Killing microfinance to say they saved the poor

Vivek Nemana is an NYU graduate student and a student worker at DRI. It’s official: Indian politicians have agreed to regulate the private microfinance sector…by choking it in a tangle of bureaucracy and corruption.

As everyone from David Roodman (on this blog) to the Cambridge randomistas (in the FT) has been saying, Indian microfinance needs reform, not a roundhouse kick to the face. But now the state of Andhra Pradesh has passed an overbearing law which makes it illegal for MFIs to lend to people with multiple loans (which is 70% of rural households), or to lend to members of Self Help Groups without permission. State regulators may also shut down MFIs at any time for vaguely defined “sufficient reasons,” and lenders can only collect payments at government centers – an open corridor for corruption.

The head of Microfinance Institutions Network said: "The bill will make it impossible for microlenders to operate in the state and effectively put us out of business there."

Private microlending in Andhra Pradesh was successful because there was excess demand for credit that government-backed programs and non-profits were not satisfying. But with the for-profits squeezed out, their six million clients will be forced to return to more informal lenders such as village loan sharks.

In 2009 a similar incident happened in Nicaragua with uncanny parallels to Andhra, right down to the multiple lending and political involvement. The “No Pago,” or No Payment, movement resulted in the judge-ordered liquidation of a top microlender and a dragged-out microcredit crisis.

India was like a Petri dish for microfinance experiments, which meant that initiatives like self-help groups, mobile banking, and MFIs played off each other’s shortfalls. Eventually, the competition between the agents – if mixed with a healthy dose of regulation – might’ve fostered better, more effective systems of microcredit.

But this legislation is a discouraging blow to would-be microfinance entrepreneurs, who’ve been basically told that at any time the government might decide to shut down their businesses – and their ideas.

Investors in for-profit ventures might also be frightened away by the idea of losing money when politicians decide to tighten their grip around microfinance’s throat. In a worst case scenario, the new law could legitimize similar actions by politicians in other countries who are pandering for votes or have their own personal beef with microfinance. Some countries, like Peru, already have stable, well-organized regulation in place, but they’re exceptions.

On the other hand, what happened in India could be a wake-up call, as Tim Ogden argues, about the unrealistic expectations that donors, supporters and governments maintain about microfinance. If that’s the case, then clear-headed thinking about its flaws and benefits could pave the way for better regulation, better financial literacy programs and more effective, more diverse microfinance products.

Next week, Indian politicians plan to ban all Bollywood movies for “sucking the blood from the poor” because they charge for movie tickets.


Photo credit: flickr

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Understanding India’s Microcredit Crisis

by David Roodman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development As Vivek Nemana reported here, the Indian microcredit industry has pitched into what appears to be a replay of the American subprime debacle. I just spent a week in India, talking to nearly everyone. I learned there were so many complexities—history, politicsinstitutional rivalries— that to just view events through the foreign lens of the subprime crisis is…actually about right.

The microcredit industry indeed appears to have grown irresponsibly fast, partly out of pursuit of profit. But this is not a simple morality play. The state government’s response (an October 14 ordinance) is draconian, tantamount to banning mortgages after a mortgage crisis. Why such a crackdown? The rise of private microcredit threatened a big, World Bank–financed government program that provides credit and other services.

Until last month, India was home to the fastest microcredit expansion the word has seen. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of microloans shot from 1.0 million to 26.7 million. Unlike in Bangladesh, which India recently surpassed in number of microloans, investor-owned, for-profit companies do most of lending in India. SKS Microfinance went public in July, earning tens of millions of dollars for founder Vikram Akula, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and others. This inevitably led many to blame the hypergrowth on pure greed. I don’t doubt that pursuit of profit played a big role, but Akula’s new book also persuades me that he concluded—along with most of the Indian microcredit industry—that reaching the poor required being profitable enough to attract serious venture capital.

Nipping at SKS’s heels were other microcreditors, also based in Hyderabad, which helped make Andhra Pradesh India’s microcredit hotbed. Villagers experienced the arrival of 2, 3, 4, even 8 or 10 microcreditors within the last few years, all eager to press loans into the hands of women. Loan officers learned that they could line up customers more quickly in villages where their competitors already operated, for there the women would have been educated in the mechanics of microcredit—and might want new loans to service old ones. So loans were heaped on top of loans.

Even Vijay Mahajan, the president of the microfinance industry association, has been bluntly critical:

In their quest to grow, they kept piling on more loans in the same geographies…That led to more indebtedness, and in some cases it led to suicides.

Unfortunately, while loan disbursement became irrationally exuberant, loan collection remained insistent. Microcredit is about mass-producing low-quality services in order to keep costs in line with the small amounts transacted. For the machine to run efficiently, clients must keep up on their payments. Microlenders also pounce on delinquency to prevent it from snowballing, so that women will not ask, “Why should I pay if she is not?” Loan officers now stand widely accused of harassing borrowers, yelling at them outside their homes, even threatening violence. The pressure has been blamed for at least 54 suicides. While the allegations are individually dubious, arising as they do in a politically charged, media-scrutinized environment, the link to suicide is plausible. Microcredit is the least flexible, least forgiving form of credit available to the poor of Andhra Pradesh, thus most likely to push them over the edge.

So the Andhra Pradesh government responded to a real problem. However, its response is also a real problem. As I explain on my blog, the October 14 law has frozen microcredit in across the state; it contains provisions that would be unconstitutional in many countries; and it could bankrupt several lenders. The law is defending a rival government program that provides credit and other services to millions of women in self-help groups. Because these groups are communal rather than corporate, they tend to be more lenient than microcreditors. When cornered, women with multiple loans default on self-help group loans first. Thus did the public and private programs collide.

These events should be cause for introspection at the World Bank, which has financed both sides, but especially the government’s self-help group support program (with $1 billion or so). The latter may well be doing much good. But World Bank money has also beefed up a political economy hostile to private sector solutions.

Perhaps the heedlessly expanding Indian microcredit industry deserved a smackdown. But what matters most is not what is fair to the microcreditors but what is best for the poor. The Indian government has built an impressive 50-year track record failing to meet the financial service needs of the poor. Under the right circumstances the private sector can help fill the gap. The goal should be to reform microfinance, not kill it.

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Lant Pritchett on what Obama got right about development

by Lant Pritchett, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Obama's speech at the MDG conference and the announced US Global Development Policy are the result of long preparation and internal discussions within the administration as part of the Presidential Study Directive, lead out of the NSC, announced a year ago, and the QDDR, prepared by State, both processes having been watched over by the Washington think tanks and advocacy groups.

While one could immediately focus on the "architecture" part of the speech and read the Beltway tea leaves of who is up, who is down, and what that means for this organization or that, it is worth at least first stepping back and asking where this first official US development policy came down on the big debates on development, where, I think it comes out a big winner on four big ideas.

First, the speech and policy put economic growth front and center as objectives of development and development policy.  It might seem obvious that economic growth that increases people's command over resources is the single most powerful force to improve nearly any indicator of well-being -- from poverty to food security to health to education -- but, surprisingly, that point can get lost.  The "development is about more than growth" backlash, which had important elements of truth, easily got carried away into "development isn't at all about growth" and it is good to see economic growth back front and center of development objectives.

Of course growth these day must carry some adjectives as baggage -- "sustainable" and "broad based" can never be too far away -- but both of those are perfectly legitimate qualifiers and a small price to pay for the primacy of growth.

