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The View from Here: The end goal of foreign aid: The desire to do for themselves

Mike Gangwer Published on 09 April 2012

Reporting to you from Juba, South Sudan, Africa …

One realization of my assignment is the number of aid organizations working here in this new country. They may be divided into three groups.

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1. Government organizations are just that – organizations funded by taxpayer currency seeking to deliver assistance to another country. The assistance may be in the form of actual money or currency, physical assets or efforts at mentoring and teaching governance through education and training.

2. Non-government organizations, or NGOs, work at some scale in a country and deliver aid that is generally targeted towards a specific type or kind of aid. Many are food-related and their objective can be described as humanitarian (addressing immediate food needs) and agricultural development.

Another example is health and medicine, which includes, again, the humanitarian efforts of short-term medical relief following a specific crisis, an earthquake or a failed crop, and then the longer-term medical effort, such as vaccinations, HIV-AIDS medicine and malaria treatment.

3. The third group is church-based organizations, or CBOs. They do profoundly useful work from my observation. For instance, Samaritan’s Purse is here in South Sudan, along with the Catholic Relief Services, largely in a role of delivering humanitarian relief to people here that are on the verge of malnourishment, starvation or a health-related issue.

I happened to be in Yei, a large town in Central Equatoria state recently, and a beautiful DC3 airplane sat on the gravel ramp next to the runway. Painted on its side was “Samaritan’s Purse.” I learned from the pilot this plane was owned by Franklin Graham, and it flies a ring route here in South Sudan, delivering its cargo of foodstuffs to those in need.

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Our own U.S. government has two missions here – that of diplomacy, largely done by the State Department, and development, done by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I have written in this column before of the three “D’s” of our foreign policy. The third is defense.

The mechanism of aid delivery in South Sudan (and in other countries, too) is largely contracting the actual work to NGOs. USAID cannot possibly deliver the aid where it is needed – given its size and number of employees – so this aid is largely contracted out to NGOs.

There are formal contracts and memoranda of understanding between USAID and NGOs for a particular project or group of projects.

The role of USAID is largely designing and planning what form, or forms, of aid delivery will meet the objectives and goals of the U.S. government. Generally, these are country-specific and even may be regional-specific within a country.

Once the design is known, a scope of work (SOW) is created and NGOs apply to USAID for funding to implement the courses of action and taskings in the SOW.

USAID will often hire technical people in the private sector to help them manage a particular project, something akin to a contracting officer technical representative (COTR). USAID will seek U.S. government employees with a particular skill to help them manage a program, too.

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My six-month deployment here is just that … providing USAID with oversight from the field, purposefully examining the NGO role in the field to deliver aid being paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

This makes sense. Given the reporting out of Afghanistan and Iraq, much of our aid there is and was not sustainable and some make the case that aid should be sustainable so we all (taxpayers) have some return on this foreign aid investment.

To be sure, there are many in Washington, D.C., in the public and private sector asking for greater accountability of federal taxpayer dollars spent in faraway lands like South Sudan.

We use the word transparency to describe our effort at accounting for money spent with a level of oversight that answers the question, “What are we doing with taxpayer dollars, and how are these dollars bringing value to the U.S. mission?”

To the credit of USAID, if field reports show our aid dollars are not meeting the metric of success as written in the SOW, the aid package, contract and SOW are adjusted. The level of scrutiny is heightened in this challenging budgetary time as well. Congress is in no mood to squander taxpayer dollars overseas when the need at home is great.

All taxpayers expect the investment our government makes in a faraway land is meeting an overarching policy objective. One of the common objectives is the long-term goal of stabilization.

Written another way, any time we can provide assistance that builds institutional capacity by teaching governance, justice and lawful resolution of civil strife, then we avoid the potential of costly military engagement.

The linkage between diplomacy and development is obvious. At the embassy level, the State Department and USAID work together so that the aid package, regardless of size, is also part of the diplomatic effort. Written another way, aid delivery without governance and justice make no sense.

And from my perspective, aid is much more effective if the host country is stable and has political leadership that understands governance, justice and lawful resolution of civil conflict, the mark or sign of a civil society.

The outcomes of such a civil society is manifest in that society joining the international community, but even more important is the willingness of foreign investors to do business in a country.

While the short-term objective here is food security, once met, this county becomes more stable and then foreign investment occurs, so a society can improve their quality of life.

Improving a quality of life is a relative term, I admit. In much of the world, it is having at least one meal a day and then two meals a day. It means relative safety from civil strife – there are laws in place that are enforced equally and equitably.

It is having access to vaccinations and medical care that avoids the malady of disease and injury that much of the world has long since addressed.

From my perspective, improving the quality of life includes a society having options. A young man or woman can become what they want and obtain an education that will prepare them for that want. These are opportunities obvious and available to us but, in much of the world, they are abstract and anything but available.

Yet in all of this explanation about aid, about development and diplomacy, about our efforts of accountability and transparency, there is another element to the model that we must never forget. It is found in the people themselves, the yearning for dignity and self-respect. The desire to do for themselves.

One frustration we all have is the mindset of entitlement. Breaking out of this model of entitlement is not easy. How do we instill in people, especially young people, the concepts of dignity and self-respect? I don’t think we can easily do this.

In fact, all the speeches and all the great words are wasted if they are not backed up by action. This is hard work. We cannot do this for them.

The timeline is long, too … the education of a young mind takes many years. Teaching dignity and self-respect cannot be delivered in an aid package regardless of how the contract or SOW is written.

These must come from the community or village at the very local level. These must come from role models that do not say one thing and do quite another. We expect these in our country, don’t we?

I take the view that all the aid in the world is misplaced until those receiving it view it not as an entitlement but as a help. We help those that help themselves. This is not a new concept.

The world works best when we get up out of that chair and decide to accomplish something. Rarely is this accomplishment easy or quickly obtained. Rather it takes work, effort and discipline to overcome obstacles and push through the challenges of forward progress.

The great accomplishments of an individual, manifest through the collective accomplishment of many individuals, make up a society that is stable, is governed according to its laws that honor and guarantee the freedoms and rights of the common man, owns a justice system that is fair and holds its leaders accountable.

These take work. And once obtained, they can be lost, if we become complacent or lazy.

As I travel though the villages and towns here in the three Equatorias, I see many young people, especially men, with nothing to do. So I am told.

Our work at delivering aid is secondary to the work of the local village and town … it is the family and it is the leadership here at the local level that must shift themselves away from an ethos of entitlement and instill the traits of dignity and self-respect in the young people.

Any honest accounting of our work here must be built upon at some point, and soon, the need to deliver aid that eventually goes away. A society that rises up and does for themselves what used to be given to them begins with the dignity and self-respect of the individual.

The greatness that is the U.S. is founded on this principle and we never, ever should take this for granted. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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