We need a paradigm shift

    Video copies of Nollywood films. According to Tarry Asoka, Nigeria's film industry shows how collective efforts can produce profitable businesses in the absence of economic opportunities and a globally acclaimed management model. Photo by: Michael Rank / CC BY-NC-SA

    From the point of view of many donors, national systems — in particular financial and management systems — are not adequate or sufficient to deliver aid in a manner that can reach targeted beneficiaries.

    In many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, recipient country authorities are inundated with a plethora of donors whose activities are neither coordinated nor harmonized. Therefore, two of the main reasons why current aid delivery is ineffective are intermediation (and its related negative line of accountability) as well as the multitude of individual donors (and the roles they play in the delivery of aid).

    Many bilateral donors — notably the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.K. Department for International Development and some others — create layers of middle management to implement their programs. Although typically they work through implementing partners or management agencies that broker relationships with national authorities, frequently they make use of national professionals to undertake development activities with the hope of reaching the target groups. As there are contractual requirements along this chain, it is usual that the effort required to deliver benefits to target populations is dissipated in meeting these contractual obligations. Moreover, these middle managers are more accountable in the opposite direction to their clients rather than the people they are meant to serve.

    Connected to this matter is the multiple roles taken on by individual donor agencies. Despite the fact that many donors have specific technical mandates or are designated funding authorities — like the World Bank and other multilaterals in the U.N. system, and even global initiatives such as the GAVI Alliance and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — many of them undertake multiple functions (including fund management, technical support and program design, implementation and evaluation) at the same time either as sole funders or as part of a joint project. Often, there are conflicting agendas.

    The resultant effect has been the generation of myriads of development activities that overwhelm recipient national systems. At the same time, in a bid to demonstrate results from an individual donor’s perspective, many funding agencies support several competing “quick-win” projects that are neither aligned with country systems nor scalable to the point of making an impact.

    As enough time and attention are not expended to dealing with the structures that constrain nationals from making progress, there should be little surprise that more than 25 years of massive development support especially in Africa has not yielded the desired results.

    To make the money go further, a few things have to be done differently. First, all donors should reexamine themselves in order for them to identify and focus on their purpose. This presupposes that those with real money will be funders and that is it, while those with technical expertise provide that expertise upon demand from national authorities and organizations. But overall, development leadership should be exerted by national professionals who as both direct stakeholders and specialists are in the best position to manage the structures needed to allow human actions to take place towards the expected direction.

    In addition, there should be a paradigm shift away from the traditional approach of identifying problems and then working through several trials and errors to finding solutions, or transporting so-called global best practices across regions. Home-grown solutions that are thriving in the midst of apparently insurmountable environments should be identified and supported.

    Two examples from Nigeria:

    • The Nollywood film industry, where amateur technology combined with local raw talent through collective efforts of several players has not only produced profitable businesses in the absence of economic opportunities, but is also globally acclaimed as a management model irrespective of the resource status of the country. 

    • Sachet water (pure water), commercially produced and marketed across the country, is said to have reduced the incidence of diarrheal disease more than all the water-bore holes dug by government and donors in the last three decades.

    Forget about ideologies — there are none driving these models. Rather, this is about people overcoming barriers to progress in innovative ways. Innovative solutions like these help extract more value for the aid money, and help us achieve the Millennium Development Goals. International aid organizations should support them.

    Want to read more about innovative financing for development? Check out Busannovate, a blog brought to you by Devex in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, and launched with a thought-provoking guest opinion by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

    About the author

    • Tarry Asoka

      Tarry Asoka is an independent health management consultant and former health adviser with the U.K. Department for International Development in Nigeria. He is an alumnus of the prestigious Cambridge Health Leadership Program, and has more than 20 years of experience in providing and managing health services in private, public, faith-based, NGO and international agency settings.