Second, the speech came down hard, and right, on the debate between improving systemic capability and programmatic action.  This was of course not easy to do in the context of a speech on the MDGs, which lend themselves to a programmatic vision of development.  Functioning systems of education have multiple and complex objectives -- spreading a common socialization, improving learning of the basics, identifying and promoting excellence.  The goal of development is that a country can have an education system that, as a natural part of its operation as a system composed of many actors and pressures, sets and achieves goals, some of which are then mapped into particular programs.  The same is true of all other spheres of social and governmental action -- infrastructure, law and order, health, economic policy.  The speech clearly identified building this capability as a central (and difficult) part of development.

This resists a very powerful tendency to reduce development to a series of specific targets, each of which can be addressed by the implementation of sufficiently resourced programs (programs which can be cocooned or stove piped around systemic dysfunction), which can be crudely caricatured as the "show me the money" approach.

The MDGs are correctly interpreted as what will be accomplished when there has been development -- not vice versa.

Third, the speech gets right the need for innovation, with rigorous evaluation as an important component of an environment for innovation.  The endeavor of "development" as a conscious acceleration of the progress of nation-states is now at least 50 years old.  If it were easy and obvious then as a social movement it would have disappeared under the weight of its own success and be a historical curiosity, like abolitionists.

The paradox of the external organizations that attempt to support development is that people tell them "we'll give you your budget if you tell us for sure what you are doing will work."  This leads to a powerful culture of pretending that much more is known about the "theory of change" that leads to development that really is known.  The fact that the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world has just spent eight years devoting fantastically high level of resources to "develop" Afghanistan (with security as one element of that) with results that range from mixed to shambolic should make it obvious that we need much greater openness within the development community to an approach of structured experimentation -- on all fronts.

The same skepticism about "one size fits all" that made "Washington Consensus" two dirty words should be taken to the range of "expert" advice in sectors from education to health to public sector governance to "institution building." All of which is mostly just repeating the conventional wisdom and closing off, rather than opening up, space for novelty and innovation.

Fourth, one thing the speech gets right it does so by omission.  There is no dollar figure.  The message "lets do more" is always popular because it also means "business as usual" for what is already going on.  "Let's do better at what we are doing" is a tough internal sell, but one that is useful -- including, I believe, to people who are actually on the ground, doing the work.  Anyone who has actually worked inside the development industry knows how much better things, at least potentially, could be, but also how tough achieving that will be given the inertia of massive organizations.  So while tackling policy and "architecture" might seem arcane relative to the apparent obvious gain of spending more money.  More is better, but better is better too and more is even better after better is better.

As to whether the proposed changes can advance the correct development agenda of growth, expanded public capability, innovation with evaluation, and improved assistance...well, that's a topic for another day.

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Allow me to introduce the world's latest aid skeptic: Barack Obama

If the international community just keeps doing the same things the same way, we will miss many development goals. For too long, we've measured our efforts by the dollars we spent … But aid alone is not development.

Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn't always improved those societies over the long term. Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades. That's not development, that's dependence....

let's move beyond the old, narrow debate over how much money we're spending and let's instead focus on results-whether we're actually making improvements in people's lives

From the prepared text of President Obama's speech yesterday to the UN Millennium Development Goals summit.

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India tells UK to turn off the aid tap already

Reported yesterday in the English language daily newspaper the Indian Express*:

The External Affairs Ministry has instructed the Finance Ministry to inform London that India will not accept further aid from next April...

“…[I]t would be better if our decision not to avail any further DFID assistance with effect from 1st April 2011 could be conveyed to the British side in an appropriate manner at the earliest,” [Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao] wrote to Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla.

Ahead of Cameron’s visit, India had considered rejecting DFID offer in view of the “negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by DFID”.

Welcome to the paradox of aid to India. On the one hand, the World Bank still classifies India as a “lower middle income” country. With a per capita GNI hovering around $1000, it is home to one-third of the world’s poor, and 75 percent of its population lives on less that $2 per day.

On the other hand, India is the world’s 11th largest economy. It has a space program, a nuclear weapons program, and it is projected to grow by 9 percent this year and 8 percent the next.

