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Fishing for Capability

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.” I have heard this adage so often that when it is repeated to me these days, I usually smile and nod politely. It is often applied to development work as the way programs and policies should be enacted. It is true that this is a wonderful approach. Although it may be regarded as somewhat paternalistic in a development context, looking past that, it is very applicable. In any facet of life, it is much better to show someone else how to do something until they are capable of doing it well, than doing it for them. Unfortunately, in development work it does not usually take place in any meaningful way.

As I increasingly reflect about both the projects I am working on and others around me, I cannot help but wonder when they will end. Not necessarily when the projects will cease to exist, either through a lack of funding or necessity. Instead I ponder when they will be taken over by the state, and how realistic this goal is. Projects I have worked on have addressed gaps in education, healthcare, child protection services, and agricultural improvement. In most societies around the world all of these are either provided or regulated by the state. However, when the institutions within a country are so weak they are unable to provide such services, often well intentioned NGO’s pick up the slack. In many ways this is fantastic. It provides people with the healthcare, education, or access to financial services that can make a grave difference in their lives. Many NGO’s promote capacity building in their programming and propagate sustainability as a major goal. However, the degree to which capacity is built is often blurred and, more importantly, the effectiveness of capacity building is almost never measured.

What many NGO’s succeed in doing is creating parallel institutions that are either not designed in the proper manner for a specific nation, or of such a standard that they cannot realistically be maintained by the state. I have heard many people argue that citizens in developing countries deserve the same standard of care as any other human being. While I agree, I also argue that they deserve to have a mechanism to hold those running these institutions accountable. With international actors, such a mechanism does not exist. If people are unhappy with a service, or one is not being provided, they are left at the will of the benevolent foreigners that feel they should do something to help. If this interest wanes or is not directed into the proper areas, the people lose out. By filling the very real gaps that often exist in state services, this approach allows governments to rule with impunity, fearing no one and providing very little.

The best piece I have read about this, and about development as a whole, in a long time is one by Lant Pritchett, Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure. Among other things, this article addresses “isomorphic mimicry,” the practice of copying successful institutions from one setting to another. The mimicry is seen when these institutions appear as if they are performing the tasks they are prescribed to perform, yet upon closer scrutiny they are not performing them well, or sometimes at all.

A great example I just read of this was in Uganda’s Universal Primary Education (UPE). In Uganda every child is supposed to have access to a primary education. In reality there are many students enrolled, too few qualified dedicated teachers, and an overall low standard of learning. Furthermore, the ministry actually has an automatic promotion policy that pushes the students through the classes. Many children are being pushed ahead even if they cannot pass the previous year’s examinations. More interestingly, in a recent report the government responded by saying, “funds have been wasted on children who repeat classes. The commission recommends that the ministry enforces the policy to minimize wastage.” In this case the government does not seem concerned about the quality of the education, but instead on the appearance that more children are progressing through the UPE system.

What is occurring here is a system that seems to be addressing a vital need in society, when in reality it is not. Where NGO’s play a role is they often fill in these gaps to keep education, healthcare, or food insecurity levels above catastrophic levels. This of course is also part of the argument against international aid. The argument goes that without aid citizens would hold their governments accountable and appropriate institutions would develop. I tend to believe the reality would be closer to more governments responding with fear and force in order to hold onto the power they have accumulated. Needless to say, NGO’s do play a role in hampering the capabilities of many state institutions. Many have attempted to address this gap in successful capacity building through results based management programs. However, often the measurements are based on how many individuals were trained, not if they actually learned anything, or more importantly if they are actually applying it after six months, or five years.

Many NGO’s have realized this lack of success of capacity building and are attempting to address it. Most do not do it very well. While they have capability courses, few follow through with how these institutions actually perform, or obstacles they face. Of course this is often due to length of mandates in a country or community and funding restraints. It also comes from not truly working in conjunction with government ministries. Although many development programs have such relationships set up, often because NGO’s become frustrated with the state actors they are dealing with, they either ignore them or step over them to get the job at hand done. This frustration is not misdirected; often the incompetence or negligence of government ministers is infuriating, even more so when they seem to be indifferent to the populations they are supposed to represent. However, as NGO’s continue to promote self-sufficiency and capacity development, while not addressing these problems within state institutions, nothing will change.

This is where the major challenge lies. How do you address issues such as corruption, healthcare, education, and the judiciary and truly strengthen them? More importantly for international actors, do you have and legitimacy in taking up these endeavors. I struggle with this myself, especially when there are real injustices taking place in a country and I feel that my outrage does not hold the same weight as that of someone who is directly affected by the decisions or incompetence. In all of its incarnations, capacity building is long, arduous, and often fails. This requires the dedication of national and international actors to truly building capability of institutions and individuals.

How to address this trap NGO’s often find themselves in is complicated. The solution I see as viable is supporting civil society organizations within the countries that have them. In a country like Uganda there are some that are very active. They work to hold the government accountable and teach others about democracy and their rights. They were sprayed very colourful water cannons during the walk to work protests earlier in the year. If more organizations helped these passionate change makers in their own societies to try and work towards holding their governments accountable, maybe the ludicrous existence of these institutions that only mimic functional ones, will begin to erode. In South Sudan, these types of groups do not exist. The South Sudanese I live with chuckle at the notion, the army takes care of people like that in South Sudan they tell me. At the same time, these same people show frustration and anger at the level of corruption and disregard for the institutions and rule of law in the country. Here international actors could play a very large role. Instead of applauding the president Salva Kiir for not going to war with Sudan, they could watch him closely, denounce actions that do not comply with building strong competent institutions, and work to ensure this country that sits on a precipice does not fall into the abyss.

While South Sudan may be teetering on the edge, I see it also as an incredible opportunity to slowly and surely build strong well-functioning institutions. However, until these very fundamental capability issues are recognized and seriously addressed, governments will go on pretending to be doing something, while doing nothing at all. I believe the only people that can address these concerns with any legitimacy are the citizens of the countries where corruption, incompetence, and impropriety reign supreme. The work of national actors needs to be coupled with education about how a democracy is meant to function, and how the true power is meant to lie with the electorate, not the elected. By truly holding governments accountable to have strong, functioning, and independent institutions, and following up on the capacity of those they train, NGO’s may be able to help provide some fishing lessons.


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