Wednesday, September 21, 2011

De-coding Development Jargon

This is a sampling of actual posts on Twitter on “de-coding of aid/development jargon” .

“beneficiaries” : the people who make it possible for us to be paid by other people

“bottom-up” : don’t ask someone what might work, just make something up instead

“civil society involvement”: consulting the middle class employee of a US or European NGO

“community capacity building” : teach them what they already know -

“empowerment” : what is left when all the quantifiable variables give non-significant results -

“experienced aid practitioner” : has large number of air miles in account -

“expert” : I read a book about the place on the plane

“field experience” : I can’t bear DC anymore

“gender” : counting how many women attend your meeting

“Global North” : White academics; “Global South” : Indian academics

“innovation” : we’re sexy, you want to be associated with us

“leverage” : we’re not paying for all of this

“low overhead” : volunteers run headquarters

“low-hanging fruit”: we were already going to achieve this anyway

“mainstreaming” : forgetting

“meetings” : our grant said we had to host an event

“per diem”: what we have to pay local officials to attend our meetings

“participatory stakeholders” : people who should solve their own problems

“participation” : the right to agree with preconceived projects or programs

“political will” : I have no comprehension of the incentives faced by the people who I wish would do stuff I want

“practical solutions” : photogenic solutions

“pro-poor” : the rich know best

“RCT” : research method yielding same results as qualitative work at 10 times the cost

“outreach” : intrude

“ownership” : we held a workshop

“raise awareness” : no measurable outcome

“scale-up” : It’s time for follow on grant

“sensitize” : tell people what to do

“sustainable” : will last at least as long as the funding

“tackling root causes of poverty” : repackaging what we’ve already done in a slightly more sexy font

“UN Goals”: making up targets for problems we don’t understand paid for with money we don’t have – (in honor of current UN meeting on Non-communicable diseases)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Feeding on Disasters

Disasters and emergencies have now become almost a regular feature of a typical Pakistani calendar. Sometimes these are natural disasters like floods, which have once again devastated large parts of the country and on others there are emergencies like internal displacement due to armed conflict with extremists in northern parts of Pakistan. These disasters and emergencies bring immeasurable sufferings and agony with them for the poor masses that have to face them. Often the poor people have to flee their homes and take refuge in temporary camps and shelters. They have to fight for the morsels of food and beg for supplies. Women have to forget their culture and values and scuffle with each other to snatch aid goods and children face exploitation, separation, violence and abuse. Media gets into a frenzy to cover all this and to give us a blow by blow account of the worsening situation.

Yet there is another group of society for which these natural disasters and emergencies open the doorway of prosperity and affluence. Disasters open the floodgates of opportunities for this group to amass wealth and riches and to change fortunes overnight. It is not a very large group but not a small one either. It consists of manufacturers of certain products, suppliers, wholesale dealers, transporters and of course development and aid agencies or so called humanitarian organizations. This group awaits disasters as eagerly as a child might wait for the birthday to receive gifts or for Eid to get Eidee from elders. They welcome disasters and emergencies with sparkle in their eyes and smiles on the faces knowing very well that in the next few months they are going to have a field day. Though media covers all the aspects of misery and plight of the poor people suffering the disasters, yet the activities of the second group are hardly ever mentioned in the media, be it print or electronic.

The exploitation bonanza starts right in the beginning with the evacuation of population in the wake of emergency or immediately after the disaster has struck. Transporters start charging exuberant fares from the affected populations trying to get away from the scene of disaster. We are not just talking about doubling or tripling of fares or transport charges, but about hundred fold increases in fares and transport charges. The same transporters then also charge phenomenal prices for transporting the relief goods to the affected areas. Tents which are in great demand for establishing camps and shelters suddenly disappear from the market, only to reappear with doubled or tripled price tags.