At the same time that India is telegraphing its readiness to lessen its dependence on official aid, it is also positioning itself as a donor, using its aid money just as traditional donors do, to gain friends and influence among its neighbors. Though no one knows exactly how much aid India gives out (it does not have one central development agency, nor does it report aid statistics to the OECD) India recently offered a $1 billion loan package to Bangladesh and announced $25 million to aid Pakistan’s flooded areas.

Over the last decade, India has consistently been the largest recipient of the UK’s aid, receiving some $3.3 billion since 2001. But last month, we learned of a major change in Britain’s criteria to allocate aid, requiring that aid projects make “the maximum possible contribution to national security.” The UK development secretary has basically admitted that this means places of current military-strategic interest, like Afghanistan, are in, while holdovers from colonial- and Cold War eras, like India, are out.

Apparently, India got this memo as well and has decided to preempt UK cuts by announcing that India no longer needs the aid anyway, thank you very much.

*Thanks to reader Luke Seidl for the tip.

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Africans do not want or need Britain's development aid

Editor's note: This letter was published in the Telegraph (UK) on August 22, 2010 with the title given above for this post.

SIR – The parlous state of the public finances in Britain provides the perfect opportunity for British taxpayers to end their half-century-long experiment with "development aid", which has, since its inception, stunted growth and subsidised bad governance in Africa.

As Africans, we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need. A real offer from the British people to help our development would consist of the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy, which keeps African agricultural exports out of the European marketplace.

It is that egregious policy, combined with the weight of regulations, bad laws and stifling bureaucracy, subsidised by five decades of development aid, which prevents Africans from lifting themselves out of poverty.

Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, speaks about a "moral imperative" to combat poverty around the world. We could not agree more. The British have a unique opportunity to cut the deficit and help Africa: please, ask your new government to stop your aid.

Andrew Mwenda Editor, Independent newspaper, Uganda Franklin Cudjoe Executive Director, IMANI Center for Policy and Education, Ghana Kofi Bentil Lecturer, University of Ghana and Ashesi University, Ghana Thompson Ayodele Executive Director, Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, Nigeria Temba Nolutshungu Director, Free Market Foundation, South Africa Leon Louw Law Review Project, South Africa

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The Plumpy’Nut dust-up: Nutriset’s side of the story

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. Plumpy’Nut is a lifesaving Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food that was developed, and patented, by a French company called Nutriset. An American NGO and company have brought suit against Nutriset in an attempt to break the patent. I wrote about the basics of the situation in a previous post.

That post brought up more questions than it answered. In an attempt to cast some light on the situation, I talked to two people from Nutriset: Remi Vallet, and Adeline Lescanne, by phone and via email. The answers below cover my communications with both of them. Mr. Vallet is the Nutriset communications officer and Ms. Lescanne is Nutriset’s deputy general manager.

The Nutriset View:

1) What’s the deal with nutritional autonomy?

When Nutriset was founded in 1986, its mandate was “feeding children.” That changed over time – the current mandate is contributing to nutritional autonomy. “Nutritional autonomy does not mean nutritional autarky,” says Vallet, “We don’t want North Koreas. But local production benefits the local economy.” Rather, communities should be able to identify their own nutritional needs and access to what they need to meet them. This means that Plumpy’Nut should be made as close to the place of need as possible. Most Plumpy’Nut ingredients are available in Africa, especially peanuts and oil.

2) Won’t restricting Plumpy’Nut to local production drive up prices and limit access to Plumpy’Nut?

Local production is not necessarily more expensive than international production; transportation taxes are high and so are import taxes. In addition, small local NGOs may not have the capacity to handle a large internal procurement of Plumpy’Nut, but they can work with a local manufacturer.  Importing Plumpy’Nut can also face political opposition, such as what we saw in India. Local production avoids that problem.

3) How does Nutriset’s patent support local production?

