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July 26, 2011

By 2015 Nigeria will have more poor people than India or China

July 26, 2011

The Duke of Wellington on the aid bureaucracy

July 26, 2011
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Just read the much quoted paper from former USAID boss Andrew Natsios, ‘The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development’. The counter-bureaucracy is his term for the bean counters within USAID and the development sector in general, who are currently in the Natsios-200ascendant. Of it, he says simply.

‘The counter-bureaucracy ignores a central principle of development theory—that those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.’

The paper starts off with a wonderful message to the British Foreign Office from the Duke of Wellington in 1812.

“Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

WellingtonWe have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…
2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.
Your most obedient servant,
Wellington”

Sound familiar? Natsios summarizes the problem with the current compliance system as:

• Excessive focus on compliance requirements to the exclusion of other work, such as program implementation, with enormous opportunity costs
• Perverse incentives against program innovation, risk taking, and funding for new partners and approaches to development
• The Obsessive Measurement Disorder for judging programs that limits funding for the most transformational development sectors
• The focus on the short term over the long term
• The subtle but insidious redefinition of development to de-emphasize good development practice, policy reform, institution building, and sustainability.

And ends, “Let me conclude with one simple question asked in a different form by the Duke of Wellington. Do Washington policy makers wish USAID, PEPFAR, and the MCC to implement serious development programs or comply with the demands of the Regulatory Lords of Washington? They cannot do both.”

Vintage stuff – wish all aid documents were such fun

5 comments

  1. Interesting. Michael Kirton’s KAI Inventory identifies two types of thinking styles – adaptive and innovative. Adaptive thinkers like to make existing things work better; innovative thinkers think outside the box. These two styles irritate each other (adaptors tend to think of innovators as loose cannons while innovators think of adaptors as bean counters) but both are necessary – working together – for a good program.

    Duncan: thanks Rosemary, and I apologise for the lazy bean counter slur – beans need to be counted, and someone has to do it.

  2. Brilliant. Humourous and strikes a cord… but…

    How often have we seen lazy managers use ‘excessive systems’ as an excuse to escape from accountability of their (in)actions?

    Agree with Rosemary above – we need both and in harmony.. to get anything done and then know that it was done.

  3. The Duke of Wellington presumably had public opinion of the country behind him in making it a priority to defeat the French. Unfortunately I don’t think the US public would give such a priority now to “serious development programs”. It’s the public who are pulling the strings not some dark regulatory Lord of Washington.

  4. It would doubtless be politically incorrect to say that the beans do not need to be counted, but which beans, by whom, and for what purpose? Put another way I think Natsios’ point is that what matters is the outcome – is Napoleon defeated? – So for development, is poverty defeated or at least is positive development happening? We put what we think are reasonable resources into creating the change we want. That’s the point at which the resources should be secured and assured. Then the focus should be on implementation to test the theory as to whether or not these resources deployed in this way lead to the outcome we desire. If we know what beans were put into the process, then the question is about the defeat of Napoleon or the defeat of hunger. Them’s the real beans that matter.

  5. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it. Here is my reflection:

    (1) The funny thing is: despite all compliance and paper work, the corruption and misappropriation of aid is on the rise (or at least its reporting in the media). At aid agencies level, I think there is a need to invest in strengthening financial systems, training staff and including finance and control teams in the programming discussions.

    (2) There should be genuine efforts on part of the aid agencies and INGOs to increase accountability toward beneficiaries and local civil society organisations. Aid agencies and INGOs must tell general public and host government of the country that how much (actual amount and percentage) they have spent on their own operations (so called “cost of aid delivery” ) and what has actually reached to the local partners and beneficiaries? The financial details of the aid should be shared widely not only in the home countries of the aid agencies but in the countries where they work.

    (3) Duke of Wellington was fighting a war for his country. He was on high moral grounds compared to the aid agencies, I think. Unfortunately most of the aid decisions are based on political/security considerations; rather on need basis. I would say aid agencies in general lack the moral authority that Duke of Wellington enjoyed while fighting for his nation. Aid agencies and INGOs should also look inward to see what actions will increase their moral standing among the people of developing countries? Do they genuinely believe empowerment of local civil society organisations and citizens group?

    (4) There is a need for an increased accountability, transparency and inclusion of Southern voices in the aid discourse. Unless aid agencies are not increasing transparency, accountability, how can aid agencies expect from the governments and civil society organisations of the developing world to be accountable and transparent?

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