Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Sustainability and Corruption in donor funded projects.

I wrote this article a couple of days ago and it attracted a lot of comments. Many of the comments focused on these two issues which I didn't go into in much detail, but they are very important to donor funded ICT projects.

These are somewhat controversial subjects so again I will keep from naming specifics.

Any donor funded project should be sustainable. That is it should continue to function when the donor leaves. Sounds obvious I know, but most people would be amazed at just how few do carry on working. Anybody who has like me, worked and traveled extensively in Africa will be able to recount stories of when this has failed. Here are just a few of mine:
  • Water pumps that cannot be maintained when they break down because there are no spare parts, no money or means to get them, nobody trained to fit them if they were available. 
  • Fields full of farm machinery (Tractors, Canadian sized combine harvesters etc) rotting away. Why? No spare parts, and nobody trained to maintain them.
  • I once visited a large hospital in East Africa which had a modern but non-functioning CT scanner. Again the reason given for its lack of functionality was that it had broken down and nobody could repair it. The hospital was losing considerable income from its not working. This income could easily have paid for a maintenance contract but nobody had arranged it. Lives were being lost in that area of East Africa because the only hospital with a CT scanner had no plan to maintain the scanner once it broke down. The hospital director told me that eventually somebody would donate a new one and the old one would be thrown away.
I am not finger pointing here, this is a story you will hear throughout Africa. In order for projects to be sustainable they have to generate some income, and that income has to be put back into the project in order to provide for the maintenance. For instance I saw a very good scheme in rural Tanzania where the donors had paid for a water pipeline bringing fresh water from a mountain spring many miles away. The local towns people were charged a few shillings (one shilling equals 0.00037 British pounds at current exchange rate) for the water. This money was used to pay local towns people to maintain the pipeline. The money stayed within the local community, and the water continues to flow to this day. Why can't a similar model be used for the above mentioned pumps?

I have seen projects providing hospitals with software. The hospitals were led to believe that the software was free, so no provision was made to support the system once it was installed. When bugs were found in the system there was nobody to fix them, and the software fell into misuse. However this software made the hospitals more efficient, improved their income, that income should have been used to fund local support for that software.

This is one of the reasons why billions of dollars in aid money floods into Africa but things never get better for its citizens.

The other reason is the corruption that follows these projects. I have over the years had conversations with people who have been found to have taken money from projects.  The common theme is always that they do not see it as stealing, or as something wrong. The best analogy I have is that aid money is seen like a river flowing down the mountain, and if you divert a little to irrigate your own field, then the water doesn't stop flowing, and you get a better harvest. The flaw with this argument is that the supply of money is finite and the river does stop flowing.

The best solution I have for this is closer and more rigorous scrutiny of the project by onsite managers who are appointed by the project donors to supervise the use of the money. Just the same as would be done with any commercial company when a budget is allocated to a project.

International aid is not working, but it can. It needs a change of attitude from both the donors and the receivers of the aid.

17 comments:

  1. It looks like a common reason for failure is that nobody cultivated, from the start, an obligation of maintenance by the users. In the proposal, make it clear that they'll need to pay a project's maintenance costs even while it's under direct donor support, including payments toward /expected/ maintenance, if you can ensure it goes to an un-raidable escrow. This might mean fewer projects get started, but the the ones that do might enjoy a higher success rate.

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    1. Exactly Michael, however the donor agencies/charities tend to see their targets as projects started. "We fitted X villages with a water pump to provide clean water" is all very well, but if these are not sustainable installations then it is pointless. Consciously or sub-consciously these agencies seem to see their aim as maintaining their funding. In fact most people seem to have an agenda that doesn't have long term sustainable implementations as the main priority.
      Since I started traveling and working in Africa I have dramatically changed my attitude to aid.

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  2. Well I have to be careful what I say here my wife is a Ghanaian (Asante) & I don't want a re enactment of the scene involving Sir Fredrick Hodgson and Yaa Asantewaa at the Adum Fort (now called Adum Military museum).

    Look ,half he problem is coordination between people who donate money - DFID (brain dead civil servants ) and people in counties like Ghana who have a list of NGO’s and who registered them.

