Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Global Health Initiative

The President's Global Health Initiative is great--nested within his policy for Foreign Development it lays out a way forward for health development. Eight countries were selected for "fast track" focus: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nepal and Rwanda. (I would have loved to watch the political debate about which countries were selected.) The paper posted on the White House website (click on the title of this blog to go there) says the eight countries:

will receive additional technical and management support to quickly implement and learn from GHI’s approach, including integrated programs and investments across the health priorities, fostering greater country ownership and targeting health systems activities that deliver results. These countries will provide enhanced opportunities to build upon existing public health programs; improve program performance; and work in close collaboration with partner governments, across U.S. government agencies, and with global partners.

The GHI is a $63 billion program. It will be interesting to see how this, and the foreign development programs, perform. And, I wonder how the DoD is focused on these priority countries, if at all?

Monday, June 20, 2011

More on sustainability

Patricia McArdle wrote an oped descrying unsustainable development. She didn't point fingers at the military, this time, but did use the "s" word (sustainability) to advocate for solar and wind power. She apparently works for a solar cooker NGO. The punting around of the word sustainability is becoming almost comical, and I would laugh were I not so overwhelmingly wanting to bang my head against my desk when I read it.

CERP spending

A good report on CERP spending appeared in the PRISM magazine (from the National Defense University) from March. It's one of the more balanced and insightful discussions about CERP spending. The debate about CERP spending is unending because there is no theory or reliable research being done to support the theory and inform a strategy. So there are many opinions, stated firmly and provocatively, but only partially informed. Get two people together over a cup of coffee with opinions on CERP and you have an automatic debate. In the end they each might be using the words "CERP spending" but talking about completely different contexts, uses, goals and outcomes. However, it will sound like a cogent debate. That's why we need more study, and less polemics (refering to my 2-part complaint about the Congressional report on foreign assistance).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan-- A Two Part Complaint

So, I've read the report prepared by the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on assistance in Afghanistan and it's completely bizarre, as I feared. Here's how it starts:

"...we believe the administration can be more effective in how it spends aid in Afghanistan. U.S. assistance should meet three basic conditions before money is spent: our projects should be necessary, achievable, and sustainable." (page 2).

I wonder who wrote those two sentences? They are classic. Let's pause for one moment and examine the thesis of this incredible piece of work.

First, it says the administration can be more effective in how it spends aid. What does that mean, exactly? That the money should get more 'bang' for each 'buck'? For example, for every dollar spent, Afghans should get 60 cents in actual assistance -- like meals, water, roads and so forth? Because one OXFAM report claims that something like 40% of foreign assistance is returned to the country of initiation in salaries and payments to project managers and monitors from that country. OR, does that sentence mean that for every dollar spent we should see a resulting decrease in violence in any given area? Or, does that mean that for every dollar spent, the Afghan markets grow by some proportional amount? Or, perhaps it means that for every dollar spent, we should be able to get out of there faster? Or maybe that we have quicker mechanisms for spending the money? Congress appropriates it one day, and it's spent within a week or two? or...? No clear acknowledgement or recognition that money is being spent in Afghanistan in an incredibly complicated context strikes me as irresponsible.

Next, it says that "U.S. assistance should meet three basic conditions before money is spent: our projects should be necessary, achievable, and sustainable." Should US assistance be necessary, achievable and sustainable? Or should projects be necessary achievable and sustainable? Those are two separate things. Here's why.

First, let's look at assistance. Let's say the authors are trying to say that assistance should be necessary, achievable and sustainable. That would imply that there would be clear goals, objectives and programmatic for spending aid money in Afghanistan, which I can tell you is not happening. So, for a project like the District Delivery Program (which I have first hand knowledge of and which was a project to build sub-national governance), before spending money, USAID should have established what the overarching goal was, what the intermediate objectives were, and then how to determine whether those goals were met and the timeline for taking those measurements. If they did this, it was in secret. And I'm pretty sure that although there is some programmatic language for the billions that are being spent in Afghanistan, measures are not really measuring effects. Dear reader, you and I could dream up a great-sounding programmatic justification for spending money in Afghanistan. Delivering the results is quite another monster all together. Who knows if the planned actions are achievable in a war zone being conducted in a fourth world nation. And CERTAINLY the assistance is not sustainable by the Afghan government because that's why it's called assistance. If the Afghan government had enough money to spend on all the development international donors are supporting, then we wouldn't need to assist. Right? Or am I missing something here. Hopefully we are not giving money to countries that don't need assistance.

Next, let's look at the assertion from the standpoint that it means that projects should be necessary, achievable and sustainable. In a fourth world country, where literacy is about 25%, and life expectancy is about 45 years old, any spending can be justified. Any at all. The Afghans need everything. And the more we give, the more they need. What are we trying to achieve by all this giving? Well, that depends. In a lot of cases, we give because it makes us feel good. Soldiers spend money because they are shocked by the conditions, or because a local village leader buttered up a Marine and next thing you know the market has some brand new toilet facilities. USAID spends money because they are told to do so. They are being goaded, prodded and pushed into 'supporting the military' as they say in country. So, let's say all the expenses over the past year in Helmand province were to a) make us feel good, and b) show USAID support to military actions. Did they succeed? Well, you could go there and ask around--ask soldiers and aid workers if they felt good, and ask the military if USAID is spending dollars in support of operations. I think you would find positive results. So, the spending could right away be called necessary and achievable just based on those two justifications--feel good-ism and supporting the military. Are projects sustainable? No, because they are foreign assistance. We just went over that. Are the projects that are being constructed achievable? Yes, most everything is achievable, and very little is not getting completed. From cell phone towers to market toilets to roads to water turbines, projects are being completed all across Afghanistan.

