The problem with foreign aid: A memoir

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During the recent G8-G20 summit meetings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped to elevate his status as a world leader by making Maternal Health the centrepiece of Canada's aid. Instead, his plan crashed when world leaders recognized it for what it really was, an ideologically driven scheme, offered with the condition that Family Planning was not to be included.

Having spent eight years of the 1980s as an "aid worker" in Indonesia, I learned a lot about conditional aid and the missionary zeal of so-called benefactors, the governments and agencies, such as the World Bank, that can corrupt donor and recipient alike.

How did I get into aid work? I needed a job; the salary was okay, and the opportunity for travel was a bonus. Only later did I come to appreciate the perks: Tax free status, overseas-living allowance, including housing, servants, off-duty use of car. It could be addictive.

My credentials fit the job specs and I joined the team leaving for a CIDA mission in Kupang, West Timor, to share the blessings of Canadian technology with our less fortunate Third World cousins.

Arriving in Jakarta, 24 of us assembled in the Canadian Embassy for "orientation" before performing our first mission for CIDA in Kupang, West Timor.

I can still remember the embassy spokesman's stunning words: "Now don't go getting in any trouble. Remember, we're not here for you!"

"Then what ARE you here for?" one of us asked. The reply was like this: "Our job here is to promote trade." That was the beginning of the end of my innocence about foreign aid.

Savvy foreign aid workers quickly learn to recognize officials who hold gatekeeper positions. Border crossings and entry ports are likely locales. Once, when my wife and I were leaving Indonesia from the tiny airport at Kupang, the last plane out was leaving in five minutes; and we were presented with forms to fill out, in Bahasa Indonesia, the country's official language, of course.

My language skills enabled me only to make rudimentary conversation. I hesitated, so the official kindly offered to help me. I knew the drill: I pulled out a 10,000 Rupiah note. The forms were swiftly completed and we scooted up the steps to the Garuda's waiting Fokker 27. On board, I think to myself: Suckered again! Then I rationalize: That bribe probably represents half of what that guy gets in a week, and he (and his family) probably paid some other official handsomely for that gatekeeper job. "It's the cost of doing business, here," says an expat businessman as he discreetly "leaves behind" a bottle of duty free Johnny Walker on the counter. Thus we perpetuate the very corruption we decry.

"Corruption and accountability are challenges in Indonesia..." That's how the Asia Foundation's current website begins

An Indonesian friend explained to me how the (now deposed) dictator Sukarno laid the foundation for corruption -- "korupsi." In order to create loyalty, Sukarno set up a massive -- if flimsy -- civil service. Indonesia's coffers were empty, salaries were small. Loyal supporters were promised tenure, access to medical help, and subsidized housing. Senior staff were allowed to sell gatekeeper positions, on condition that the bribes were not "excessive."

As a human resource development consultant, I was interested in how government staff were evaluated. Loyalty topped the list -- no surprise there. At the bottom (eighth), came job performance. Most Indonesians learned to cope. Like the malaria mosquito, "korupsi" is endemic. An article in The New York Times once pointed out that -- by the time aid money went through the hierarchies of bureaucracy -- only about 10 per cent reached its target. Foreign aid is a global problem.

The National Post's Adrian Humphreys recently talked to author Dambisa Moyo. He writes

"Born and raised in Zambia but educated at Oxford and Harvard, Dambisa Moyo was an uncommon face as a black woman in the world of high finance. Now with the publication of her book Dead Aid, she has become an uncommon voice, a strong and eloquent advocate of stopping financial aid to Africa as the best way to help the troubled continent."

Quoting her, Humphreys wrote:

We have to ask ourselves [if] African governments... do what governments all around the world are expected to do, that is, deliver public goods: education, health care, infrastructure and security? Unfortunately an aid system has allowed African governments to abdicate their responsibilities.... The billion dollars that go from government to government ... can make African governments lazy with respect to doing what they are supposed to be doing. It also fuels corruption, can fuel civil wars, inflation, the debt burden, and so on.

