1/ Many organizations are now using the “capacity building” approach, which differs in many ways from the one used by Jeffrey Sachs. In your opinion, does “capacity building” offer greater success?
In many ways, our growing faith in “capacity building” is a result of the long history of failure in foreign aid. In a 2007 report entitled “Overcoming 40 Years of Failure”, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee of Foreign Affairs concluded that “by far the biggest obstacle to achieving growth and stability in sub-Saharan Africa has been poor government and poor leadership within Africa itself.” Instead of spending money on development projects that could not be sustained, it makes more sense to spend money on improving the systems and skills necessary for Africans themselves to lead their own development. On paper, this makes perfect sense. Like most people, I am in favor of teaching a man to fish.
But lately, as an ever-greater percentage of foreign aid is allocated to “capacity building” I’ve begun to wonder how effective it is. I’ve sat in on numerous “capacity building” seminars and too often they’re mind-numbing exercises in condescension, where outsiders with flip-charts impose their models of governance on people with whom they have nothing in common.
My impressions of “capacity building” are not all that relevant, however. What matters is whether “capacity building” is making a real difference. How do you evaluate it? How do you measure your success? What works? What doesn’t work? Without rigorous, honest evaluations of our work, it’s too easy to congratulate ourselves for doing more good than we’ve actually done. I ask only that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.
2/ Despite our failures, as well as our trials and errors, are we at least heading in the right direction?
Absolutely! For the first time in history, it’s possible to imagine the end of extreme poverty. What we still don’t know, however, is if foreign aid is the decisive factor in reducing poverty, or if other factors—increase trade and less corruption, for example—matter more. Development experts keep publishing books and articles promoting one theory after another and still we don’t have the answer. Does foreign aid actually lead to long-term economic development? Which of the many humanitarian initiatives and interventions have a lasting impact on persistent poverty? Does foreign aid, by creating economic dependence, do more harm than good? Does aid spur or inhibit good governance and stability? It’s important for us to remain humble about the development work we do, to remember how little we know about how best to help.
3 / You have a pretty critical vision of foreign aid. Some people criticize you for that, suggesting that your opinions harm efforts by those who are working to improve the conditions of the poorest.
I don’t think boosterism is helpful in any field. I’m a supporter of humanitarian and foreign aid—I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact it can have—but I refuse to whitewash our failures. If we hope to end extreme poverty, we have to do more than provide aid. We need to learn how real, sustained economic development takes root and can do so in desolate, desperate places with no roads or power or water, where people are illiterate and unlikely to live past the age of 55. We have to ask difficult questions and promote rigorous evaluations. Otherwise, what’s the point? To ignore the failures of our foreign-aid programs is to participate in a kind of collective magical thinking.
Did you miss the Keynote Address at the 2016 International Forum? Read the article
One of the major highlights of the 2016 International Forum was, without a doubt, a conference given by Nina Munk. Her thought-provoking talk was the topic of much discussion at the event!
Nina is a prize-winning Canadian-American journalist whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Fortune. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which – The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty – is a riveting narrative that reveals the hopes and pitfalls of foreign aid and development.
Tell us about your vision of international development on social media using #wuscceciforum!