    Now most Ghanaians who live in Ghana would agree that “Oburoni’s (Brits and the like) are LESS likely to “chop” the money than Ghanaians themselves ; I know this because Ghanaians who live in Ghana have told me on numerous occasions.


    So is the inference then that if you are going to involve anybody in doing something useful would it make sense to involve NGO’s run by Brits(and the like) in Africa?

    Well the response from DFID when I contacted them was this- we don’t get involved with NGO’s.
    .Did I say the civil servants were brain dead? And do I sound bitter? I better go before I really let loose. I think I will have a lie down and a Camomile tea!

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  3. Management training, maintenance training, patriotism and genuine desire to help ones Country to come up. Problem is once such training, as and when given, turns more "Bwanam Kubas" than hand on workers. Too many chiefs and NO injuns!

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  4. My view after so many years we are still handing out fish to the hungry - teaching them how to fish (in which pond with which bait) is still the age old problem. The handover is done, the photo's taken and ........ we move on. (specifically used the "we" as not to step on toes)

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    1. Agree with you Bertie. This is what I have been trying to say. Everybody has their own agenda and nobodies is really long term sustainable development. For instance, getting rid of poverty in Africa would make an awful lot of western organisations redundant.

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  5. I truly believe in moving away from traditional donor aid towards social entrepreneurship, within a not for profit framework, where a sound business case is pivotal for social seed money or donor aid. There is a misconception that NGO's should not make money but rather spend them on "do good" activities. An NGO that can use its assets and/or infrastructure to make money AND do good will be sustainable and can grow organically by buying more assets/build more infrastructure and thus do more good. If I can sell services to big industry and thus fund social services to those with limited purchasing power - does that make me a less worthy NGO? Give me funds for two water drill rigs and I'll go commercial with the one, funding pro bono drilling with the other. As long as the articles of association state a social purpose rather than creating wealth for the owners I see no problem with that. Robin Hood meets capitalism and plays the commercial game within legal structures.... / Mattias

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    1. Hi Mattias,

      I agree with you, we have previously been prevented from taking part in projects because we are a "for profit" organisation. I believe it makes more sense to invest in sustainable African businesses that provide a long term future for Africans.

      Tim

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  6. You guys seem to think that a problem as serious as global poverty can be solved with aid? It's a scandal that in today's world mass poverty should even exist...

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  7. i entirely agree donor funded projects can start as non profit making but with a long term objective of turning them into profit maaking in order to achieve sustainability and have continued value from these projects

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  8. The questions is, What is a project? If you think that; project will sustain through donors, fine, you ought to use your all efforts to look for them till you become stable but still it won't help if there is no any thing done within the project to generate income because the project will die. Tehe, tehe, tehe....

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  9. Hi Tim! Also have pretty much the same project here in my country (Philippines). I am currently taking an advanced health informatics degree in one of the key stakeholder university here in the Philippines which means our courses are inclined to prepare us for future health ICT projects of the country. Corruption is really what scares me the most in working with the government but from whichever angle I look at it, I still recognize how important it is to work with the government in the implementation of these projects, should be really vigilant though. I wonder if I could get a hold on the project about Tanzania you were talking about, like a written document maybe? Just for comparison. And if it's not too much of a hassle. Thank you so much and bless you on your future endeavors!

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    1. Hi Michelle, I don't have a document as such but if you would like to submit some questions to tim@weberpafrica.com I will do my best to answer them

      Tim

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  10. I would highly recommend Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid; Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa" to everyone in the comments. Great article Tim!

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  11. I see this is an old post, and not a long running blog, but as a blogger myself I thought my 2 cents might be welcome. I decided you have to work with Africa's private sector, someone already in the repair and maintenance field. There is plenty of repair and maintenance for things like cell phones (more skilled repair and maintanence, and cheaper, than you will find USA or EU). The repair people have learned they get ripped off by the government appointees, the "Fonctionnaires". Africa's Tech Sector is there, you have to do development with them, let them choose the hospitals they will support. If the repair guy isn't getting paid, that's a damn good indication of a rat hole.

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  12. Great article but I believe the key to sustainability is in creating or facilitating ownership of the interventions/solutions.

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  13. It's important to consider the costs for the user throughout the development process. We try to keep our costs extremely low and to keep financials transparent with the clients. Then there are no nasty surprises!

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