Sjoerd Nienhuys: Wish list by OPA

Knowledge brokering02 Feb 2010Sjoerd Nienhuys

Overall Planning Assistance; Ontwikkeling Planning Assistentie

The WRR correctly elaborates on the complexity of the issues at hand and also touches on many aspects that require attention. Producing generalized statements does not help very much in the discussion, as these can be countered with many contrary examples from field practice. Some organizations invariably claim that their working method in a certain project was the best. Of course, within the myriad variety of projects, both options exist; the good ones and the bad ones. The point of issue is: how to minimize the bad ones?

If programmes or (worse) projects are formulated to address only one outstanding problem, it is essential that the causes of that problem are addressed, and we do not act like a farmer who steps on every new molehill occurring in his field in the hope that the moles will disappear. If projects go wrong, they should be closely analysed to determine why they went wrong or did not have the proposed results. Not doing so is the weakness of many good, willing organizations. Too many development organizations turn a blind eye to mistakes, wave away criticism and mainly report successes, only because they need to please the home crowd with happy reports. The good cases are inflated, but you learn more from analysing the mistakes than from the successes. Also, the best practice or success is often not transferable to other countries because of the complexities of aid.

When projects are conceived by technical specialists to solve particular problems, they do not consider all the options, nor are they certain that their project is the best solution and will have the desired effect. Constant monitoring and intermediate adjustments are necessary to eliminate undesired side effects and corruption. This requires in-depth knowledge of the local society, how it functions and how it does not. To acquire that knowledge, you need both experienced outsiders who can look at it objectively, and insiders who know how things operate in the assisted country. You also need strong evaluation and your own research capacity, and you need to understand how locally provided statistics can be manipulated by interested parties. One of the political problems of development aid is that the overhead costs of project preparation, monitoring, evaluation and reporting are large; that does not go away. It also does not help when NGOs sometimes do not declare more than 7% overhead expenses; the result is creative bookkeeping. If you do not evaluate the good, the poor and the bad projects, you do not find out what went wrong. The result is that again and again new but different projects are initiated in the hope of getting better results. Only in-depth analysis of the problems provides good direction.

Ideally, the collected development organizations should have a national platform in the assisted country of experienced development workers, OPA. This OPA team should make an annually-adjusted country profile and develop a projection/strategy. This should preferably be in coordination with the government of that country. In such a case, we develop cooperation (samenwerking) instead of just aid (hulp). This body can have the structure of a shadow parliament or national plan bureau, but it needs to consider all aspects of the society in the country in which it is operating, including its neighbours and world developments. OPA needs to have the powers to analyse, investigate and evaluate. Its annual review, recommendations and the resulting wish list for a country should be the guideline for government and donors to finance programmes. That list needs primary and secondary objectives. Donors or NGOs can opt for the implementation of these programmes by formulating and implementing projects. With many organizations capable of a certain development (e.g. irrigation, education, energy), OPA can assist in tendering procedures. Continuity is one condition for OPA; there is no such thing as ‘dropping a development bomb’ and thinking that the problem is solved in so many project months. All experienced people in industrial development will confirm that one cannot develop a new enterprise in two years and then expect it to be self sustaining. Not in the Netherlands, and even less so in a developing country; that takes many years of support.

OPA staff should be highly experienced, particularly in field practice. DGIS, through embassies, can contribute staff to OPA, but also specializations. For example, if the Netherlands has skills in water and sanitation, and the assisted country has specific problems in this area. Also, they may contribute with special services such as studies and evaluations. Naturally, many of the current donors and NGOs have running programmes or activities that may not be part of the wish list. I may assume that many charity type of projects or very small-scale initiatives may not reach the wish list. But if these are financed from private funds, and do not produce contrary results to the development of the country, they can be allowed; do no harm. To quote Shoemacher, ‘small is beautiful’. In comparing large and small projects, in many cases I must confirm that he was completely right. It is necessary, however, to make a clear distinction between development-focused projects and charity-type projects. Also, a division between (military) conflict control and development aid should be considered.

As stated in the WRR, such a body exists theoretically in the UNDP, but these offices have become very bureaucratic, implement projects themselves, are not always impartial in evaluations, and seldom coordinate the non-UN donors. UNDP is supposed to coordinate several UN organizations, but not all of them are available in each country, and not all of them have the same level of influence. Sometimes big financial institutes, like the World Bank or IMF, intervene directly with government finances, changing the entire context of aid. The UNDP, together with the international donors, seldom develop or adjust annually a viable country-strategy policy. Their salaries are invariably the highest in the country and often you can only get a job with them if you have good wheelbarrows or family members high in the local government. UNDP definitely needs to be restructured.

In some more developed countries (I knew of Peru, in 1993), the government had a platform in which donors and local specialists determined the spending of a communal development fund. All international donors, including some of the UN organizations, allocated funding into a pool, and the team took a consensus decision on project finances. Some countries specialized in one theme. In the case of Peru, this was for sub-regional development and not the entire country. That team had links to the central government, but did not cover general politics such as national economics, employment, etc. OPA must be wider. Development is multifaceted and requires multidimensional planning.

OPA is just one of the options, possibly viable in a small place like Haiti after the current government-management-made disaster. It would now be difficult to implement OPA in Zimbabwe, and so there will be a range of difficulties to implement such a model worldwide. Some countries may accept the idea, but strong environmental or population policy recommendations may be waved away as inconvenient. The charity concept of development aid is one of the core reasons why citizens donate for causes that are perceived as good. However, they often have a Sinterklaas mechanism; some get a lottery ticket, other don’t. To improve the situation of the disadvantaged, development aid requires durable planning and assistance.