Monday, November 27, 2006

“Y’all heard him! Y’all heard him! Just say ‘No’!”

Well, the Ramble is back in earnest after a long hiatus. Well, as earnest as I’m capable of being.

I’ve been back at work for about two weeks, and some things just don’t change. I’ve still more things to do than time to do them in. I’m still making a mockery of the title of this blog with my tardiness. And I’m still having far too many arguments about development in Malawi with colleagues in Government and among the donor community.

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One such argument has been preying on my mind recently. I’d been complaining about a particular project that had been, in my opinion, forced upon us as a Government; the donor involved put pressure on us to agree to using a non-resident expert to undertake a study we didn’t particularly have pegged as one of the key issues for Malawi. As I ranted and raved to the tune of ‘so typical… aggressive selling… went over our heads…’, my friends interrupted me:

‘Why don’t you just say ‘no’, if you think it’s wrong for the country?’

This had me stumped for a moment. Our Minister is very able, and very strong-willed. He’s not the kind of man that donors can bully into submission. So why didn’t we say no on this occasion, why do we so often say yes in that reluctant-seven-year-old-boy way? Even when donors are pushy, we should be able to say no.

Well, not entirely. There are two situations where it becomes very difficult to say no to support you really don’t need. Firstly, the support might be tied to a large money grant or a project you really want to see implemented. This isn’t uncommon at all; often a large cash grant will be tied to a financial management or project implementation expert, who has to be used by the Government to implement the funding, while training a local civil servant to take over his job eventually. This is a reasonable practice. After all, if you put millions of dollars into a programme you do need to ensure that the money is being used for what it was intended. Problems can arise when the expert doesn’t actually train any local civil servants to continue his work, but this is often as much the fault of Government, who rarely ‘double up’ a position for shadowing, regardless of whether its filled by a permanent member of staff or not.

The other reason why so many Governments can find it difficult to say no to donors is less obvious. Even when saying no doesn’t directly result in kissing ten million dollars goodbye, every move Government takes in relation to donors has to be thought of in the context that these same donors will be bankrolling ninety per cent of our development budget come July. Quite simply, we can’t afford to offend them. By saying no to something that the donor thinks is necessary for Government, even if they’re profoundly wrong, we reduce their confidence in us, and in the short term, that may translate in a reluctance to move on other projects or forms of support that Government does need.

It all becomes Catch-22, however, when you think this all through to its logical conclusion – by accepting projects which aren’t right for the country, Government is accepting support that is likely to fail from the start. Donors see money producing no real effect in the country and may decide to scale back involvement, rather than pour good money after bad.

Frankly, though, the first situation is preferable. If we stick to our guns and tell donors what we do and don’t need, after a few years, if we’re proved right, donors will trust us far more. If, on the other hand we’re wrong, at the very least we failed with something that was locally designed, and we can learn from our lessons. And we definitely will be wrong quite a lot; but then, so are donors. It’s preferable to fail from your own mistakes.

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Since the Ashes started, I’ve noticed quite how many cricketisms I use these days. So many are such an everyday part of the language that you forget their sporting connotations. There’s one above, can you spot it?

However,I’ll thank you not to discuss the actual cricket in my presence. At least not until Adelaide.