It’s much more difficult to set up a factory in Africa than it is in the US. African businesses have trouble accessing capital and navigating bureaucratic obstacles. The patent allows Nutriset to work with local partners and protect them from international competition while they develop. US producers would use subsidized raw materials, and overwhelm local producers.

My take on this:

I came away from my discussion with Nutriset convinced of their good intent and unconvinced of their logic. This is clearly not a case of an evil corporation profiting from hungry kids. Unfortunately, I don’t think that matters.

Nutritional autonomy is the heart of Nutriset’s case for their patent, and I just don’t get it. I spent quite a while talking to Nutriset, but I still don’t see nutritional autonomy as a justification for the Plumpy’Nut patent. It seems to me that Nutriset could support local level nutrition through methods more effective than the Plumpy’Nut patent. For example, political opposition to imported food is not immutable; Nutriset could advocate for governments to accept the product. And if local production is no more expensive than international production, it won’t make much difference if factories take longer to set up in Africa.

Nutriset is trying to argue everything at once, here, and it doesn’t hold. If locally produced Plumpy’Nut is cheaper, more accessible to small purchasers, and less taxable, why exactly does it need a patent to protect it?

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The Plumpy’nut dustup

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. There is a fight brewing over Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut butter product used to treat malnutrition in children. The company that invented Plumpy’nut has a patent on the product. Two American NGOs want to make their own version, but rather than pay a royalty fee, they are trying to break the patent. They have two main points. First, that Plumpy’nut as a product is too simple to be patentable, and second, that the patent is limiting access to the product.

Plumpy’nut is a bona fide miracle product. It’s easy for health care providers to administer, and it’s easy for patients to consume. Vacuum packed and shelf stable, it’s easier to store and transport than the fortified formulas that are otherwise used to treat malnutrition. It doesn’t require access to clean water like the formula powders do. And children love it and can eat it on their own, without parental help. Using Plumpy’nut instead of traditional F100 or F75 formulas increases cure rates to levels that have never consistently been seen before. It’s not surprising, therefore, that its patent has caused a lot of resentment.

Nutriset, the French company that invented Plumpy’nut, argues that the patent is not about profit. They claim that it is needed to protect the quality of the peanut paste. They were quoted in the Associated Press as saying “The limits let the company maintain quality while licensing production in the developing world - helping alleviate hunger and create jobs…” Their commitment, they state, is to “nutritional autonomy.” Letting products flood the global market would keep countries from being able to establish their own production. And it’s true that their field operation has helped several countries set up factories to produce Plumpy’nut. Lastly, Nutriset states that according to UNICEF, worldwide production capacity for Plumpy’nut is already double the existing demand.

It’s too easy to frame this as business versus humanitarianism. The Plumpy’nut patent is not global, and Nutriset actively encourages the production of Plumpy’nut in the developing world. Flooding the market with cheap American-made products would discourage countries from developing their own production;  it would also help malnourished children by improving access to peanut paste.

The media coverage seems to missing the third side of this story: the economic view of the lawsuit. From that perspective, both sides have some major flaws in their arguments. Where is the incentive to develop products for poor people if there is no profit in it? We want the private sector to work to meet the needs of the poor. If products that do that can’t be patented for humanitarian reasons, who will bother to develop them? And why exactly do we care if countries can produce their own Plumpy’nut? What is the value of “nutritional autonomy,” anyway?

That makes me wonder if there is a solution to be found by economists. Could we have advance market commitments for peanut butter?

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Three Afghan success stories

Today, finally a break from the doom and gloom on Afghanistan! Clare Lockhart, the CEO of the Institute for State Effectiveness, spoke at DRI’s annual conference last month and gave three examples of what has gone right in the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan. These reforms and projects have lasted despite worsening security conditions and will—Lockhart says—form part of the foundation for the next generation of reforms in Kabul.

