Still learning as we go along … are we?

By Jacob Steiner

A review of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011. The book was republished in 2015 by Ilqa Books in Pakistan and is available there in book stores and online.

Some months back I visited a rural support program in a Central Asian country, executed by one of the world’s biggest development organizations with an excellent repute here and in similar areas in Pakistan. A European consultant, with ample experience in the area and his field – sustainable construction solutions – had recently visited the project. The outcome of this visit, a number of manuals as guidelines for the local execution, had just been printed and handed over to the local engineers. Among them seismic proof housing, and split latrines. These toilets are currently a very fancy topic in sanitary engineering for developing countries when discussed among experts in the West. They are very easy to construct, turn human excrements safely and without special treatment into fertilizer and are hence theoretically a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. But the link between smart and fancy ideas in the donors’ offices in Europe and sustainable solutions on the ground seem to be a hindrance that few want to deal with.

In default of pre-constructed toilet seats for this system in the respective country, the technical expert thought of a solution. Food bowls in two different sizes were acquired at cheap prices in the local market and assembled to a locally made split toilet. That sounds awfully convincing in a report, “using locally acquired material”, “supporting local merchants”, “easy to assemble”. The local program manager and a village engineer have already assembled the first sample. Sure, a smart idea from their friend the expert. They acknowledge his input and technical expertise, and are convinced that his intentions are the best. “But what will the people say when we propose to them to use food bowls to shit in?” They both laugh heartily. No, that won’t work, but they’ll do it anyway. Results need to be shown, reports are due and they are already behind schedule. It’s a comical situation, if it wouldn’t be frustrating to see so much effort, and money, brought to waste. A new book on similar encounters in Pakistan shows how this phenomenon may be an essential part of failures in international development initiatives.

Samia Waheed Altaf, former senior advisor of the Office of Health in the USAID Mission in Islamabad, has collected such comically frustrating episodes from her participation in the Social Action Plan (SAP) in the 90s in her So Much Aid, So Little Development – Stories from Pakistan (Wilson Woodrow Center Press, May 2011). The SAP was developed by the Pakistani Government and funded by the World Bank from 1993 to 2003 and targeted health supply services amongst others in Pakistan with a multi billion $ budget. It’s probably the most famous failure of aid and development in Pakistan. A number of papers have already been published on this issue, most notably from the CGDEV, which also Altaf refers to time and again. These papers are looking at why that could happen and how it could be avoided in future, providing mainly the dry figures of wasted inputs and unintended outcomes. They are essential reading to grasp how so much money could be invested in the country in recent decades with so little progress and conclude with definite policy recommendations. But they seldom go beyond the gross calculations of a development economist. Altaf portrays how these figures of failure are produced by the “human factor”…

Read the full review here.

Jacob Steiner’s addendum to the review:

There are other reviews out on the book.

In Dawn, by Sakuntala Narasimhan (you may go to the SouthAsianIdea to comment and discuss it with other critical minds) and in Regional Studies, Volume 45 by Claudia R. Williamson.

They are interesting to read together, since they are written from the two perspectives, the Western ‘Expert’ (in this case a researcher) and the Eastern Intellectual (in this case a journalist). Those two which Altaf manages to include in a single narrative. And they are more or less stuck in precast conceptions of the problem. Williamson wants to read more on where failure is to locate in the local institutions, Narasimhan criticises the Western Experts decadence and ignorance. They are both not wrong in their criticisms, their understanding of where failures may be located. But they are both looking for where they are convinced failure emanates from and seem not to be too receptive to an alternative explanation – a change in mindset and acknowledging responsibility. This is which I think both parties – the International (Western) Expert and the Local Expert – should take from the book. If everyone just understands it as a confirmation of ones own best intentions, brought to no avail because of the failure of the Other, we stay stuck in the dilemma. Question expertise – of others and your own – and be prepared to reassess opinions.

Manan Ahmed has been writing on the ‘Expert’ problem on a wider and more political/historical scale. I think his thesis in this aid example so well documented by Altaf is backed up on the local scale and just confirms how this is an issue that should be studied with more depth in future.

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