Monday, November 27, 2006

When official aid works

I had lunch today with a friend who is leading some work on the effectiveness of the official aid industry. As someone who was formerly a senior aid official herself, she is a sceptic that traditional aid programs will ever work very well.

But both of us have been involved in non-traditional official aid projects that made a real difference, and we both know people who have done great work in the World Bank, USAID, DFID, and elsewhere.

The key is to find the innovative people and approaches that are working and to get more resources to them.

Someone who fits this mold well is Scott Guggenheim, a World Bank anthropologist who led an extraordinary team of Indonesians and expats who devised the "KDP Program" in Indonesia. Just like the Development Marketplace and GlobalGiving, which I had the privilege to help launch, the KDP program turns the old model upside down by just asking villages what their priorities are, and then gets them the money to do it - directly, without going through ten layers of government bureaucracy.

Rather than try to explain KDP, I will just reproduce the first page of a paper Scott wrote about it below.

It was a brilliantly clear morning in Central Sulawesi when the villagers first spied the large pile of lumber. One of the delivery truck drivers stood lazily by the wood, smoking a cigarette that he blew over his steaming coffee. He’d come from Palu, the provincial capital. The golden lettering embroidered on his hat told the villagers that he and the silent man in the neatly pressed green safari suit also sipping his coffee worked for the Public Works Department there.

The villagers were curious. Just last year they had gotten funds from the Kecamatan Development Project to build a stone road from their rice fields to the market route, and now here were the materials to repair a bridge. Had the government finally noticed their plight?

“Friend, what is this wood for?

“It’s to build a bridge”

“How much wood is there? What did it cost?”

“That’s none of your business. Just be thankful that the government will be building you a bridge.”

“But we want to know. This is our new rule here. You have to come to the balai desa and tell us about the project. Then you have to post a signboard so that all of us know how much this bridge costs. If KDP does it, we want you to do it too.”

“You are mistaken. KDP is KDP and it has KDP rules. This is a government project and we follow our rules. Just be thankful that you are getting a bridge”.

The villagers were troubled. That night the village elders met. Some people said they should just accept the wood because the village needed the bridge. But many more villagers were angry. This was now the era of reformasi and people had a right to know about projects.

Early the next morning, even before the first rays of sunlight pierced the dark clouds, the villagers had heaved the wood back onto a large truck owned by the son of the village council head. Two truckloads of villagers and scores of motorcycles joined the procession to the district parliament.

When the first parliamentarians arrived for work that morning, they were met by a quiet delegation of villagers standing atop a large pile of wood wrapped in an enormous white cloth.

“What is this? They asked”

“This is the cloth we use to wrap our dead,” the village head replied, “and dead is what this project is. We would rather have no bridge and no wood than go back to the corrupt ways of the New Order. From now on we only want projects that involve us in decisions. If KDP can do it, other projects can do it too.”

And with those words, the villagers got back on their trucks and went home.[1]

[1] Story collected by Enurlaela Hasanah.

The full paper can be found here.