The ghost in the aid machine: the recipient’s perspective

Development Policy07 Dec 2010Rosario Léon

I am a sociologist and the director of Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Economica y Social (CERES), a small Bolivian policy research institute. Like most such organizations, CERES has always been heavily dependent on aid. I have experienced and researched the power issues that this reality brings to the fore. This is a story of how my colleagues and I tried to satisfy our donors’ need to see measurable results, while simultaneously using the aid machine’s funds to support the social changes that were occurring as the marginalized people of Bolivia started to claim their citizenship rights and assert their cultural identities.

We increasingly found ourselves caught between the everyday realities of working in the local communities, and the incongruous bureaucracy of annual operating plans along with the dictates of remote donor organizations. I was reluctant to reflect on this uncomfortable balance of power during the years I worked with donor agencies.

Yet, now, writing this story has helped lay my ghosts to rest. It moreover testifies to the argument by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo that ‘protagonists’ narratives about their own conduct merit serious attention as forms of social analysis’. In my case, such analysis helps not only to point out some of the realities of aid from a recipient’s perspective, but importantly also to emancipate my soul and hopefully free others working in the industry from the systems of domination that the aid machine often perpetuates.

This story outlines our history and the history of citizenship rights in Bolivia during the first decade of this century against a backdrop of political tension, economic crisis and unprecedented movement towards social inclusion in what is one of South America’s least developed countries.

CERES earns its income from aid agencies by outsourcing staff to work as project managers and consultants. They help people to design and fund development projects. I have managed international aid funds for several development projects in Bolivia and, as such, you could call me a local servant in Aidland.

While carrying out this work, I also tried for many years to secure financial support to promote social justice in my country. My experience working in rural communities has made me realize that many thousands of my fellow citizens have been denied their citizenship rights because the state has failed to provide them with identity documents. This is a subject of great concern to many grass-roots organizations – but for the Bolivian political class and many international donors, it remains an invisible, and therefore irrelevant, issue.

Citizens need identity documentation for political and economic purposes – to access benefits and to vote, for example. But in reality, beyond the obvious reasons why people demand documentation, what was at stake was their right to a name and an inalienable social and cultural identity.


In 2000, I was finally able to convince one donor to finance an initial study of the problem. I then recruited a second donor organization to co-finance a consortium of 22 civil society organizations. This consortium consisted of grass-roots organizations of indigenous and rural populations, and development NGOs that together were working in more than 700 communities. Its main purpose was to help people secure valid identity cards and help them become full citizens for the first time – including realizing their right to vote in the 2002 national elections.

Our project initially increased the number of eligible voters for the 2002 elections. But because more than 30% of those eligible still did not possess identity cards a great deal remained (and still remains) to be done. The success of the project did encourage donor organizations to finance two further phases of the consortium’s work, first in 2004–05 and subsequently in 2007–08.

The backdrop to the various phases of this story is the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005, and the subsequent years of major political, social and economic reforms, under the leadership of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Juan Evo Morales Ayma. The voiceless of the past wanted more than just a legal identity. The new plurinational constitution for which they voted in 2008 recognized their cultural identity. This reflects the changes in power relations that have taken place in Bolivia. It is in this context that donor agencies tried to impose a results-based management framework to the work we were doing and asked consultants like me to implement it.

This rigid framework prevented our donors from being able to respond to the social and political changes that were occurring throughout Bolivia – many of which were taking place as a direct result of the projects they were funding. Power relations between donor agencies and the local aid workers made it very difficult to even talk about this.

The second phase: 2004–05

Alongside our consortium, donors had been separately supporting the efforts of the National Election Commission of Bolivia, the body with the official responsibility of issuing identity cards. This was carried out through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Our project facilitated this arrangement by providing citizens with information and helping them to overcome the excessive and highly exclusionary bureaucratic obstacles.

Donors now decided that the two projects – ours and the election commission’s – should come together under a single financing umbrella, managed by the UNDP. They believed that it would be more ‘efficient’ and strengthen state-society relations.

The bugbear for us was that the election commission wanted our consortium to work under its orders rather than alongside it as an equal, autonomous partner. A two-year long negotiation ensued. Insisting on a shared project was a miscalculation on the part of the donors. As far as we were concerned, this was not just a debate over who would manage the resources or who would hire whom.

The very point of our existence was to challenge a State institution that, through its disempowering bureaucratic procedures and patrimonial practices had marginalized and excluded the country’s majority indigenous populations and those living in remote rural areas and urban shanty towns. How were we going to work together on the same project?

For their part, the election commission felt our actions were undermining its role. For civil society to claim identity cards as a citizen’s right appeared very subversive to them. As they saw it, the issuing of identity papers was for the state to decide, not for citizens to demand. At stake were the political and philosophical underpinnings of the relationship between the state and society.

We eventually reached a consensus. The donor organizations’ original plan for a single administrative structure had to be abandoned. They agreed to split the funding and allow it to be managed separately. UNDP would receive all the funding and manage the election commission’s component, while CERES would be in charge of the technical and financial management of the consortium’s project, and be accountable to UNDP for the funds it managed.

Meanwhile, staff at the donor agencies had changed. They did not know the history of the project nor were they completely au fait with the diversity of contexts of the consortium’s work and the difference in related costs. At the behest of the donor agencies, I squeezed the diverse aspects of the consortium’s work into a new logical framework that frequently sat uncomfortably with the way the consortium operated. The rationale behind these changes was almost impossible to communicate to all the participating organizations.

We worked very hard in this second phase alongside the electoral commission and other institutions, such as hospitals and the Church, issuing supporting identity documents such as birth certificates. We enabled the diverse populations to make their own claims and developed the capacity of local facilitators to take the lead in this. We gained a high public profile. The political landscape was shifting. Helping people to get identity cards and informing them of their political rights now had a new connotation.