The thesis for this report is askew and politically motivated. The report goes on to make many other circular claims. Like this one, on page 2. Most of the assistance is being spent on short term stabilization programs (undefined, of course). Notice the words "short" and "term". One paragraph later it complains:

"The evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilization tool over the long run."

Notice the conflation of applying "development best practices" and "stabilization over the long run". And refer back to the discussion about how most money is being used for stabilization in the short run. So, if it's being used for short term gains, then what's the problem and why is the next paragraph discussing "development best practices" as if that's what is going on?

Another example of circular logic is here:

"The administration is pursuing an assistance strategy based on counterinsurgency theories that deserve careful, ongoing scrutiny to see if they yield intended results."

There is a confusion of reasons for spending in Afghanistan. Not all reasons are mutually exclusive. We could be spending money in a kinetic environment to, say, get a village cleaned up and the men back to doing something productive. It might also start boosting the micro-economic environment as people have a bit to spend and a small market might open up. This may be short-term gain, but it also might not be harmful to long term prosperity. It's a crapshoot. But it seems to me that the development folks are wisely questioning spending in support of a counterinsurgency campaign, but they are unwisely not questioning long term development practices as well. Because to be completely honest, we just don't know what's what and how best to spend money when in a post-conflict environment. It's all unknown and conditional.

Here's the real issue:

"There must also be unity of effort across the U.S. Government and international community. If we conclude that a civilian program lacks achievable goals and needs to be scaled back, no other actors should take over the effort. Too often, when our civilians determine that a project is infeasible, we simply transfer the program
to other actors, such as the U.S. military or other donors."

The report is more bluster than utility. All hat and no cattle.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The Washington Post reported that a Congressional study will be released today that announces--shock of all shocks--the development in Afghanistan is NOT SUSTAINABLE! (Here's the post link:

Wow. Shock of all shocks--did we spend our tax dollars to come to this conclusion? Because they missed the question--sustainability is not The Question. The question should be: are we spending our development dollars to legitmize the Afghan government? It's all about legitimacy, not sustainability for Jimminy Cricket's sake. If you stop and examine the Afghan budget you'll find out that international donations OFF THE BUDGET account for about 82% of the total spending in Afghanistan, according to the Afghans. (And they can't really get their arms around all the spending. So it's probably more.) What does that mean? That means that for every 100 gazillion U.S. dollars donated by international donors, only 18 percent go thru the Afghan system and help build a government that can function and provide services, and the other 82 gazillion dollars go directly to contractors in the field who then do who-knows-what with it.

Normally, the sustainability mantra is leveled at DoD by the State Department and USAID, as if DoD spending is all the whole cause of "unsustainability" in Afghanistan. This is ridiculous and circular. The Development/Diplomacy community say that DoD should a) build sustainable structures, and not structures that fall down because the Afghans will be psychologically influenced (Seriously. No Joke, that's what they say.); and b) they also point to CERP spending and say that it's all unsustainable. SERIOUSLY? Here's the side of the argument that never gets discussed: there are only so many contractors in Afghanistan, and really, we are all using the same unskilled labor. USAID, for example, is building equally shaky roads, bridges and canals, buildings and so forth because we are all using the same unskilled labor! And, I'd like to know what survey shows that the Afghans will be psychologically influenced by the soundness of the development projects? The second argument is equally as bizarre. CERP spending is only a fraction of the total aid money being poured in to Afghanistan. When USAID, for example, builds a road, they also don't dump money into the ministry that is responsible for maintaining that road. Hence, the next winter/spring flood, the road washes out, and voila, the road was unsustainable, just as if CERP money had built it.

Even if you level the unsustainable argument against both the State Department and USAID and DoD all together, it still doesn't make sense. Because the bigger point that nobody wants to discuss because it's too hard, and it's much easier to wrangle among ourselves, is this question: if we don't dump money into a country like Afghanistan where there is about a 75% illiteracy rate, where people expect to live to the age of about 45, and where infant and maternal mortality rates are some of the worst in the world...then what is the alternative? I'd like to hear an alternative proposal from the development experts and the cast of staffers who concluded that aid to Afghanistan is not sustainable. (I wonder if they looked at aid to any other of the countries we assist? I'd bet they'd find out it too was not sustainable, because that's why it's called-- you guessed it-- aid. If the country could afford the programs itself, and thereby have sustainble programming, we wouldn't be giving it aid.)

Sustainability is one of those wonderful rosy terms that everyone likes to use--and of course, we can all agree that everything should be sustainable. But it's not pragmatic, and to my mind the wrong question for Afghanistan. The right question is: is our spending creating legitimacy? They are two different questions.

I'll be interested to see the Congressional report.