Rethinking aid: Getting the basics right

It looks like governments around the world are slowly re-learning lessons we should have learned long ago: local service delivery is the key to legitimacy. We all learned a long time ago that the reason everyday Italians supported Mussolini was that ‘he made the trains run on time’ (actually, it turns out that he didn’t; it’s just that he was able to convince everyone that he did). People will put up with a lot from a government as long as they get a little something in return:  water, food, shelter, security. The converse is also true. It doesn’t matter how legitimate a government is perceived as being otherwise (ethnically, religiously, or electorally); if the government can’t deliver the basics, then it loses popular support.

Looking at some specific examples below, it’s clear that donor nations and organizations need to radically re-think the way they provide aid.

Basic, local service delivery hasn’t exactly been a focus of most development programs in the last century. The World Bank focuses on large infrastructure projects, the IMF’s austerity policies of the 80s and 90s meant that local government services were actually curtailed during interventions, and many other large donors focus on large programs organized to combat specific issues, not holistic services in specific areas.

But around the world, improved basic service delivery is turning into a hot issue, and my guess is that the typical aid delivery paradigm will be changed as a result.

Example 1: the new Af-Pak strategy. “Hearts and minds” operations since the Brits in Malaysia and the US in Vietnam have always tried to increase popular support for the government. This used to focus primarily on  interventions by armed foreigners to provide security. But such a strategy ignores the key role that service delivery plays in forming perceptions of legitimacy. Security often isn’t enough. It looks like Af-Pak envoyRichard Holbrooke understands this and is pushing to include a revolution in local service delivery during the Obama administration’s policy review. As Richard Holbrooke said recently:

“A year ago … only ten percent of our aid went through the government here.” Addressing the Afghani Minister of Agriculture, he continued, “Mr. Minister, we want the people of Ghazni to think of your government as the place where they can go for services. Much as we love the Texas National Guard, they’re not going to be here forever. Our goal here, …  is to strengthen your government, not to do it ourselves.”

Example 2: South Africa’s township problem. For the past 15 years, the African National Congress has ruled the post-apartheid South African state single-handed. Elected and re-elected by wide margins by a a grateful African majority, ANC’s claim to legitimacy has historically been based on its historical role as the leading institutional opponent to apartheid. But that may be ending. Violent protests in the impoverished townships outside of major cities have drawn increasing international and local attention. The protesters’ ire is focused on local township councilors who are seen as ineffective. They vent their anger at having no electricity or potable water. A picture in the local Star a few days ago showed a mass of teenagers burning tires in the middle of the main road into their township, with a quote from one protester’s concerned mother saying she’d rather her son be at home, but she allows him to participate because his future options are severely limited by the lack of basic services. The ANC has grown concerned about how this rising trend of violent protest in the townships could impact their legitimacy in future elections. The government  recently created a new department to coordinate intergovernmental service delivery on the local level. A local expert on public governance based in Johannesburg told me over the weekend that local service delivery is going to be the hot topic of political debate in the coming year.

Example 3: local politics in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America. In 2007, I spent several months on the ground observing elections in Ecuador for their Constitutional Convention. Following the campaigns around and interviewing voters was enlightening: most of the discourse wasn’t about constitutional issues at all, but rather about the lack of basic services in their communities. In an election that decided big issues like federalism and the power of the presidency, politicians’ legitimacy hinged on how well their political party was perceived to have improved electrification or water purification and delivery in the province. Keeping in touch with my local contacts, it seems as if calls for paved roads and community health clinics continue to dominant the political scene. Politicians compete for ownership of community projects to bolster their credentials. Other observers will tell you the situation is largely the same in other parts of Latin America.

Legitimacy, and how to cultivate it, is now taking center stage in international debate. Western donor nations fear that weak or failed states create a breeding ground for terrorism. And with increasing environmental, economic, and military pressures on governments in the future, just getting the basics right will be the major challenge for non-OECD countries in the next half century. As indicated in the three examples above, there is a growing consensus that basic service delivery, under increasing threat,  is a major determinant of legitimacy. Comprehensive local service delivery is therefore a good target for aid intervention.

But given that basic service delivery is so important, it’s surprising how poorly positioned the NGO world is to provide it. The problem is structural, and understandable. Major funding organizations coalesced around particular causes because asking for money for a particular purpose or person is more effective than solicitations for a laundry list of issues. Furthermore, from an individual perspective, aid workers tend to be motivated to take a pay cut, earn a masters degree, and sweet it out in the field because of their devotion to specific causes. Hunger. AIDS. Public health. Microfinance. Education.

The result: a plethora of issue-specific interventions led by massive, global campaigns, and a dearth of comprehensive interventions targeted at a specific locale.

The first lesson to be drawn from centering our attention on local service delivery is that current aid organizations need to at a minimum stop undermining government legitimacy, and hopefully actually start to support it. Most big donors do spend time thinking about how their aid delivery impacts the local government. But all too often, aid is disbursed in ways that undermine the role of the local government, weaken the state, and perpetuate a cycle of dependence. Aid organization need to be more aware of how the very act of giving aid can have unforeseen negative impacts on the local population. Clearly corruption and/or lack of interest ont he part of local officials is an obstacle to closer NGO-government cooperation. But  the sooner aid donors start pressing for stronger local partnerships, the faster entrepreneurial politicians on the ground will be able to form coalitions that can rise to the challenge.

The second lesson is that in the long-run, a radical change is necessary in the way that aid is delivered. While for practical purposes we may need to retain the cause-centered fund-raising model, but we need to create a second layer of international NGOs that focus on fund-raising and service delivery for specific geographic areas. The ability to deliver comprehensive, basic services in a single locale is a fundamentally different task than what most aid NGOs are geared for. But if we are to meet the most pressing development needs of the  world’s poor while also strengthening developing states while safeguarding the security of the West, then it is a change we will need to make.

I dislike coining new terms, since it’s inevitable that people end up duplicating efforts and spreading confusion. But until someone points out a better name, I’m going to call this future mode of service delivery ‘Single Point Aid’.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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