Being a critic of the aid industry I have often found myself attracted to discussion on alternatives to endless log-framed, SMART indicatored and workshop driven projects which aim to ‘mainstream’ this or develop ‘policy’ on that. They seem little more than creating work for the sake of it and an excuse to drive around in large imported vehicles feeling like a crusader come to liberate the poor.
This is why I wanted to share a post on Duncan Green’s blog (He is head of Research at Oxfam UK)…the post discusses the work of a US project which transfers cash directly to the poor (identified through survey data) using the m-pesa mobile phone banking system. It is said that more people in the rich world want to give in this way- directly cutting out that aid industry workshopping (see also the success of KIVA). Duncan’s view is:
“While they help with short term consumption and investment, cash transfers don’t directly tackle the kinds of systemic problems that underpin poverty and inequality – dealing with those requires a more complex approach based on partnering with local civil society organizations, and all that brokering and convening stuff I write about on this blog. And what about gender – who owns the phones and gets access to the $500? It would be interesting to see if there’s a difference between how men and women phone-holders spend the money – I wonder if GD have included that in their monitoring and evaluation?”
Ok- I take his point that this isn’t going to necessarily solve structural issues of poverty and inequality but really is ‘partnering with local civil society organizations’ going to achieve that? All that has done so far is to create a mostly aid-dependent civil society in Sub-Saharan that attempts to mimic those same workshopping, big vehicle driving international NGOs that Duncan works for.
I’ve written here before about my current research on attempts by People living with HIV/AIDS to claim their rights…well that m-pesa system could work very well as a way of sending small cash transfers to enable people to travel to get their medication or purchase food rather than waiting for food aid from WFP. M-pesa makes it so much easier to redistribute cash and families in Kenya and Tanzania are already using it for this- m-pesa is not an innovation of US NGOs but a private sector led technological innovation with social impacts. It could relatively easily be adopted by governments for cash transfer systems of social protection.
Reducing poverty and inequality does also need effective states which take these things seriously but where are they? (Perhaps Rwanda is an exception?). States with good economic growth don’t necessary reduce poverty and often increase inequality. Development activity cannot be left to the aid industry- they will only have more meetings. 86% of the aid spent on HIV/AIDS in 2008/9 in Tanzania is spent outside of the state systems and then we wonder why the reality on the ground experienced by PLWHA is a chaotic patchwork of NGOs, and Religious organisations….
So perhaps m-pesa (and other technology that put more power in people’s hands) can be the start of doing things differently?