Aral Sea region: Donor's dilemma
Author: By Kimo Karini*
Kyzylorda development and donor's assistance failure to cooperate
ALMATY (TCA). Since Kazakhstan's independence, in the early 90's, Kyzylorda Oblast and territories in Kazakhstan's part of the Aral Sea have certainly seen a lot of learning about the nature of economic underdevelopment, poverty and about good and bad strategies or policies for dealing with it. Examples abound. We know now that identification of aid market failures is not by itself enough to guide action; something also has to be known about public sector capabilities.
The relationship between investment and growth is a lot more complicated than it is assumed in widely-used models and the relationship between growth and inequality can not be generalized . Income inequality does not invariably rise in the early stages of development and decline later. There are limits both in the import substitution industrialization strategies, and in trade liberalization and privatization.
From the other side introduction of cash crops often has negative effects on rural women and small dams are almost always cheaper, more effective and more sustainable than big dams, and for sure on-the-job approaches to skill development tend to be more economic and more effective than traditional vocational school training.
The list of deficiencies on development projects sound very familiar. We go from the hasty and poor design of TA projects to defects in implementation such as recruitment delays, from unsuitable consultants, to inadequate supervision. From poor coordination between donors to lack of good local counterparts in not considering the weak local ownership and management
Kyzylorda Oblast's demand for donor aid was and still is a vital asset to develop and build-on the remaining infrastructure of the Soviet era. The existing challenges are vast, both in quantity and quality. Based on that, the "true" nature of the demand for aid projects is harder to determine. Projects conceived and designed by donors sail through country approval mechanisms without being seriously vetted. In the policy area, donor dialogue is mainly with core economic ministries, with officials whose views are closest to those of their donor partners but which often are not widely shared within the government. Program approval usually requires compromise and bargaining. All of this makes for hazy conceptions of what is right and what is wrong. It means that it is almost always difficult to extract clear "lessons" from failed projects and programs.
There is a lack of autonomous intermediaries in this heavily aided region. Government agencies, Local Authorities, Universities - NGOs have come to rely on external financing. Donors spend much of their "dialogue" in discussion with captured institutions and officials who are direct beneficiaries.
Much of the findings have led to changes in beneficiaries and donor agency priorities, in the design of their projects, policies and in the way they work. But much individual learning remains unabsorbed, and many flawed approaches persist for a long time. Higher priority now is being given to institutional change, capacity building, governance - areas of intervention for which the new aid approaches are most applicable. Performance indicators are fewer and more debatable. There is an excessive reliance on the resident expatriate local counterpart model, long recognised as being a highly imperfect instrument for transfer of know-how
Effective aid interventions, those that are growth-inducing, poverty-reducing, capacity-enhancing and sustainable, are extremely difficult to conceive and implement in developing countries. Institution-building programs are especially complex.
The technical problems to be tackled are complicated; knowledge about how to deal with them is always incomplete. Social and political obstacles are formidable. Difficult judgements are required as to institutional readiness and political commitment. What is most pertinent from the learning perspective is that genuinely critical dialogue, the best source of feedback, is rare, narrowing the information flow to donors about what is really happening.
In Kyzyl Orda oblast two other aspects of aid "markets" have contributed to learning blockages in the region. First, the absence of well coordinated government agencies (short term and long term strategies) to delegate to the poorest, most heavily in need for aid excess. Second, some communities had knowledge of donor financing and they have had access to a large number of donor agencies that gained their individual interest. It has been common for one donor to abandon a project that is going nowhere, only to have another donor take it over. Lessons about effectiveness are muted in those cases.
Communication between donor and recipients generally ends up with certain rules that are neither applicable nor necessary to recipients. In certain cases each donor organization, acting on behalf of respective governments or international community, has a strictly defined mandate for the use of financial and other means.
Formal evaluation should be a major instrument of organizational change. It should uncover failure and induce organizational response. It should be the provider of lessons learned from specific aid agency projects and programs. Few people read evaluations. They are often regarded as confidential. Inter-donor circulation is insufficient. Local distribution is also restricted, formally or informally; a copy may go to the government agency directly involved, and perhaps to core economic agencies. But often they are not distributed to beneficiaries at all. Rarely do they find their way to the press, research institutes, and universities.
The emphasis on "partnerships" in recent years may have reduced the severity of this problem. But it is unclear how genuine many of these partnerships are, given the differences in power and knowledge between the aid donors and their local partners.
* Kimo Karini is a consultant for UNDP -Kazakhstan
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