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Q&A: How to Break the Cycle of ‘‘Endless Philanthropy''

Stephanie Nieuwoudt interviews RAMON DAUBON

CAPE TOWN, Feb 20 2009 (IPS) - Dr Ramon E Daubon not only believes in democratising development but takes umbrage at the ‘‘cult of tangible results'' in development assistance.

Ramon Daubon: ''Good governance emerges slowly and from below.'' Credit: Marta Roviro

Ramon Daubon: ''Good governance emerges slowly and from below.'' Credit: Marta Roviro

In a paper written for the non-governmental Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) he argued that aid will not generate sustainable socio-economic progress if the recipients are not in charge of what he calls ‘‘indigenous development''.

This is the opposite of what is happening. Presently, donors rely on advice from so-called experts and community elites. The result has been that recipient communities have been turned into dependent clients of endless philanthropy.

To change this result, donors should move away from quick-fix aid and even face up to a shift in power relations between donors and recipients, wrote Daubon, who is president of the Esquel Group. Esquel is a non-profit organisation operating in North and South America, promoting social equity and sustainable development.

Stephanie Nieuwoudt picked his brain in search of lessons for Africa based on his experience in the Americas.

IPS: To critics it seems as if aid in Africa has yielded more failures than successes. Why are aid interventions on the continent seemingly less successful than elsewhere? Ramon Daubon: It is hard to define either ‘‘successes'' or ‘‘failures'', but from the outside it does appear that Africa tends to have more trouble than most other regions.

Without going into long explanations, I'd say that the colonial and prior history has a lot to do with this, but I'd also put a lot of the blame on the development assistance failure to come up with a mode of intervention more appropriate to the African institutional reality.

I'm only marginally familiar with the African experience but, if anything, development assistance may have encouraged strife and delayed development by fostering dependence on – and competition for the favours of – the outside ‘‘gods of development''.

IPS: What is the solution? If not the ‘‘outside gods'', what form of aid would be appropriate to the African institutional reality? RD: There are two kinds of aid: disaster relief and development assistance. The first one is unfortunately indispensable and unavoidable but should be short-term. Such is help after catastrophes, vaccination campaigns, et cetera. There is no stigma associated with that.

The second one is for long-term results, some of which would mitigate the need for some of the first kind in the long run. As a country progresses it has less need of assistance with vaccination campaigns, for instance.

This is where development assistance has failed. It has addressed the symptoms of nations' poverty – lack of income, schools – but failed to address the reasons behind the symptoms: their institutional incapacity to govern themselves well.

If anything, having outsiders attending to the symptoms delays the indigenous development of that capacity.

IPS: In a paper for IDASA you wrote that private sector donors should see themselves as civic investors. What are civic investors? And why is it important that the donor community become civic investors? RD: Because otherwise they are not ‘‘doing development'', they are just throwing money around. When the money runs out, everything stops. We've wasted 60 years of misconceived development assistance in this way.

Development requires an institutional under-girth, which in turn requires good public governance, which in turn requires strong civic oversight over public life. Investing directly in ‘‘development'' while assuming away all the other prerequisites produces what we have unfortunately come to see.

The challenge for development assistance is how to promote by its interventions such civic ownership on the part of citizens. That is investing in civic capacities, or ‘‘civic investing''. Donors should see themselves first and foremost as such investors.

IPS: This seems logical and laudable, but is it feasible? Building governance capacity, accountability, transparency and good governance in countries where humanitarian aid is required takes time. In the meantime, what does one do about the immediate suffering of people at grassroots level? Also, would investing in capacity building not become a black hole – lots of workshops and conferences swallowing aid money without tangible results? Repressive governments would not allow even humanitarian aid if it came with strings attached, such as demands for good governance.

RD: Again, outsiders can attend to those desperate needs immediately while at the same time supporting projects that engage people in learning to address their own needs in the longer run.

And, by the way, I take umbrage at the cult of ‘‘tangible results''. The race to generate them makes donors hurry to provide them directly rather than helping the beneficiaries learn to provide for themselves.

We're not talking about holding conferences but rather supporting well-conceived projects that compel people to collectively learn how to make decisions, design plans, execute them and judge whether the are working. This way takes longer, for sure, but contrary to the quick-fix approach, the results are sustainable.

And, by the way, ‘‘good governance'' emerges very slowly and from below. Donors cannot demand it, but they can help beneficiaries design projects that in the course of their execution help people discover that they can indeed govern themselves well.

IPS: Is there not a danger that Western donors who want to become civic donors in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world would, by promoting good governance, be seen as patronising meddlers? How can the aim of civic development be achieved without being prescriptive? RD: Every society must develop its own style of good governance. However, donors can help them discover what their style is. I personally subscribe to some universal indispensable values, essentially contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I strongly believe that citizens are indispensable to this discovery and that every person has the right to be an equal, full citizen.

IPS: There have been many critics of aid who say that aid makes beggars of the people who are supposed to be helped. RD: Yes, that is the biggest harm done by development assistance: it turns communities and whole countries into supplicants.

IPS: You have said that participation in the creation of public life is important if communities want to help themselves. Please explain. RD: The unit of analysis of development is the community. Sure, the policy environment is critical but the effective demand for and implementation of ‘‘good governance'' measures happens in communities. For that, communities must learn to articulate and exercise their public voice; they have to learn to think, talk and act as communities.

IPS: Should aid be focused on a micro group in a certain region or should it be expanded to perhaps include all communities in that particular region? Or should aid be a national project? RD: Hard to tell. Countries should develop themselves. There are no ‘‘poor'' countries, only mismanaged ones. I like to point out that one of the ‘‘poorest'' countries in the world is Switzerland. God gave it practically nothing… except the Swiss and their capacity to govern themselves.

Development assistance should provide replicable models of activities that communities and countries can carry out on their own.

IPS: What would be the ‘‘magic formula'' for intervention by donors? RD: There is no magic formula. Each country must discover its own path. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado once said: ‘‘Wayfarer, there is no path. The path is made by walking.'' Development assistance could be very useful in helping countries make that discovery.

Instead donors make external ‘‘needs assessments'' and descend on the countries bearing gifts. Egad!

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