Breaking the Chain of Hypocrisy
In a current visit to Bolivia I had a conversation with an old friend and colleague, Rosario León about her thoughts on the Results Agenda – from the perspective of her experience as a scholar activist, consultant and part of the NGO community that has been heavily financed by international aid. Her perspective seems to be missing so far from the crowd sourcing we reported on last week. We started our conversation by reference to her ‘Story from Aidland’ that details her battles with results artefacts and their effects on her colleagues and their relationships with their partners. It explains how she and her colleagues tried to meet the requirement to produce measurable results, while simultaneously using the aid machine’s funds to support the social changes that were occurring as the marginalized people of Bolivia started to claim their citizenship rights and assert their cultural identities. Rosario and her colleagues increasingly found themselves caught between the everyday realities of working in the local communities, and the incongruous bureaucracy of annual operating plans along with the dictates of remote donor organizations. The effects of this ‘double life’ meant some felt like actors adopting a language and a set of tools – technical activity reports, expenditure reports and products – quite distinct from the work they were actually doing. It was part of a mutually constituted chain of hypocrisy that Rosario outlined to me.Rosario Bolivia has changed since the time of that story. Now it is much harder for NGOs to access donor funds. The government of today regards us as imperialist lackeys – anachronisms from pre-revolutionary Bolivia. Ironically with respect to how the Government views us, the social activism of many of the NGOs that donors funded contributed to the social transformation that resulted in the 2005 elections that brought the present government to power. Despite the very positive social and political changes of recent years, the space for civil society and alternative voices is shrinking. It leads me to appreciate donors’ historical role in enhancing citizen participation.
Rosalind Another irony? That social activism depended on foreign aid? You can’t manage without them?
Rosario Yes, exactly. We were hypocrites to accept their money while struggling to rid ourselves of the intellectual and cultural dependency that foreign aid represented.
Some of us were pragmatic. We took the donor money and delivered as per the contract while diverting as much as we could to what we actually wanted to do. Others were intellectually captured by the donors’ logframe mindset. Yet others, of course, were financially corrupt, using the money for their own personal ends. But in any case, there was a big problem. We always got money for projects and there was a pretence that somehow we could cover our running costs It was one link in a chain of hypocrisy.
Another link in the chain was how disbursement pressure and the difficulties in identifying NGOs to fund meant donors were lax in checking on how the money was spent – as long as the reports were OK. Donors shut their eyes to what they didn’t want to see.
Rosalind You are quite right. Until the late 1990’s, corruption was rarely discussed in the international aid sector. There are stories I could tell you…… Perhaps the current insistence on checking how the money is spent is justified?
Rosario Indeed, but donors don’t like to admit that foreign aid itself generates corruption.
Rosalind Well, we seem to have argued ourselves into aid being a bad thing! Yet, there are many amazingly dedicated individuals and organisations whose work is financed by the sector. And when we started this conversation, you were keen that donor support should continue.
Rosario The aid relationship is full of contradictions! We need to be honest about that.
And corruption is not just about taking someone else’s money. More generally it is a distancing from reality. That you pretend things are other than they are. Donors do this by insisting on the logic of the project. Donors must recognize the importance of process rather than exert ever greater controls. Excessive control is counter-productive; it inevitably leads to cheating because one is forced into short cuts and inventions. And it creates so much stress! There is no energy left for the work to which one was so passionately committed. Meanwhile, the important part of the project (if one has energy and time for it) is transformation in relations and that goes unreported, as I argued in my story from Aidland.
We do need donor support but on different terms. We need to start trusting each other again. We need to work out how we can be responsible to each other in supporting processes of social transformation that change the power relations and the structures that sustain inequality and injustice. Only then can we break the chain of hypocrisy that together we have constructed.