Daily Bulletin


The Conversation

  • Written by Denis Dragovic, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?

Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.

I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.

Government problems hobble South Sudan

These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.

Read more: Development aid works over time, but must adapt to 21st-century needs

My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.

The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.

A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.

It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.

Here's what happens to aid projects when the money dries up and the spotlight fades State officials in South Sudan refused to give former refugees property rights. Denis Dragovic, Author provided

Did aid make a difference in Iraq?

After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.

Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.

I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.

We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.

Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.

Here's what happens to aid projects when the money dries up and the spotlight fades The same aid work in northern Iraq could have been undertaken by local authorities. Denis Dragovic, Author provided

East Timor didn’t lack money – just sense

From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.

A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.

We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.

The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.

Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.

Here's what happens to aid projects when the money dries up and the spotlight fades The culture of the international bureaucracy won out over the culture of the East Timorese people. Denis Dragovic, Author provided

The lessons learned

Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.

Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.

The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.

It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.

Denis Dragovic’s new book No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is published by Odyssey Books.

Authors: Denis Dragovic, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

Read more http://theconversation.com/heres-what-happens-to-aid-projects-when-the-money-dries-up-and-the-spotlight-fades-91629

Writers Wanted

Five ways Australians can save the planet without lifting a finger (well, almost!)

arrow_forward

Ray Hadley's interview with Scott Morrison

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Ray Hadley's interview with Scott Morrison

RAY HADLEY: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: G’day Ray.   HADLEY: I was just referring to this story from the Courier Mail, which you’ve probably caught up with today about t...

Ray Hadley & Scott Morrison - avatar Ray Hadley & Scott Morrison

Prime Minister's Remarks to Joint Party Room

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is great to be back in the party room, the joint party room. It’s great to have everybody back here. It’s great to officially welcome Garth who joins us. Welcome, Garth...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

BEN FORDHAM: Scott Morrison, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ben. How are you?    FORDHAM: Good. How many days have you got to go?   PRIME MINISTER: I've got another we...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

7 foolproof tips for bidding successfully at a property auction

Auctions can be beneficial for prospective buyers, as they are transparent and fair. If you reach the limit you are willing to pay, you can simply walk away. Another benefit of an auction is tha...

Dominique Grubisa - avatar Dominique Grubisa

Getting Ready to Code? These Popular and Easy Programming Languages Can Get You Started

According to HOLP (History Encyclopedia of Programing Languages), there are more than 8,000 programming languages, some dating as far back as the 18th century. Although there might be as many pr...

News Co - avatar News Co

Avoid These Mistakes When Changing up Your Executive Career

Switching up industries is a valid move at any stage in your career, even if you’re an executive. Doing so at this stage can be a lot more intimidating, however, and it can be quite difficult know...

News Co - avatar News Co



News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion