advice from a fake consultant

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Foreign Aid, Or, Where’s My Rolodex?

I have spent considerable time lately advocating the principle that we need to aid our way out of some of our problems abroad, rather than attempting to bomb them all away.

But aid carries its own lessons to learn.

Here’s a big one:

Lots of Americans don’t understand the world we are trying to change; and much of the world we want to change cannot visualize our goals.

I’ll offer a simple example-sewers.

How many of you have a hose running from your house to a barrel for a septic system? Or can imagine a thriving business in barrel-emptying?

Or that the largest maternity hospital in your nation’s capital city would have basically the same problem?

This is not an issue limited to just one war-torn country. The two cities I’m referencing are Kabul and Esna, Egypt, for those of you not already visiting the links.

Imagine the simple difficulties of expectation-ours and theirs-as we hypothetically enter a small Afghan village to install a new sewer system.

If they have never seen a sewer system, they probably won’t…

…have flush toilets. That’s a bit of an adjustment for the village right there, eh?

…understand why it takes forever to rip up streets for construction (a problem that surfaced in our Esna, Egypt example). (Actually, that isn’t much different than freeway construction in Boston.)

…appreciate the foreign customs of the NGOs/contractors/soldiers involved any more than we appreciate going 6 or 8 or 12 months without a beer.

…admire our Buy American attitude, either when we build the system or maintain it later.

…want us to convert them to Jesus (or Western Democracy, or Compliant Capitalism) any more than Jerry Falwell wants to become a worshipper of Allah.

…want to change their entire life, existence and culture just because we ask them to.

…visualize the benefits to them until the project is over.

Here’s another example: If our Afghan village farms poppies for opium production (and we can safely assume lots do-more or less 4000 tons worth a year) we might try to encourage the locals to stop cultivating the crop. Surprisingly, this might be a bad idea, as it can reinforce the wealth of the local warlord while driving the population you’re trying to help even further into poverty.

Maybe instead of sending in the DEA to end poppy production, we should send micro-lenders. But I digress.

In any event, the point is: if we don’t understand conditions on the ground we don’t know what we’re doing.

Which leads us to the second lesson for today:

Experts might not be worth the money.

Any consultant, even a fake consultant, ain’t cheap. Especially when paid in US dollars. And who wants to lose a good gig?

But spending 30 to 50% of an aid contract in Washington, DC on consulting is just insanely foolish.

Expertise is like food. You can buy “fast food” level expertise for lots of money and little effort; or for less money and more effort you can acquire “fine dining” level expertise by sending your own people to learn from real experts-the very folks you want to help.

This is where the advantage of long-term involvement pays off-it buys institutional memory, which saves money for real good for real people.

Finally, the toughest lesson for today:

When you give money as a gift to a new friend; then tell your new friend to spend all the money on you, it doesn’t look like a gift anymore.

Sorry, everyone, but Buy American upsets as many people in Kabul as it pleases in Peoria. And why wouldn’t it?

Some crew of guys (maybe even women!) comes into your town with a lot of cash you need badly, then they leave you some system they never really explained or left you equipped to maintain-then they want you to buy parts only from them…at high prices…taking the cash that would have helped your economy back home to the good old USA.

What kind of friend is that?

That’s a lot for today, so let’s sum up.

If we really want to create positive outcomes from our non-military efforts, let’s start treating our friends in “nation life” just like we treat our friends in “real life”.

Unless, of course, your “real life” belongs on “The Jerry Springer Show”.

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