Passing through the small rural village of Yarpa Town in River Cess County, Liberia, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole town owed its existence to the altruism of sponsors from overseas. The dilapidated clinic announces itself as a gift ‘From the American People’, the hand-pump well around which children clamour was ‘Funded by the EU, in partnership with UNDP’ and the community hall is blazoned with the Stars and Stripes.
In a country such as Liberia, where the US and China lead international donors in financing a high proportion of government funding and public services, it’s impossible to miss their slogans, logos and flags, plastered on buildings, along the sides of cars and on peeling signs spread out along every roadway approaching a village anywhere in the country. Everything is branded. The home of the National Elections Commission in Monrovia, that symbolic heart of a country’s democracy and independence, is clearly labelled as a gift ‘From the American People, to the Liberian people’.
All of this branding serves as an inescapable and depressing reminder of the dependency of the nation and its inability to provide for its own. It is a constant message: you live on hand-outs. Your basic needs, as much as they are met, are only done so through the charity of faceless others. Those critical enablers of development – ownership, self-determination, accountable governance and even national pride – are buried under the banners and badges of international agencies.
The US has for a long time branded its relief and development materials with the handshake logo of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the words “from the American people” and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) now labels all assistance from the UK with the Union Jack. DFID say that this policy “will help to drive home the message that Britain deserves credit for the results that UK aid delivers.”
When introducing this new policy, then Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell explained further: “It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided. British aid is achieving results of which everyone in the United Kingdom can be proud. And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them.”
This position resonates clearly with the example set by the US, where the head of USAID, Rajiv Shah, claims that highly visible branding is necessary to ensure transparency. Writing in the Huffington Post, he states that “We believe that people in Haiti, Pakistan and elsewhere have a right to know where their assistance is coming from. And American taxpayers have a right to know where their dollars are going.” People in Haiti or Pakistan really care where assistance comes from and are supposed to feel indebted in some way – is that the idea? The US sees foreign aid as being integral to their national security; a factual if morally debatable reality.
But, does the US really earn itself a meaningfully better image across the world through doling out those handshakes images? And, if that image makeover is so important, is this really the right way to achieve it; using development or humanitarian aid as an attempt to buy good will? There is no evidence that this works. In Pakistan, where the US has long suffered a serious image problem, aid workers are keen to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Star Spangled Banner. A consortium of international NGOs has asked the Obama administration to consider other alternatives to the usual branding on the grounds that it in fact makes their work harder and more dangerous. There the USAID logo inspires more animosity than goodwill, regardless of what it comes attached to.
The other supposed objective of all of those Stars and Stripes is to ensure that taxpayers know where their money is going; something all those flaking billboards in Yarpa Town cannot achieve. How many rich world taxpayers take their vacations in Liberia, note down all the good they have done while they’re there and use subsequent holidays to continue their survey in the next impoverished nation on the list? The explicit branding of aid fails to meet its stated objectives, but it does real harm as well as no good. Branding aid actively undermines the aid effectiveness agenda that is gaining such pace elsewhere across the development sphere.
This agenda, which both the US and the UK are active in pushing forwards, emphasises the need to ensure local country ownership, to build local country institutions, to focus on outputs and outcomes rather than inputs, and to separate international aid from domestic agendas.
Branding aid runs counter to all of these principles: undermining ownership and diluting the social contract between citizens and their state, visibly bypassing those local institutions that ideally would be providing those services, focusing on inputs (“from the American people”) and promoting domestic interests (politicians and taxpayers getting credit) over international and humanitarian ones.
The Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington has criticised USAID for their overt branding. Criticisms have included the fact that the Agency is so driven by the need for Congressional support that ‘brand-ability’ starts to drive development strategy and funding priorities rather than the other way around. Members of Congress like schools and hospitals with logos and flags all over them; they are less keen on justice reform, economic empowerment or human rights that can’t be photographed.
The international aid system is a highly complex mash of different agendas, and the answers will never be simple. Some would argue that there is no such thing as true altruism as there is always benefit to the giver. But, even if the branding of aid does result in credit where it’s due, would this benefit to donors be worth the cost to the people receiving aid? It’s doubtful that the people of Yarpa Town would think so. We need to go back to the very core of what aid is all about and ask the question, who is it supposed to be for anyway?