Monday, February 29, 2016

Are aid agents foreign aid’s biggest beneficiaries?

From personal observations in aid-ridden Nepal, aid agents and aid entrepreneurs tend to be foreign aid’s greatest beneficiaries. Next are the elite ruling class. The common people benefit not so much if at all and even face a deathly downside to foreign intervention.

Meanwhile, aid agents typically enjoy high salaries, perks and a lifestyle that elevates them to the very top echelon of society--a society that they traveled overseas to change.

Agents also enjoy the modern day craze of social brownie points despite dubious work that can even be lethal among any assistance that might be delivered.

Generally, the common people prefer a chance to pursue their own dreams and ambitions with their own capabilities. What is lacking in this formula in Nepal is a functional government and liberal democratic framework under which to operate with self-determination. Instead, the people face indifference, interference, obstruction and oppression at nearly every step from their own government and its allies and abettors. 

Requisite services for property documentation, vehicle licensing, business registration and so on require lengthy negotiations while wading through non-transparent rules put up by uncooperative officials. Processing requires hidden fees and long wait times. Simple tasks are often insurmountable to low-income people who often give up in despair and for lack of time and money. Because of a dysfunctional bureaucracy and lack of opportunity in their homeland, many Nepalis go abroad for work where they have little to no homeland representation and chances are that they will be abused by unscrupulous employers. Roughly 30 Nepalis a month return from migrant work abroad in body bags and with heavy loans passed on to a grieving family.

Unfortunately, foreign aid paradigms can undermine the chance of solving the fundamental problem of poor government and transformation into something that serves rather than bilks the common people. Instead, aid tends to prolong problems by legitimizing the status quo, particularly by hiring from within it, working with the ruling class and funding them. Large donor resources meant for the citizens and country as a whole generally benefit only a sliver of the population of the privileged ruling class, a class with unearned status and power, and to aid entrepreneurs themselves. 

Aid organizations even attempt to do the government's work and thereby, the ruling class further avoids accountability for its failings. Above and beyond abetting the ruling gang, can foreign interlopers truly offer much when they typically lack language and culture skills of the very society they are meddling with even if their intentions are pure?

Without cultural understanding and language facility they more often than not are prone to mistakes, particularly by aligning with unethical people. Even still, the agents generally do not perceive the missteps precisely because of a lack of cultural understanding and language inability. Instead, many are convinced by the very people that they hire, people with a vested financial incentive to keep the schemes operative, that they are on track. Planning sessions are often held at five-star establishments that are totally insulated against the majority of people that their aid is targeting, people suffering under chronic poverty and extensive problems that go along with it.

At a minimum, these aid agencies should be transparent enough to be audited independently regarding the effects of their interventions and a time frame for how long they plan to operate in a host country off which they are benefiting with high salaries and high social status. The majority of foreign salaries are deposited tax-free in banks back home while in-country expenses and perks are provided for. In other words, aid entrepreneurs are living without personal expenditures and thereby have a high monetary incentive to continue the charade. The immense financial windfall and high social status gives them great motivation to continue even in dysfunctional positions. They are willing to prolong projects for as long as possible, regardless of viability and untoward effects. Unfortunately, real people continue to suffer in deadly ways.

Generally, INGOs operate with little to no oversight other than toothless internal reviews, if that. In their defense, without proper oversight, maybe they truly cannot fathom their failings and societal damage and do not realize the full extent of their cultural degradation and economic devastation of the people they are trying to aid. Then again, that would require a heroic amount of ignorance. 

We all know how abusive government with no oversight can get…imagine what quasi-government organizations with power, money, leverage and sanction from a paid-off ruling class are getting away with thousands of miles away from homeland scrutiny -- no one is watching, and many among them are highly motivated by lucrative personal profit to continue the schemes regardless of the hellish effects on the victims of poor governance endowed by indefinite aid.

For too long, the local people have been bullied by largely unworkable schemes that endorse an oppressive ruling gang and these people continue to suffer deathly consequences of chronic poverty and its many ills.

African economist Dambisa Moyo exclaims, “Let my people go!” Countries in Africa receiving indefinite aid perform abysmally on development metrics over decades relative to countries not receiving such aid. Yet, the schemes continue on and on and the bullied people continue to suffer with despair and face education, work opportunity and health problems--all which decrease quality of life and life span itself.

As Dr. Willam Easterly States, “The problem of poverty is not a shortage of experts. It’s a shortage of rights....the most important factor in lifting people out of poverty is allowing free markets and entrepreneurship to flourish...when there's an environment of universal rights for poor people, for citizens of a society, then that does indeed make technical solutions happen."

The citizens crave good governance which grants them the rights to do what they have been longing to do all along--develop themselves as they see fit and through their own actions. Instead they are held down and restrained by their own government and well-meaning interlopers who might unknowingly endow and abet the unethical elements of an overbearing government.

Meanwhile, many foreign interlopers are basically enjoying a career junket and do not want to rock the boat lest they lose personal blessings wrought from the poorest of the poor upon whose backs they justify continued operations that fill personal pockets while common folk see little trickle down benefits but are dying for want of good government.

If nothing else, kind-hearted aid interventionists, please consider that even Angus Deaton, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences for 2015, believes that foreign aid programs are largely counter productive and need to be revised. Can aid workers at a minimum please set aside personal motivation and personal benefit and consider the real effects of meddling in far-flung lands without language and cultural wherewithal? Maybe then they will either withdraw their services or if not, can present clear data that, intervention is, at a minimum, not harming people, the culture, the economy and development itself.

Please, may they also consider that without INGO backing of immoral rulers, legitimizing and even funding them, and without INGOs trying to do what a dysfunctional government is not doing, then maybe the ruling class will have to be accountable to the people to whom they should have been accountable to all along, real Nepalis. Maybe then the oppressive, dysfunctional status quo will collapse and the people will finally find freedom, especially freedom from the despair that a system that has basically been apartheid for centuries might ever change.

I hope that INGO workers do not mind this criticism. A few of them actually do good work and deserve to be commended and most of them have positive intentions even while benefiting immensely from what are billed as altruistic endeavors. Hopefully, it might be useful in encouraging a second look at their activities and potential for harm to a people and their cultural ethos. I am simply doing my best to hold aid workers’ feet to the fire as I have seen too much harm done under the cloak of aid to a people and country that I admire and love dearly. The people of Nepal deserve much better.

In my opinion, the best that INGOs might do in a far-flung land, if they must do something, is to work towards transparency and liberal democracy. In other words, help the people to get out from under oppressive governance. Anything else might be counter-effective and deathly so.

Structural representation of the folly of aid? Photo by A. Lyons

Another day, another laundered aid dollar?...donor and donee beware... Photo by A. Lyons

#donordarlings #deadaid #free #nepal

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