When Donors Collide: What Implications for Aid Accountability, Effectiveness and Strategy?

May 10, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Oliver Scanlan

‘Two donor agencies, alike in dignity, in fair Bangladesh, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean‘. [With Apologies to William Shakespeare/Romeo and Juliet]

“You’re not doing it right,” has been the mantra of development academics when diagnosing the failure of foreign aid programmes since the early eighties. The argument that aid does not work because issues of power and politics are either ignored or deliberately omitted from interventions in the design phase retains what academics call “explanatory power”. As politics and power are reliably central to most development problems, these omissions reliably result in failure. Debates centre on whether aid cannot address these questions, or it can, but tends not to.

During my fieldwork in Bangladesh, I arrived at a slightly different explanation: some donors are doing it right, at the same time, and in the same place, as other donors are not. I witnessed two interventions engaged in a Shakespearian tragedy; the first was funded by a prominent INGO to safeguard the land rights of local Indigenous People, the second was a USAID-funded conservation initiative premised on the negation of those rights. This donor collision caused major problems for both donors, with the local community caught in the middle.

The “ancient grudge” at the heart of this collision is the conflict between conservation practice and forest dwellers, and the relationship between the latter and deforestation, and has been ongoing in this neck of the woods since at least the 1870s. Land rights advocates generally take the view that the main causes of forest loss are complex, emerging from powerful political-economic forces presided over by a host of politically influential actors at local and national level. Forest departments and conservationists, and by extension the donors that support them, tend to pin the blame on poor people, an analysis of colonial vintage, steeped in Malthusian understandings of the relationship between poverty and the environment. The grim irony in the Bangladesh case is that the USAID conservation project produced a thorough report detailing how the causes of deforestation in the area were indeed highly complex and implicated a host of politically influential actors at local and national level. The report was put in a drawer. At roughly the same time, in the early 2000s, a host of donors including DANIDA, the EU and DfID were funding Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Bangladesh.

This all bears directly on discussions of accountability, effectiveness and strategy in the delivery of Overseas Development Assistance. The need for better co-ordination between donors is standard boilerplate at multilateral conferences. The need for donors to stop cutting each other off at the knees is less clearly articulated. As regards effectiveness, Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton would find evidence from my case study for his criticisms of ODA (detailed in a fascinating exchange on this blog here and here). On the other hand, the vital role ODA has played in supporting Bangladesh’s Indigenous groups to advocate for their rights raises doubts about his recommendation for its abolition. Purely as an academic question, donors fighting each other to a stalemate as an explanation for development failure requires urgent investigation. This might usefully be twinned with, or a part of, a global audit of interventions where such clashes occur.

Finally, where does this leave “strategy”, when these problems extend to collision between funding streams originating from the same donor? By way of illustration see the programme below, held on the International Day of Forests this year, and including not a single representative from a forest-dwelling community in Bangladesh. Obviously the FAO, but also IUCN, are the recipients of aid from governments who are also funding human rights issues in Bangladesh. The UK’s FCDO for example, contributes to FAO, and supports Manusher Jonno Foundation in Bangladesh, an organisation working for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, women and other socially excluded groups.

The programme does include representatives from the SUFAL project. SUFAL is a World Bank affair, similarly funded through bilateral contributions from countries including the UK, Denmark, Norway etc. While Covid has prohibited any thorough research on its activities, stories still reach me from Indigenous friends in Nalitabari, Sribadi and Sherpur of their unhappiness at their treatment as “encroachers”, the planting of agro-forestry, which has revived the decades-long cycle of worry that they “will not be able to stay”.

The phrase is haunting; such a simple way of conveying the unfathomable sorrow of surrendering the graves of their ancestors to the masterplans of development professionals who, for all their expertise, would be unable to locate these places on a map. “From whom will you hear our songs when we are gone?” sing the Garos of Madhupur, though even today there are few among the community who remember them; I doubt such songs are among the deliverables of SUFAL’s ToR, or its log frame outputs. Acres “reclaimed”, number of foreign species planted, tourist facilities constructed, this is “what success looks like”.

If the affected communities face the highest stakes imaginable, the risks for the rest of us are still very grave. Addressing climate change, pandemic risk and ecological collapse depends on reconciling the rights of forest dwellers with conservation practice and there is no consensus on how to do this. Certainly the dramatic expansion of protected areas recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) poses potentially disastrous implications for the one billion people who could be affected. On the other hand, on the same day FAO Bangladesh attended a conservation event that excluded forest dwellers, a major report by the same organisation was released stating that forest management by Indigenous Peoples in Latin America was a much more effective conservation strategy than Protected Areas. A historical account of such conflicts between donors will make a tragic enough academic study one day in the future. For now, the urgent task is to resolve this ‘ancient grudge’. We have not succeeded in 150 years, and now we have very little time.  

May 10, 2021
Duncan Green