The donors’ new clothes

  • Donor attempts to provide technical solutions to a political problem like corruption are a waste of resources
- Narayan Manandhar
The donors’ new clothes

Apr 16, 2015-

It has been reported that the Parliamentary Committee of the UK suggested that its aid agency, DfID, curtail support for Nepal if there is no perceptible reduction in corruption here. Japan is making a similar move against Vietnam after the discovery of bribery in a railway project. Invariably, such aid conditionality forces a country to work harder on its anti-corruption agenda. However, it is also time for donors to take an impassionate view of their anti-corruption actions and inactions, of their successes and failures. To what extent they have helped and/or harmed the recipient countries? And what is the leitmotif of their support?

Very much at fault

Donors are as much part of the problem as they are part of the solution. It is a paradox to have corruption seep into anti-corruption activities. This is the single reason why evaluation experts are calling for a built-in monitoring and evaluation mechanism to address the corruption vulnerabilities of foreign aid. Corruption is not just a punishable crime; not having adequate corruption prevention measures is also a crime. I suppose the message is clear.

Earlier, citing a report released in October 2014 by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), this scribe had written in this newspaper (‘Faults in foreigners,’ January 7) about how donors have corrupted the system in Nepal. Here are few more examples.

From March 8 to 15, a technical mission study on anti-corruption was organised with support from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, DfID, and UNDP. The purpose of the mission was to assist the Government of Nepal in identifying and operationalising areas of joint collaboration and to provide guidance on how donors can play a constructive role in facilitating anti-corruption reforms in Nepal. We should appreciate such efforts and concerns. However, the mission study completed its assignment without even meeting with the chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). This lapse is worth noting, as the ICAI report made a terse remark questioning DfID’s hesitancy to react to leadership changes at the CIAA (refer to para 2.24, page 11). It is also worth mentioning here that in February 2005, immediately after king Gyanendra took over, some donors, including the ones mentioned above, withdrew their support. This was done as an expression of displeasure towards the king’s move. However, even after the reinstitution of democracy in 2006, the situation was not reversed. Such hypocrisy on the part of donors has put the country into an awkward situation.

In order to collect information, the study mission brought together key informants by inviting them for a series of breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings at a five-star hotel. Without questioning the profile of the invitees, such a methodology does save time and effort, if not money, of the consultants. However, the moot question is: Will the informants speak the same thing when they are interviewed in a group as they would have done individually?

Bhaagbanda continues

Corruption is very much a political problem. This is more so in developing countries like ours where it is intimately related to the rise and fall of a regime. Donors’ attempts to provide technical solutions to a political problem are not only meaningless but also a waste of resources. Sensible donors should explain to the public: What is the point in supporting an anti-corruption agenda when appointments in oversight agencies are done on the basis of political affiliations? It is not just the question of sharing the spoils. It is also a shameless act of cheating the public in broad daylight. In September 2011, the government headed by Baburam Bhattarai made a public announcement inviting eligible Nepali citizens to apply for vacant positions in constitutional bodies, including the CIAA. In April 2014, the present government made a similar call. But in March 2015, earlier announcements were scrapped and appointments made purely under bhaagbanda. Nowhere can one observe such a blatant abuse of authority by the government.

Donor dollars

Recently, this scribe had an interesting encounter while engaged in a $2 million project to strengthen oversight and accountability in Nepal. The project was part of a bigger $30 million project—Strengthening Public Management Programme (SPMP), signed by Maoist Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun in July 2012. DfID was also responsible for supporting the project. Benefits from the project were nothing other than hefty fees for international consultants, their travel and hotel expenses, organisation of a few workshops and, as this scribe was informed, translation of materials. The project is not only moving at a snail’s pace, but its implementation is totally bereft of ground realities.

With multiple anti-corruption agencies in existence, donors are not even certain about the agency they should approach for support. After a lapse of more than two years, the only visible progress made by the project has been the organisation of two workshops.  

In the said project, it was shocking to discover how an internationally recognised anti-corruption consultant had submitted his report after copying and pasting a substantial portion from his own book, published elsewhere. Imagine, if this can happen with an anti-corruption project, what can you expect from others?

If this is the situation with donor support for anti-corruption, there is no point in issuing threats of curtailing aid. The manner in which international ‘consultants’ are operating in Nepal recalls the swindlers present in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, who weave an invisible piece of cloth. In such an environment, one needs a lot of courage to shout out: “Donors, you too have nothing on.”

Manandhar writes extensively on corruption and governance issues

Published: 17-04-2015 09:21

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