A USAID-funded farmer field school training in Mozambique. Are foreign aid donors more interested in creating jobs at home than building capacity abroad? Photo by: Food for the Hungry / USAID / CC BY-NC

This is the fourth of seven parts in the Devex series “Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink,” written by Diana Ohlbaum — a former deputy director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives and senior professional staff member of the two congressional panels overseeing U.S. foreign affairs.

Fifty years of development experience has taught us important lessons. We’ve learned that sending kids to school doesn’t help if there aren’t enough trained and paid teachers, that hand-washing may be the most effective way to prevent respiratory and diarrheal infections, that investing in women produces enormous benefits for families and communities. Our agricultural and scientific research has led to the Green Revolution and the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. Our specialized knowledge — whether about stock markets or computer technology or constitutional drafting — is sought and valued around the world.

While we can and must apply the lessons we’ve learned and the expertise we’ve acquired to our aid programs, we can’t assume we know what’s best in any given situation. As David Bell noted, foreign aid “is often described as a method of transferring know-how, but this is plainly wrong; it is instead a process of developing know-how — a process of finding out what will work in Nigeria, not of transferring what has been found to work in Nebraska.” Our local partners usually know the context a lot better than we do. And ignoring that context, as we did for too long with regard to burial practices during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, can sometimes lead to deadly results.

Even when we think we have the answers, sending in highly-paid Western consultants and project directors to supervise locals who often have more experience, better credentials and broader credibility causes resentment and disdain. It creates a teacher-student dynamic that is not conducive to equal partnership. And it leads to the rather widespread perception in the developing world that aid is just a way to create jobs for the donor community.

“Foreign aid ‘is often described as a method of transferring know-how, but this is plainly wrong; it is instead a process of developing know-how — a process of finding out what will work in Nigeria, not of transferring what has been found to work in Nebraska.’”

— David Bell, former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget

Sadly, this perception is not entirely unwarranted. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that after three years of procurement reforms, intended to increase the flow of U.S. assistance directly to developing countries, local partners received only somewhere between $1.3 and $2.3 billion (depending on how it’s counted) of the $17.2 billion total that the U.S. Agency for International Development obligated in fiscal 2012, according to the foreign assistance dashboard. This represents, nevertheless, a significant improvement from the past, both in terms of quantity and quality. Of course, developing countries still receive the end products of aid that is provided through foreign intermediaries, but they don’t get the top salaries, profits and overhead that U.S. contractors and grantees absorb.

Equally important, assumptions about the value of training have not always been borne out in practice, as shown through evaluations by the Millennium Challenge Corp. in the case of farmer training and the World Bank in the case of business training and entrepreneurship. Whether lackluster results are because we’re doing the training improperly, or because we’re doing the training, is open for debate. But just as we’re learning that job retraining programs in the U.S. don’t always lead to employment, it’s time to admit that know-how is not the only missing ingredient in a botched economy, a failed health care system or a deadlocked political process. At least as important as the level and breadth of capacity is the intensity of political will for reform — and that’s just not something that can be bought or taught.

Diana Ohlbaum weighs in on the transformations happening at the USAID.

Capacity vs. Will

One of the main lessons from Ritu Sharma’s excellent book, “Teach a Woman to Fish,” is that poor people aren't poor because they lack money or know-how, it's because they lack power. Underdevelopment isn’t so much about a lack of resources as about a profusion of political and economic structures that actively discriminate against, disempower, devalue and divide various segments of the population — almost always to the detriment of women.

The point is taken even further by Sarah Chayes in her brilliant new analysis, “Thieves of State,” in which she argues that large-scale corruption has turned many states into vertically integrated criminal syndicates organized for the purpose of personal wealth enhancement. Many of these countries — starting with Afghanistan — are major beneficiaries of American largesse.

In situations where there is little or no government will for change benefiting the population, and in the absence of a plausible theory of change, “building capacity” is doomed to failure. This is most obviously evident in our efforts to strengthen the security forces of partner countries, such as Nigeria. All the human rights trainings in the world are not going to turn an organization with a corrupt and abusive command structure into a professional and credible force that earns the support and respect of the population.

Over the decades we have repeatedly invested in training foreign military officers whom we perceive to be democratic reformers, only to find them leading the next coup attempt.

This is why USAID’s new embrace of political economy analysis is so important. It incorporates the basic principle behind the new philosophies of “thinking and working politically” and “doing development differently”: pay attention to the institutional arrangements and the reward structures that constrain action. Capacity building can certainly play a role in overcoming these constraints, but only in the context of sufficient local buy-in and reasonable prospects for change. Before you teach a man to fish, you need to understand why he lacks a pole.

Stay tuned for part 5 of our seven-part series "Foreign aid effectiveness: A radical rethink," written by Diana Ohlbaum, and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Gsw diana 3

    Diana Ohlbaum

    Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, an executive committee member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm. She has served as senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a senior professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives.