The Wellington Dilemma

…[I] request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both: 1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…

2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


—Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, during the Peninsular Campaign, in a message to the British Foreign Office in London, 11 August 1812

This quote is pilfered from a new Center for Global Development essay by Andrew Natsios, former USAID Administrator and current Georgetown Prof. In the full (though possibly apocryphal) letter, the Duke complains that the demands of regulation, bureaucracy and compliance (“the accountants and copy-boys in London”) threaten to compromise the achievement of his country’s true goal (driving Napoleon out of Spain).

Natsios makes a similar argument about US aid programs, which he says are suffering from a disfiguring imbalance. The compliance side of aid, which he calls the “counter-bureaucracy,” has grown grotesquely out of proportion to the programmatic, technical side, and threatens to undermine aid’s goals.

As on Wellington’s plains of Spain, the goals of the US counter-bureaucracy are not necessarily compatible with or even complementary to the goals of the organization as a whole. That is, the counter-bureaucracy exists to make sure that US aid programs are managed according to voluminous, archaic, and sometimes internally-contradictory US laws, regulations, and management systems, while aid programs exist to encourage development abroad by building developing-country partnerships and strengthening institutions. US aid has become paralyzed by endless reporting requirements.

Natsios writes:

…[T]he question is whether the counter-bureaucracy has become counter-developmental.

Of course, we would all be a lot more sympathetic to the counter-bureaucracy if it performed functions like preventing waste and corruption, or if it performed independent evaluations of whether aid actually brought benefits to the intended beneficiaries. Unfortunately, a string of recent scandals (made possible of course by reports from the counter-bureaucracy) showed millions of USAID dollars going astray in Afghanistan and Iraq, with little assurance in USAID’s reaction so far that the same will not happen again in the future. So exactly what IS accomplished by those costly reporting requirements?