require meticulous construction by skilled contractors, along with knowledgeable and careful household maintenance. To the extent these are lacking, marginal households waste their scarce funds by installing biogas. A major programme in Cambodia has installed some 20,000 household biogas units. It claims 90% proper functioning of its units, but I have to be skeptical.

Because the units require substantial construction expertise and careful maintenance, high-quality manuals are critical. While helping manage the Sri Lankan programme, I thought I should glance over the construction and maintenance manuals, drafted before I came in by an expert Sri Lankan engineer whose English is unfortunately spotty. The plan was to translate the English versions into Sinhala and Tamil for use in the field. But the English-version manuals I reviewed were largely unintelligible. Okay, I said to myself, I can work with the engineer to produce readable versions. Otherwise, we would have to hope that the Sinhala/Tamil translations would be better than the English template. Not likely.

When I conveyed to headquarters  that the manuals were in terrible shape and needed re-doing, I met a puzzling silence. A bit of probing revealed a dismaying fact: the manuals I reviewed were not drafts-in-process, but finalized versions already submitted to the donor for approval. When I insisted to headquarters that they badly needed re-drafting nevertheless, I learned that the donor had already approved them! It could not have done so had it reviewed the manuals with serious care.

“If poverty is not a result of the lack of resources or opportunities, but of poor institutions, poor government and toxic politics, giving money to poor countries is likely to perpetuate and prolong poverty, not eliminate it,” – ‘The Great Escape’, Angus Deaton

I can only conclude that the donor gave a high presumption of adequacy to technical manuals drafted by an expert engineer, without due attention to the language issue and other pitfalls of presentation.

Substantial failure could be expected due to human error even with high-quality manuals, but sub-standard manuals guarantee failure. Participating families will have wasted scarce resources for zero gain. This seems to violate a fundamental commandment in humanitarian aid: first, do no harm. A biogas programme may have made sense for Cambodia, where existing alternatives to firewood cooking are hard to come by.

In Sri Lanka, however, a reasonable alternative is readily available: liquid petroleum gas (LPG), the tanks most of us already use in our kitchens. The LPG network here already reaches some 70% of households, as opposed to roughly 20% in Cambodia. LPG use is nearly foolproof and it is cleaner, greener and easier on both females and shrinking forests than firewood cooking. Unlike biogas, LPG poses little risk to rural household purses. It demands no huge capital outlay. If it becomes unaffordable, nothing has been lost financially in switching back to firewood, even permanently, except for the price of a relatively cheap LPG cook stove. True, biogas is free once installed, so a unit can pay for itself in saved LPG costs over roughly three years. But that is only if the biogas unit works flawlessly.

Straightforward and cost-effective aid could easily take the form of helping and subsidizing challenged rural families in access to LPG. Again, however, no donor would ever fund an LPG access programme. (Boring!) The appeal of biogas lies largely in its capacity to reduce hydrocarbon greenhouse emissions. It consumes a greenhouse gas—methane—rather than producing any. Although methane leakage from faulty units is itself a greenhouse issue, biogas appears to be ‘greener’ than LPG overall, at least when it works properly. If we need to stymie global warming at all costs, biogas may be preferable. But should zeal for saving the planet mean imperiling the fragile finances of poor families?