Evo Morales, who had come second in the elections in 2002, now had a strong chance of winning the 2005 elections as a result of the high social mobilization of peasants and indigenous people that our project was contributing to. We received a letter from one of our donors warning us that the resources from the consortium’s project could in no way be associated with actions that could be interpreted as supporting any political group. They could not publicly acknowledge what we, and they, knew all too well: that ours had always been a political project.

It represented a link between democracy and development through enhancing citizens’ endeavours to overcome poverty and exclusion. I communicated the donor agency’s warning to the consortium. They responded with some scorn. Were there restrictions to the empowerment of poor people? Were their political claims not an aspect of empowerment? Were there limitations to civic participation?

The project had achieved all its quantifiable targets. More than 10,000 people had received their identification documents. Some 400 indigenous and peasant facilitators throughout the country were trained. More than 50 informative radio programmes were broadcast. But once again there was a two-year gap before a further phase of the project was agreed on.

The third phase: 2007–08

Two of our donors wanted to fund a further phase of the consortium’s project. However, UNDP objected because we had not followed their accounting regulations. It was alleged there were irregularities in expenditure incurred in the Amazonian rain forest and in remote rural areas – places where UNDP accounting norms were incongruent with reality.

Photocopies lacking preliminary quotes were judged unacceptable, as were receipts that were even a few cents off the mark. The total amount in question accounted for less than 1% of the implementation budget. For those who had worked honestly and with much passion, it was infuriating and humiliating.

Meanwhile our donor agencies asked their own auditors to scrutinize our accounts. They found that everything was in order and UNDP had to withdraw its accusations. The donor agencies also decided that it would be better if CERES were to manage the project directly, without UNDP‘s input. However, before getting the go-ahead to do this, we would have to undergo a major overhaul of our financial practices. For almost a year we worked on changing our procedures, statutes and accounting and operating manuals.

Our project adapted its strategies to support the process of securing full citizenship. Then, in their authorization of the annual operating plan, our donors stated that helping people to get their identity documentation was now no longer the most important issue. They wanted us to work on drafting a legislative proposal. Possibly they felt this was safer and less sensitive for them to fund – and less controversial than having us working in local communities during the run- up to the referendum for the new constitution.

But for us, any new law had to originate with the people. We could not draft it without going into the field to consult them. Moreover, the people themselves were keener than ever to get identity cards so that they could participate in the design of a new state and a new society.

The rural community organizations that the consortium was working with wanted to discuss these matters, but provision for doing this was not part of the annual operating plan. Once again, the tension between our bureaucratic strait-jacket and the needs of those we were helping became a challenge.

Some members of the consortium objected to what was expected of them in the annual operating plan. They challenged the standardization of the tools and methodologies suggested by the facilitator team, which were meant to produce knowledge about the issue of citizenry in each community. They developed their own strategies to gather information and understand the processes they were following.

The aid machine

I tried and failed many times to explain to our donor organizations why processes had an importance beyond the results they achieved. The results-based framework within which we operated existed in the context of complex power relationships. Somehow, we had to find a way of moving forward.

Sometimes we found ourselves talking openly and finding support from among the donors, while at other times we had to conceal our true objectives and ensure that the results-based, logical framework outputs were achieved. At times, I heard the criticisms, ‘we didn’t give you money for this’ or ‘we weren’t told about these objectives’. At other times, we continued to accomplish what we had promised without fully understanding the planning jargon used by the different donor organizations.

The effects of this ‘double life’ filtered down to the consortium members, who reported that they felt like actors expected to play different roles in different scenes. We found ourselves adopting a language and a set of tools – technical activity reports, expenditure reports and products – quite distinct from the work we were actually doing.

The development machine has many levers but only one engine – aid. Aid drives the gears that launch the projects that churn out money and deliver results. I have been one of the machine’s lowly operators, a local servant in Aidland. I applied the machine’s instruments and tools to manage and control the people to ensure a sustained production of measurable results.

The donor agencies operate remotely, using fine antennas to connect to the head office, making just enough contact to allow me to hear their instructions. These are delivered in a neutral voice. The donors must keep their hearts hardened and never establish friendly relations with those on the factory floor – otherwise they might learn about another reality. A reality very different from the one for which their machine was designed.

During more than 20 years working in the development industry, seldom did I meet donors who were reflective, supportive, emotional, had sufficient courage to go beyond the frontiers of bureaucracy and who enjoyed diversity. In these rare cases, the projects we worked on were real contributions to life, politics, human growth, people’s strategies and knowledge, and, therefore, to change. When this happened, we almost always went beyond indicators and results. But mostly, the local servants in Aidland are finding it increasingly difficult to do more than just operate the aid machine according to its own narrow parameters.

When our consortium members protest or refuse to abide by parameters that do not reflect their political reality, how am I to respond? One could argue that when members do not stick to the annual operating plan, or do not play by the rules, they deserve some type of sanction.

But I believe that another option would be to forget the rules and accept that the project has strengthened the capacities of consortium members, expanded their knowledge and abilities and that their actions have been guided by the pace of the communities in which they worked.

Has the time come to liberate ourselves from the project tools that force us to frame our activities within parameters established by others and instead become a visible part of the change that is taking place? For all those of us who are part of the development industry do we dare to dream about such liberating options?


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Rosaldo, R. (1993) Culture and Truth. The remaking of social analysis. Routledge. p. 143
  2. For the story of the first phase, see Eyben, R. and Leon, R. (2005) Whose aid? in Mosse, D. and Lewis, D. (eds) The Aid Effect. Pluto Press.