Are aid workers living a lie? And does it matter?

May 25, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

These are the questions posed by Rosalind Eyben in an intriguing new paper in the ejdr_01European Journal of Development Research (no ungated version, sorry).

Ros, formerly of DFID and now attached to the Institute of Development Studies, knows the aid industry backwards and is struck by “the dissonance between what [aid workers] do and what they report that they do.” The aid industry as institution thinks in terms of logical frameworks, results-based management and an underlying view that Ros calls “substantialist” – a perspective that “sees the world primarily in terms of pre-formed entities in which relations among the entities are only of secondary importance.”

Good aid workers on the other hand, are “relational”: relationships between actors matter, and actors themselves change and evolve through their interaction with eachother. At their best, aid workers surf the unpredictable realities of national politics, spotting opportunities, supporting interesting new initiatives, acting like entrepreneurs or searchers, rather than planners. But when they report back to their bosses, out come the logframes and strategic plans, as messy reality is shoehorned back into the substantialist fantasies of the machine.

Does this “cognitive dissonance” matter? The machine doesn’t seem to think so. “No official aid agency has been prepared to undertake a study that aims to learn about their staff’s everyday practices – what they are doing, as distinct from what they report they are doing – and their effects.” But Ros thinks it is important, not least because it cripples our efforts to understand change processes. Here she draws a distinction between bounded v unbounded problems:

“The first are “difficulties”. With difficulties there is broad agreement on the nature of the problem; there is some mutual understanding of what a solution would look like; and there are limits to what is required in terms of the time and resources required for their resolution. Unbounded problems, on the other hand, are “messes”. There is no agreement about the diagnosis and therefore the actions required; no possibility of an eventual permanent solution because solutions generate new problems; and therefore no way of determining the quantity and type of resources needed. Governments fail to achieve results because they insist on treating messes as difficulties.” Sound familiar?

While some interventions, eg measles vaccinations, lend themselves to the substantialist world of logframes and bounded problems, many others do not. Here change is complex unpredictable and messy. Attributing change to any one intervention by an aid donor or anyone else is impossible. A relational approach is useful, a substantialist one largely futile. But, Ros asks,  “if the case for such an approach to the complex context of international aid would appear to be so convincing, then why is it that top management continue to ignore process and prefer substantialist inputs and/or outputs? Why are economists still preferred over anthropologists?”

What would happen if the aid industry opted for relationalism and binned its logframes?

“Just as glasnost brought about the fall of the Soviet Union, so might an admission of what is really happening in international aid result in its dismantlement with Northern taxpayers refusing to buy into such a contingent and messy process. On the other hand, an energetic clamp-down on relational practices might equally lead to institutional collapse. Practitioners need just sufficient encouragement from top management – as well as from relational advocates like myself – to continue subverting the system for the system’s benefit.”

And she mischievously draws a parallel “with the way that the Soviet Union was able to report that collectivised agriculture was an effective means for sustaining agricultural productivity. In practice, the farm workers put their energies not in the collective farm but in their own small holdings, and pilfered collective-farm resources to invest in them, and it was this that led to sufficient food being produced for the authorities to be able to demonstrate that the overall system was working. Without the farm workers realising it, their subversion was maintaining the very system that they were resisting”.

May 25, 2010
Duncan Green