In his expose of U.S. imperialism, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins describes how corruptible officials would be persuaded to borrow too heavily for vast projects. When it was time to call in the loan, it could be delayed or ameliorated for a concession to the U.S. -- in the case of Indonesia, say -- access to its offshore petroleum

One of my early encounters with corruption was when I was appointed training officer on a public works project in North Sumatra. The team leader asked me to submit a budget for the start-up equipment required. It was extensive, covering several pages: computers, software, printers, video players and the like. In my naiveté, I had expected to fly to the stores in Jakarta and have the stuff trucked up to our new training centre. Instead, the team leader told me I'd have to wait until the list was approved by public works in Jakarta. The truck did arrive ultimately, and included everything specified on my list. But the bills of lading, a document issued by a carrier to a shipper, stunned me. The project was being charged two or three times what it would have cost in Jakarta!

Fortunately, I can report that it was not all corruption. An assignment for the Asia Foundation was for a grant to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic socio-cultural organization, the largest non-governmental agency in a country of 180 million people. Along with another consultant I was contracted to evaluate a relatively small grant [$12 million over three years] to develop community building and self-sufficiency skills. Not all of the projects were successful. One -- a cottage industry among jobless youth for the creation of tourist gifts -- failed due to a lack of marketing knowhow. But I was impressed by some others:

We met one woman in East Java, Ibu [Mrs.] Hadji Fahzah, who had developed her own business and who already had marketing skills and contacts in the handicrafts business. She got her group to set income targets and rigorous quality control standards. With her group she set up a training program to extend income-generating skills to women in other areas.

A small prayer group set out to improve housing among the poor in their village. For this purpose they collected a handful of rice from each woman when she prepared the daily meals, which they sold. Proceeds from the collected rice were sufficient to renovate one home per month. With that they hired carpenters to repair leaky roofs, mend sheds and walls. Over the years they had helped many of their neighbours fix up over 300 homes.

An enthusiastic young community development intern, Pak [Mr.] Furhurraman, told of pedicab drivers whose livelihoods were threatened when new local legislation removed their access to some streets (and markets). He showed them how to negotiate a solution.

Meanwhile, I'd been hired as a training specialist for an Australian Aid project back in Kupang. I looked forward to this, because Kupang was where I had started and I still had good friends there.

The agency involved was the Department of Forestry. (Some years earlier, at a jazz concert, a highly placed official assured me that he had the "rights" to a vast area of rain forest containing high quality timber. If I could get the backing, he'd negotiate a good price.)

Later in Kupang, when our small team toured a nearby forest with a Forestry official, he proudly showed us the new growth of softwoods that had grown since their massive tree plantings. The only problem was that those trees had replaced stands of mature ebony and mahogany which had been clear-cut. Some official in Forestry had negotiated a good price.

That job did not start well. Right away there was a dispute with the team leader who challenged the number of days I was permitted by contract to stay in a hotel while awaiting housing. I pointed out that the house was not yet ready, with no electricity, no water and no bedroom screens. The landlord, then let it slip out that a huge finder's fee had been extorted, without saying by whom.

As usual, I asked what the training budget was to be, so that I could arrange for purchase of appropriate equipment, as well as rental of classroom space, catering, buses and so on. He refused to tell me. He said he'd be the one who handled all negotiations -- obviously assuming a gatekeeper role.

When I bought personal computer supplies such as paper and printer ribbon, the owner of the store insisted on giving me receipts for 10-15 per cent more than what I paid, courtesy of the team leader.

My reports were deemed inadequate, even though endorsed by my colleagues. Then an ominous moment came when a friend reported that an Indonesian businessman had warned her that I was being set up for something.

Back in Canada my best friend was getting married. It was a good time to fly away home. I handed in my resignation. It was promptly accepted and -- I believe -- expected.

After eight years and 12 assignments, we had met many warm friends among Indonesians and exchanged visits with folks in many areas and professions. It was a bittersweet parting. This was offset somewhat by news in The Jakarta Post just as we were leaving, that a new generation of public servants, trained abroad, was calling for reform and accountability. But the resistance to korupsi continues to this day:

"Integrity, morals, independence all a must" says a headline in a recent Jakarta Post, describing a search for a new chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). 

But not just in Indonesia. It's a challenge to all of us in the "donor community."

Dave Bennett is an erstwhile aid worker. Now retired, he lives with his wife in Belleville, Ontario.

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