In a workshop recently, a colleague raised an interesting question “Is there any way of measuring whether the communities we work with are getting ‘dependent’ on aid?” For all of us working in social development, this is not an idle question. All over the developing world one sees NGOs working with communities for decades without a noticeable change in the lives of people, at least not in any sustainable way and over a significant scale. To be sure this is NOT what development organisations want. They are all armed with exit strategies. The problem (many a times) is that the issues are complex and goalposts keep changing. Progress is slow.

The same is true about countries that are mired in poverty. There has been lots of debate and research on aid to developing countries. Decades of aid to Sub Saharan Africa has not made any difference as economist Dambisa Moyo argues. Lack of systems of good governance characterise almost all countries that are dependent on aid. Few of these have strong civil society structures or transparent and accountable governments. Corruption is invariably a big issue leading to a cynical observation ‘aid is what poor people in rich countries give to rich people in poor countries’.  Economists have coined the phrase ‘aid paradox’ to explain why governments that can access international aid remain unaccountable to their citizens leading to aid itself becoming ineffective.  The old argument that some countries are ‘too poor to be able to afford the luxury of democracy’ has been debunked. It is now widely accepted that it is not poverty that leads to lack of democratic institutions but the other way round. It is because there is no democracy and protection of law that long term investments are not made – causing people to remain in poverty.

However, this post is not so much on the bilateral or multilateral aid to countries but NGO aid to communities. In some of the poorest countries in the world, NGOs have been supporting communities with basic necessities – food, drinking water, health services for decades. In many cases what started as a humanitarian response to a specific disaster – drought, famine, flood or earthquake, has continued over a long period of time, sometimes in the same vein. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Increasing frequency of natural disasters, burgeoning population leading to a strain on natural resources and rising insecurity are not helping. I met people in Afghanistan who have never known a life when the country was not at war. More recently I have met communities who have accessed aid all their lives.

This state of affairs is not really sustainable from any perspective. It is damaging to long term development processes.

  • Being in a state of constant humanitarian response takes away resources – human, financial and technical from long term strategies and interventions.
  • Presence of NGOs lets governments off the hook – look what is happening in Haiti. The scale of disaster is massive and all help is no doubt needed… but all one hears of are NGOs and UN agencies – to the extent that people rioted against NGOs and UN when aid delivery faltered. Where is the Government of Haiti? Does it not have a role to play? Should it not be leading on recovery and rehabilitation of its citizens? Is anyone holding government responsible? Accountable?
  • It also lets the communities, to a certain extent, off the hook. Is it reasonable to assume that communities who can (& do) access aid will exert themselves to build their livelihoods? Be entrepreneurial? Innovative? Has aid become part of the livelihoods?  Another source of income?

I am not for a minute suggesting that humanitarian aid be stopped everywhere. It is important and in some cases indispensable. However, if development agencies have to continue responding to crisis over a long period of time, they need to look at the problem differently. It is safe to assume that if humanitarian crisis has gone on for decades, it is no longer a ‘crisis’. We will need new strategies and fresh thinking on part of all stakeholders. There are small stirrings but, sadly, I don’t see the paradigm shifts that are demanded.

Till then, I am afraid that communities (& countries) will continue to be dependent on aid. Coming back to the question that I opened with – “can we really measure whether the communities are getting dependent?” I am afraid we cannot. Only way to do it is to stop aid and see what happens. That cannot be done easily – lots of humanitarian and ethical issues surrounding such decisions. However, my feeling is that the poor will cope, they always do. Some of their strategies will be negative but they will cope by themselves. Aid can only mitigate impact of negative coping. I believe that, by itself, aid does not really save lives in the long term (epidemics not included).  It is people who save themselves.