1) Hawala dealers implement Afghan currency exchange. In 2001, there were three currencies in circulation in Afghanistan, all produced illegally by warlords, with frequently fluctuating values that only the hawala dealers—the country’s informal currency exchangers—could decipher. To move to one unified currency, international donors recommended that Afghanistan switch to the dollar for two years in an expensive and lengthy process that would require the assistance of 15,000 UN bureaucrats. Instead, the Afghans decided to tap into the extensive networks of the local hawala dealers. Once enlisted, they were able to reach every village and change the currency in just 4 months. Clare commented:

To me that’s a lesson of instead of us looking at what’s not there and what do we need to bring in from the outside, how do we turn it around and learn how to …look at what is there. What are the assets that exist on the ground, what are the networks, what are the traditional and existing ways that people manage their daily lives? And how can those be harnessed to the urgent and important tasks of the day?

2) Aid underwrites risk so Afghan telecom can take off. Telecoms were reluctant to enter the risky, post-US invasion Afghan market. Donors had suggested that the Afghan government would actually have to pay the telecoms to provide service. Instead, the government and the international community came up with an innovative way to cover the risk and spur investment. OPIC- a US agency that promotes development in emerging markets- stepped in to write a risk guarantee for $20 million for the firms willing to compete for government licenses. The $20 million was never used, and after $1 billion investment in the sector, there are now more than 11 million phones in Afghanistan.

3) Village-level grant program taps village know-how. Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program has provided grants to thousands of Afghan villages. The village councils choose how to spend the money, but must post their accounts publicly. Funds for the program are pooled into a locked trust fund that can only be replenished by donors once they’ve seen project audit reports. The program is growing as villages combine grants to take on larger projects, like an irrigation system or a regional maternal hospital, and although the NSP has developed some opposition from politicians who would prefer to be able to skim money off the top of these grants, it has also attracted wide support.

To hear Clare Lockhart tell these stories, listen to this 8-minute clip. If you have the time, it’s also well worth listening to her full presentation with slide show on the DRI website, here. [audio:|titles=Lockhart-Afghan-Success]

We wouldn’t be Aid Watch if we didn’t note that Lockhart is also an outspoken critic of failures in the aid system. Her talk contains many tragic examples of aid failures in Afghanistan, which we’ll post another day on the blog.

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How is the aid industry like a piano recital? A defense of aid

In 1991, India faced a looming balance of payments crisis. India’s leaders responded, making what are now generally agreed to be some very good decisions: they devalued the exchange rate and instituted a systematic set of economic reforms that lowered high trade barriers and eliminated repressive internal regulations, helping to dismantle India’s notorious license-permit Raj. These reforms averted what might have been years of stagnation or slow growth (avoiding the fate of a Mexico or a Brazil in the 1980s). The reforms also paved the way for the next decade and a half of accelerated growth, and helped some 300 million people escape extreme, grinding poverty. Lant Pritchett, Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government, argues that the aid industry deserves credit for these reforms and the associated huge improvement in human well-being, but not quite in the way you might expect.

It wasn’t that the World Bank and the IMF required India to make those reforms through conditionality. Instead, Pritchett says, it was the existence of a broad, international movement called “Development,” and an industry called “Aid” that created the conditions for Indian leaders to act as they did.

How so? First, many policy makers involved in India’s reforms spent their early careers working abroad for multilaterals, gaining exposure to ideas not prevalent in India at the time, and gaining experience watching these ideas either work or crash and burn in countries around the world.

Second, the aid industry funds the thousands upon thousands of obscure, detailed economics papers and studies that make up the knowledge base of the movement called Development. Without the painstaking work behind those studies, the movement of Development would never have a chance at producing those rare, brilliant insights with the power to transform hundreds of millions of lives.

To produce those fortuitous moments of brilliance, where the right policy meets the right person and the right opportunity, the movement called Development has to have the depth and breadth within it to produce detailed technical knowledge on a million different topics from tariff codes in India, to migrant remittances in Spain, to firm governance in Korea. Here’s where the piano recital part comes in:

I see the aid industry a lot like a piano recital. It’s kind of boring and it’s tedious and most of the people are wasting their time. But every now and again by God we make a difference and when we do make a difference it really transforms economies and lives for a very long time....