Suppliers of food items, medicines, and sanitary items frantically try to get in touch with the procurement sections of the international and national aid and humanitarian agencies. They know very well that this is time when all procurement procedures and guidelines will be shelved and huge orders will be placed disregarding all standard operating procedures in the name of emergency response and immediate needs of the affected populations. These suppliers are not the only beneficiaries of this practice. The personnel of the procurement sections of many humanitarian organizations and aid agencies are also known to have gone through a sudden inexplicable improvement in their life styles over the last few years. It is no surprise therefore, when we learn that a ten kg flour bag which costs around three hundred rupee in open market, sometimes mysteriously costs around seven hundred rupee when it is procured by some international aid agencies for free distribution in the camps.

Next comes the phase of establishing offices and starting emergency response projects. The few remaining houses of the area are rented at rates which their owners had never even imagined in their wildest dreams. How could a man living in the far flung union council of Dera Ghazi Khan ever have imagined that his one room Kutcha house would one day bring a rent of fifteen thousand? You might also find some residents of small town of Dera Allah Yar, district Jafferabad living quite confortable lives in Quetta after having rented their mediocre houses to international organizations, at rents which would make owners of big houses in Karachi and Lahore envious. Of course all this is not just because of lack of knowledge about the local market; it is in fact a mutually beneficial arrangement between the owners and those awarding the contracts.

Local organizations, which had not been seen in action for the last many years, suddenly come to life. They start feeling an urge to help the suffering humanity, the like of which perhaps they had never felt before, probably because it had never been so profitable in the past. They dust their portfolios and start the pilgrimage to offices of international agencies. No doubt having a brother, a sister, a cousin or some friend in the program section of the international aid or donor agencies helps a lot in advancing the humanitarian agenda of these seasonal nongovernmental organizations. If there are no relatives in the international development agencies, even then it is not a big deal. Commissions and percentages have been invented only to overcome such hurdles.

When permanent or temporary project offices will be set in the affected areas, some new actors will come into play. The local vendors, office equipment suppliers, suppliers of electronic goods, computer and laptops will now jump the band wagon. Why should they be left behind when everybody is making hay and the sun is shining? All the sub standard equipment which had been gathering dust in the warehouses for last couple of years will now be sold at hefty profits. Sometimes even substandard supplies will not even be required, just the invoice would be enough to fill the files and bank accounts of both the parties. Even small vendors and hotels would benefit from this extravaganza. Workshops, meetings, consultations will be organized with nauseating regularity to discuss the plight of the affected populations and these will also require space, lunches, dinners and tea breaks. The revenue generated by all these hotels and vendors increases considerably because sitting in Badin and charging the rates of four star hotels of Karachi and Lahore is always fun. These can even be ghost workshops and consultations on the pattern of ghost schools with which all of us are quite familiar.

The politicians and government officials are also not hindered by the fact that international community no more trusts the government to give it any direct financial support. The trust deficit in government means that often government officials at the forefront of the disaster response have no financial resources at all at their disposal to embezzle. It does not bother them a bit, because the local development organizations working in their area can always be harassed and intimidated to succumb to their demands. They can be forced to distribute goods to favorites, share the earnings or to employ the good for nothing siblings, cousins or friends at lucrative salaries.

You might ask that what happens to the people affected by floods during all this time. Well, who cares? They were already poor, marginalized and disadvantaged. If anybody had cared for them, they would not have gone through all this suffering and agony in the first place. But worry not, they also get their share. With our mismanaged, unplanned and haphazard disaster responses, we have created a whole new breed of beggars, who are always waiting for someone to come and distribute alms and charity among them even when situation is stable enough to return to their homes and lands. In fact we have turned whole populations of affected areas into beggars with no self respect left in them. They will attack, loot and plunder the trucks and other transport vehicles carrying relief goods and sell them in the markets. They will mob those who want to distribute something to them and they will stay in the camps for months and months just to keep on receiving free food and other items.

It usually happens that disasters and emergencies bring the best out the individuals and nations facing them. Nations rise to the occasion, forget their differences and unite in the face of emergencies. Individuals overcome their self interest and display tremendous examples of selflessness, sacrifice and bravery. But for us, it seems even this process has been reversed. Disasters and emergencies only seem to be bringing the worst in us, which keeps on getting worse. My question to my readers is that if we cannot be responsible and honest in the face of such calamities and disasters, will we ever be?