The pursuit of results destroys aid

Development aid's pursuit of results is ill-considered and can lead to the undermining of civil society. To fight poverty, we should work with problem solving instead of hunting for results, writes aid worker and author Erik Pleijel.

For 15 years I have worked with water and sanitation in developing countries, mostly for the Red Cross. I have seen many concrete examples of development aid's strengths and weaknesses. Although aid organizations were often able to help people in need and conflict, I felt that they were generally poor at adapting to reality and problem solving.

The four basic problems of development assistance

1. Aid projects must show results! it is said in the debate. And it is clear that they will. But those who are impressed by statistics may just be bad at interpreting numbers. Maybe you value quantity higher than quality.

2. The risk of too much result-hunting is also that the donors become the driving locomotive, while the poor are only passively dragged along. Everything takes on the character of social engineering. The recipients are considered as objects that must be transformed and think correctly. Is that how you create fiery souls?

3. Aid's policy makers rarely see the consequences of their decisions. If, for practical reasons, they cannot have eyes everywhere, they should encourage others to give critical feedback. Because they rarely do, aid has almost become a "benevolent dictatorship".

4. Bureaucracy, social engineering and secrecy - these are the fruits of those who administer aid funds have been given too free rein. Money creates a materialistic logic where everything is about controlling and manipulating reality. The recipients hardly get any space to think and act independently.

Should assist local associations

In almost all times, people have created guilds, associations and communities to solve common problems. If we are now really interested in helping people get out of poverty, should we not support just that? That is, to assist local associations that are focused on practical and down-to-earth problem solving and only exceptionally seek outside help. Each people is the foremost expert on their own reality and it is important that they seek their own solutions.

A thoughtless pursuit of results can be to the great detriment of this collaborative culture. Some administrators may think that quantities are most important, but in the real world, immeasurable qualities are at least as important. Sensory experience, creativity, patience, self-confidence, interpersonal trust, cooperation, civic virtues - all such things are put in parentheses when you focus on the measurable. Performance-driven aid does not strengthen civil society, quite the contrary.

Problem solving rather than result hunting

But do we not have to show that the activities have positive effects in maintaining the taxpayers' willingness to provide assistance? Yes, of course you have to. But you do not have to be Einstein to understand that the pursuit of results is not the same as problem solving. For aid to succeed, it must be a human activity.

We should therefore rethink and develop a wiser strategy. When you let everything revolve around the concepts goals, means and results, you see the world from the donors' helicopter perspective. From the recipients' point of view, it would be more relevant to reason in terms of problem analysis, solution attempts and critical feedback.

To claim that development assistance should be performance-driven is a catastrophic misconception.

To claim that development assistance should be performance-driven is a catastrophic misconception. Of course, it should be problem-driven! One should therefore primarily make demands on the aid organizations' ability to support problem solving. Only then can they deliver positive results and effects.

Check or help?

The most fundamental mistake an aid organization can make is to confuse this with verify and to hjälpa. These can withstand each other like fire and water. The one who controls requires adaptation and discipline from others, but a counselor or problem solver must be humble and adapt himself. Both are needed, but one and the same person should not be allowed to do both.

The one who checks must not give advice and the one who gives advice must not check. An organization that has not made an effort to make a distinction on this point tends to hire people who have difficulty adapting to reality. There is therefore a risk of doing more harm than good.

Assistance as an expert power

Who is an expert? Who decides who is an expert? Who pays who decides? These questions are crucial to all thinking and acting. Because what happens if everything is controlled by politicians or by those who administer the money? In that case, it is their perspective that becomes the most important. Since many of them have little or no experience of practical fieldwork, they place no great value on the sensory experience.

In this way, an expert empire has been created with an almost platonic superstition about abstract figures and concepts. Development aid is therefore characterized by a kind of quasi-rationalism, something which, for example, is reflected in the infamous log-frame reporting format. This leads to constant conflicts with those who are engaged in the concrete reality. That is, with those who should reasonably have the "expert appointment privilege".

New rules of the game are required

What can challenge technocracy and its lack of self-criticism and self-insight? First and foremost, we need a civil society that is aware of its own importance. And who can put their foot down if things are governed by "money logic". I would also like to highlight the importance of studying philosophy and the humanities. How one looks at the relationship between reason and sensory experience is directly relevant to development aid.

The point is to establish new rules of the game that promote a radically different culture of thought. These rules must be based on a well-thought-out philosophy. Only in this way can development assistance become a reality-based, problem-driven and genuinely human activity.

Erik Pleijel, former water and sanitation delegate for the Red Cross and author of the book Navigation in Diversity

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