"Good" aid projects obscures an uglier reality

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or FoodFirst.org as it is also known), chapter 10 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

Sixth, good aid projects serve a public relations, window dressing or fig leaf function that obscures an uglier reality. Focusing on the best projects funded by USAID can be misleading as to the overall impact of foreign aid. There are no doubt some projects that when viewed outside of the larger context appear unambiguously positive-but in the final analysis they really facilitate the far more common programs that have net negative impacts, simply because the best projects make the very idea of aid more palatable.

In the 1990s humanitarian relief missions, festooned with journalists and slick publicity, have been key to building a positive image of USAID-even though such activities represent a tiny proportion of the agency’s budget and have ample problems of their own as described above. Environmental projects can also play a public relations role.

One of us had the opportunity to work with such an environmental effort during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Integrated Pest Management Project for Central America. Initially funded with $5 million from USAID, the project’s laudable goal was to reduce pesticide use among small farmers in Central America. Who could argue with that? Nevertheless, our experience makes us think twice whenever we see something from USAID that seems too good to be true.

The project suffered from a typical design flaw, namely, a top-down conception of technological change. Project scientists-mostly Ph.D.-trained expatriates-were to research alternatives to pesticides and then train national experts in each country, who were to train local extension agents, who would then transmit the new information to farmers. Of course, this rarely happened-because of kinks in the long chain of collaborating institutions and individuals and because the alternatives finally presented to farmers rarely fit their reality.

The initial funding was approved at the tail end of the basic needs period of U.S. foreign assistance, so the project was said to be targeted at small farmers growing food crops, but project implementation coincided with the new emphasis in the 1980s on structural adjustment and related export promotion. Thus, USAID functionaries continually pressed project staff and the host institution to switch our focus to export crops and larger farmers. The host institution and staff held out against these changes, eventually leading USAID to discontinue its support for the project and redirect its funds to more pliable host organizations.46

Before the project’s funding was terminated, an incident occurred that would be comical if it were not so sad. Congress passed a new requirement that USAID projects incorporate both women and men as beneficiaries, in response to criticisms that assistance favored men and left women out. This regulation was imposed when the project came up for renewal. A memo went out from USAID headquarters instructing all field staff to be sure to incorporate the new requirement in future funding requests. In response, the project leader had a secretary do a universal search and replace in her word processor. Each time the words people, persons, farmers, students, beneficiaries, etc., were used in the renewal request they were replaced with, or preceded by, women and men. Thus, one section read that 24 women and men farmers will be invited to the field day. No other changes were made to the proposal, which was approved without comment. In subsequent congressional hearings, USAID staff were able to argue that gender was now an integral component of development aid.

But these details about the project actually miss the real reason its overall impacts have been negative. The project was frequently used by USAID to show policy makers, journalists, Central American government functionaries, and others the friendly face of U.S. policy in the region. Even though it accounted for a tiny fraction of USAID money spent during the 1980s, it had a high profile. Thus, it served as a fig leaf hiding the true thrust of aid spending in the region: the overthrow of the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua47 and the structural adjustment of the region’s other economies.48 In the end, its real function in the larger scheme of things was to make the overall U.S. presence in Central America more palatable, thus indirectly facilitating less beneficent ends.

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