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Co-opting aid for political purposes

Co-opting aid for political purposes

By Logan Cochrane

Donors face difficult challenges. Sometimes they face choices between conflicting priorities. For example: (1) governments should have the right to determine how and where resources are used, and (2) individual human rights should be upheld and protected. These principles often conflict, particularly in countries where democratic governance is weak. Rosalind Eyben wrote about this challenge (then working for DFID) in her book, International Aid and the Making of a Better World (2014), stating, “I sometimes chose to ignore one of the principles and paint a simpler picture of development practice, where the decisions were either right or wrong in accordance with established procedures and available evidence.”

In a recently published paper, I explore one of these conflicts. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) is widely touted as being a highly effective, well-targeted program that supports rural, food insecure households. Drawing upon case studies of seven communities, I outline that while the positive impact exists, the implementation of the program is problematic. In these communities, the program was highly politicised, systematically neglected all of the participatory components outlined in the program design, excluded the feedback mechanisms and entrenched political power. The program excludes some of the regions in greatest need (see map below, for example), begging questions about why regions are selected, as well as individuals. As far as I am aware, this claim has not previously been made about Ethiopia’s Safety Net, but other researchers (e.g. Alex de Waal) have found similarly problematic co-opting of donor aid, and in this regard the findings are not new.

map aid
Map showing PSNP woredas and woredas that reported emergency conditions twice or more in the period 2005 to 2008. Source: FAO/WFP.

I recently spoke with two employees of different governmental donor agencies. Both felt that there was an either/or option and, generally, poor governance was tolerated so long as the outcomes of programming were positive. I would like to challenge this conventional ‘wisdom’ and offer some ideas for alternative modalities. Although donors tend to opt for the binary choice of one principle over another, there are ways to bridge the divide. In 2012 a unique project – Time to Listen – sought to have the experiences and ideas of those receiving aid inform its delivery. DFID has been thinking about how to integrate people’s feedback, from project design to final evaluation, in order to increase the voice and influence of those targeted by aid programs. These are practical ways to ensure that citizens also participate in meaningful ways and, if done well, help to alter the balance of power.

Part of the dance of the two conflicting priorities is encouraging effective states and active citizens, which Duncan Green writes about in his book From Poverty to Power. An example from the Safety Net in Ethiopia is that it does not work in some of the most marginalised areas of the country, and the government has no plans to expand it to them. While I agree with donors that there have been significant improvements in food security as a result of the Safety Net being implemented by the government, I am not convinced that this will result in long-term change. As mentioned in the paper, there are already declining numbers of people supported by Safety Net as donor support reduces and the program transitions to be financed by the government. The current implementation negates active citizenship and participation, which Duncan Green argues is required for transformational change that will have impacts that last longer than the donor funding. Effective governance is only half of the story; we must also enable active citizen engagement and participation.

Logan Cochrane is a Vanier Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia. He completed an MA in Sustainable Development and a BA in Anthropology. For the last ten years he has worked in community and international development, including in Afghanistan, Benin, Burundi, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.

Featured image shows a ‘safety net’. Photo from Flickr.

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