Any movement, be it development or classical music, has to maintain its core.  Music has thousands of young aspiring pianists performing bad recitals that no one but their parents want to hear, all for the purpose of producing just one virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz or one innovative Philip Glass. Aid projects that can’t demonstrate impact and economics papers read by an audience of ten are the development movement’s equivalent of a million and one timid and dissonant renditions of Für Elise performed in student piano recitals the world over. But they are the core that allows for the possibility of “transformational excellence” in a movement.

For Pritchett, what aid does best is to “form the base of the pyramid that creates the possibility of the top.” And the power of successes in development—the rare policy insight, or the competent handling of a potentially disastrous crisis—is so great, and has the power to transform so many lives, that those successes justify the existence of the whole flawed movement, many times over.

Agreements or counter-arguments, anyone?

You can watch Lant Pritchett’s full presentation from the 2010 DRI annual conference, in which he argues this case much more skillfully (and employing other entertaining metaphors), in the audio slideshow below. The audio file of the Q&A following the talk is also posted.

Lant Pritchett: The Best of Aid

Lant Pritchett Q&A
[audio:|titles=Q&A Lant Pritchett]
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Life in the Aid World: Caught Red-Handed, No Consequences

Last week, a report in USA Today brought to light a story of aid funds going badly astray. In case you have not followed the story, it seems that back in 2003, USAID contracted with the UNDP and UNOPS to complete a series of “quick impact” infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, to build badly needed roads, bridges, and community buildings. A US government report on the project, sparked by a tip from an anonymous complainant, found that many of the projects reported as “complete” by the UN were in fact unfinished or had such “life-threatening oversights” that they could not be used. The USA Today reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to access the government report, which he then published along with the article.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

  • According to a former UNOPS employee, some $10 million of the USAID grant funds was diverted to projects outside of Afghanistan, in Sudan, Haiti, Sri Lanka and, most memorably, Dubai.
  • The UNDP withdrew $6.7 million of project funds in 2007, after the project had ended and without USAID’s knowledge. The investigators could not pin down how those funds were spent.
  • A bank was built for $375,000 without electricity, plumbing or proper drainage. The report found that the basement had flooded, destroying stacks of money, and the walls were rotting.
  • A $250,000 bridge, reported as “completed,” was dangerous and unusable, having been designed too small for the site where it was built.
  • An airstrip budgeted at $300,000 actually cost $729,000 to build. After a description of the major engineering flaws in the construction of the airstrip, the report concluded that military planes cannot safely land there and that “erosion rills or ruts will continue to expand until they reach the runway itself, destroying it completely.” In other words, USAID paid $729,000 for a patch of mud.
  • There may be more to come: “questions remain unanswered” because several UN officials refused to be interviewed and the UN failed to provide requested documents during the investigation.

USAID is also to blame for choosing such a bad contracting arrangement, and for not having procedures to catch this earlier and seek full compensation. USA Today reported:

Federal prosecutors in New York City were forced to drop criminal and civil cases because the U.N. officials have immunity. USAID has scaled back its dealings with the U.N. and hired a collection agency to seek $7.6 million back, Deputy Administrator James Bever said. The aid agency hasn't heeded its inspector general's request to sever all ties.

"There are certain cases where working with the U.N. is the only option available," Bever said in an e-mail.

At a UN briefing last week, the UNDP spokesman said that “there have already been a number of meetings, including at the highest level of UNDP and USAID, to work through this matter.” He said that he expected that the UNDP would have to pay USAID no more than $1.5 million.

A disastrous aid outcome, exposure in the mass media -- so what were the consequences? A number of meetings, possibly some money back, USAID disregards its own Inspector General’s request to break off ties with the UN (some unspecified “scaling back” except in other unspecified “certain cases”), and yet more meetings “at the highest levels.”

