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The View from Here: Working domestically again

Mike Gangwer Published on 19 July 2012

I am finished with my South Sudan, Africa, assignment debriefs in Washington, D.C. My recollections and summaries and insights are recorded and filed away at the State Department, at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and at the USDA.

I have no forwarding international assignment. After nearly four of the last six years overseas, I am returning to my domestic agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service , or NRCS. The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations , or CSO, is reorganizing their efforts.

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For those of us described as subject matter experts (SMEs), we are now placed in standby status. This is an effort to save money. In the practical sense, this means we return to our home agency (NRCS) and are on-call to deploy on as short as a 48-hour notice.

This is fine with me. After years of service in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, in challenging places like Pakistan and South Sudan, there is some weariness in my step, and I appreciate the opportunity to work domestically again. I am 59 years old and the wear and tear of these assignments takes hold of us, mentally and physically.

Overseas, there are great lessons learned – and lessons that help us see the world in different perspectives. I have written many dozens of articles here in this column about them.

They include the gambit of good to not-so-good, but they always present the case that, wherever I have served, the physical and human environment is quite different than here at home. Sometimes we have to take a leave of these environments to really reflect upon their value.

I always come home to the U.S. grateful for what we have and certain that we should not take these “haves” for granted.

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I have mixed feelings about our efforts overseas, attempting to bring development to underdeveloped places. My premise is: We spend too much money before we really understand the root causes of underdevelopment.

In all the news cycles, we read and hear of the millions or billions of U.S. dollars allocated to a country or even a region. In most cases, the money is earmarked by Congress before a well-designed strategy for how it is to be used is done.

There are exceptions, but the majority of money is earmarked first and then allocated to aid agencies that, in turn, contract with other implementers to spend these funds in the field.In every assignment I have worked, this is the normal operation procedure.

One missing link here is to (upfront) evaluate the ability or capacity of the host government to absorb our aid in its various forms. An unsolicited grant is accepted by a funding agency, like USAID, and in many cases outside contractors are hired to manage the programs and projects with little involvement by the host government.

Often, it is the host government that feels marginalized by this procedure and, of course, the staff has hard feelings.

I often write that we, as development workers, do not get to pick the host government staff we work with. In fact, many of them are not trained nor have experience in proper government procedures, including governance, performance-based merit and accountability to those that elect them.

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We cannot bring them to Washington, D.C., for a month and train them in these procedures. The effort to deliver governance, merit-based positioning and accountability requires mentoring and guidance over a time span of one or two years, at least. I don’t think we do this in our work overseas.

My suggested model would be to work with the host government at least a year before we begin thinking about investing money in physical items like structures and computer systems and roads and infrastructure. Such an effort will sort out what the host government can invest in the effort so they have some sweat equity in the overall development.

Too often foreign governments have nothing invested in our work and, when we move on to the next program or project, whatever we have done is not sustainable.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is an example of development that does include positive markers of performance by a host government. Founded in 2004, the MCC invests in the world’s poorest countries only if these countries meet three criteria: they are committed to good governance, economic freedom and an investment in their citizens.

Yes, these are broad commitments, but MCC engages with the host governments early on and helps them understand what these three criteria really mean. With time, the host country begins to understand the responsibility that goes with development.

Or written this way: Entitlement projects and programs are not sustainable over the long haul. What is sustainable is the host government understanding that at some point, at five years or so, it is now carrying the water, and no longer is there a continual pouring of U.S. government dollars into an entitlement program.

I am convinced that only if development is prefaced by time spent with host governments, progress of cultural, societal and economic development will not utilize the precious resources of developmental staff and U.S. taxpayer dollars in any country of the world.

One of the pressing challenges with creating good governance is the leaders we work with. As I wrote, we usually do not get to pick them, although diplomatically we can help guide well-qualified people towards running for political office. We regularly find very qualified people, those with a vision for the very criteria we know are essential for development.

Often they are in the middle management sector and movement into senior levels is difficult, especially if these senior positions are based on something other than merit (most of the time). So time is necessary to help move them upwards in the hierarchy.

The common man is examining his or her life and demanding change. Many of the Arab countries are now seeing turmoil as people are demanding a different kind of leadership. And this is clearly the case of people looking outside their borders at other countries and saying to themselves, “We want good leaders and accountability and economic opportunities!”

The realization that isolation and poor leadership translates into wretched governance is a real one … and people just will not take this anymore. Yet, with any change, at a local or nation state level, there comes a time when we ask, “What comes next?”

South Sudan sought its independence from Sudan and finally gained it nearly a year ago. They got that independence. Next comes the responsibility to form a culture, a society and an economic model that is representative of the millions of people that live in this brand-new county. With revolution or independence, therefore, comes responsibility.

And with responsibility comes the knowledge that sooner, not later, a host government must stand on its own. An enduring entitlement program is a failure. South Sudan is new enough that it is still in the entitlement mode; the numbers of aid workers in South Sudan is enormous.

Delivering development to challenging locations around the world is hard work. The effort requires time, and it requires a lot of thought. What it does not require is an allocation of money from Congress first and then thought given on how to spend it.

This is why a recent UN. Food and Agriculture publication, “Toward the Future We Want,” an address to the Rio+20 Summit this June 2012 ( click here to view ) stated that “Where we (UNFAO) have fallen short is in addressing a third element, namely the good governance that must be addressed to achieve these goals (of hunger eradication and sustainable consumption and production systems).

While we know what has to be done, we still lack a system of governance that will make sure that what is known and agreed upon is implemented, monitored and evaluated.”

These words clearly state my summary point: Our best effort is the investment in people before an investment in physical infrastructure. I am convinced this is the model that we must adopt. The great challenge is, of course, the aspirational statements are easy to say and write. Operationalizing them so they are implemented, monitored and evaluated is very difficult to do.

The easy work is allocating a large earmark of money and spending it on physical items. The much more difficult work is the very investment in people, at the host government level, that is essential in building a nation.

I challenge our leadership in Washington, D.C., and at posts overseas to rethink their standard operating procedures. We simply do not have the economic wealth to do otherwise and, on the receiving end, the host government is served not by entitlement but by the dignity and self-respect of responsibly managing the affairs of their country … on their own. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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