Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The inefficiencies of aid: Donor Denial and lack of educated input

A constant question I'm asked is why international aid is SO inefficient. There are many answers to this question. Here's one reason...donors, who generally live very different lives from the poor, don't seem to know the difference between people who know what they are doing and those who don't.

I was reminded about this again just recently, when a good friend of mine (let's call her "Anita") got fired recently. Yes, everyone's getting laid off these days, but this was sad. Anita was the perfect person for the job she was working on. While no one can still point a finger at her work quality (against all odds, she put together a stellar work product), Anita fought hard to improve the system and then got fired.

I had met Anita on a field job in India. She immediately struck me because she was strong, fearless, smart as hell, and had a mind of her own. Growing up in a village in India, it was big dreams, hard work and determination that brought her to where she is now---well-educated, traveling the world, helping poor communities everywhere. She hasn't stopped dreaming; and I hope she will never stop.

Anita's story is almost typical of other people I know who are struggling to honestly and honorably correct flawed systems. In her latest job, she was working for a group of Americans who were trying to expand their work into India. Working out of a NY office, the team scarcely knew what they were doing (this is a common theme among donors btw!! They assume that their way is the way of the world!). Considering the short time-frame, Anita, the lone Indian in the group, desperately called attention to the coming pitfalls and warned the team against their delinquent behavior. I remember her working long hours everyday for several months trying to lay the foundation because there were just TOO many mistakes. One day after months of frustration, she threatened to step down if they didn't change their behavior. Instead of acknowledging her work and her guts, she was promptly sacked and replaced by a 23 y/o American who blindly did what she was told. Anita's boss is a powerful and well-connected man within the donor community. And he has proven to be vicious in terms of wielding his power to sideline her.

The project is still going to be a success, because Anita laid such a great foundation and the organization already has a great reputation. But its ridiculous to me that a team of 5 Americans are trying to run an Indian project while based in the US; each of who has visited India once in their lives to see the Taj Mahal. The locals they have working with them say nothing because they are getting paid in dollars, and they are just happy to have jobs. So there you have it...inefficiency perpetuating itself over and over again.

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