Since the initial reports, there has been no further media coverage or commentary except for an editorial critical of USAID in the Las Vegas Sun on April 17th. The USAID web site accessed on Monday, April 20, 2009 still listed as implementing partners UNDP (who announces it “remains responsive to the changing needs of a nation still in transition from conflict to peace”) and UNOPS (“we help our clients turn ideas into reality.”)

The USA Today story broke the same day that a USAID rep presented at a meeting in Washington called "Open Innovation for Government: Answering President Obama's Call for More Open, Effective Public Service."

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Thieves and Donors: Agencies Struggle to Respond to a Little Constructive Criticism on Tajikistan

Last month, the International Crisis Group came out with a report describing the "profound and all-pervasive nature of corruption in Tajikistan," and recommending that the international donor community "institute a totally new framework for the provision of aid to Tajikistan." Since "most" of the substantial amount of money provided by international donors (some $300 million in 2006) "is believed to be lost to corruption before it gets anywhere near its intended recipients" the ICG reasonably recommended that donors take another look at whether it is good idea to give Tajikistan direct budget support (that is, provide cash directly to the Ministry of Finance to go into the budget for public spending). If the government doesn't get into shape, they said, donors should keep on funding humanitarian relief but cut off direct budget support.

We wondered what Tajikistan’s donors would say about these recommendations. In an ideal universe of flexible, accountable aid, surely donors would welcome impartial, externally-funded research. They would have in place some mechanism to evaluate the recommendations and determine whether existing aid programs should be tweaked or even discontinued in light of new findings...right?

To their credit, the donors we spoke with were aware of the ICG recommendations, and all responded (though some more slowly and reluctantly than others) to our questions.

The IMF told us that the majority of the ICG findings didn’t apply to them: the IMF doesn’t give direct budget support, and it doesn’t fund specific projects. As it happens, though, a new IMF loan of $120 million was announced the same week the ICG report came out. The loan will go the central bank to bolster Tajikistan’s foreign currency reserves. "As is the case in all IMF programs, we will also conduct a safeguards assessment that seeks to confirm that IMF resources are used as intended" said the IMF rep in an email message. We just wonder if this is the same safeguards assessment that was conducted before the last six misreporting incidents between Tajikistan and the IMF, the most serious of which required Tajikistan to give back some $50 million dollars and hire Ernst and Young to conduct an independent audit of the National Bank.

So who is giving direct budget support to Tajikistan? The World Bank’s portfolio for 2006 to 2010 includes $30 million in direct budget support. A new agreement, also reached the same week that the ICG report came out, will add $20 million to that figure, bringing budget support to 30 percent of the World Bank’s total grants in Tajikistan.

Reached via email in Dushanbe, the World Bank rep said of the ICG report: “We do not find ourselves in a position to comment on those recommendations…what we can say though is that the World Bank is aiming to support the people of Tajikistan…and the monitoring and audit systems in World Bank-funded projects are carefully designed to ensure that the funds reach those whom they were intended for.”

At the same time, though, the World Bank rep sent us a case study commissioned by Brookings (forthcoming) on aid effectiveness in Tajikistan. This report’s key conclusions are worth quoting at length:

The existing aid coordination architecture and interaction mechanisms between the Government and development partners are unable to ensure efficient use of foreign aid resources being provided to Tajikistan. As a result, planned (or expected) results and impact are substantially different from those realized on the ground. External assistance...has resulted in the perverse situation of a lack of incentives and inability to focus on and pay attention to the long-term determinants of domestic growth and appropriate political and economic institutions.

What do you think? Are donors in Tajikistan and elsewhere doing enough to safeguard aid funds and make sure they reach the poor? Or are they taking the path of least resistance, responding to strong institutional incentives that require donor organizations to keep the money flowing? What more do you think can be done?

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