Friday, August 14, 2009

Unintended Consequences

As part of her marathon tour of Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently toured Goma to see for herself the devastation that has been wrought by years of conflict. It has been years since someone so high up in the US government has visited Congo - and not one has ever visited Goma. Sources say that her statements were well thought-out and more candid than typical for a politician. The centerpiece of her visit was to profile a new $17m aid package to address the conflict in eastern Congo. And not so surprisingly, this is where the problems started.

Any aid and attention to the situation is appreciated, but in a region as complicated as this, outside support needs to be carefully considered. Unfortunately the package announced by Clinton bears all the hallmarks of rushed planning. Firstly, the plan gives little to no money to indiginous NGO's - the onces that know best what the needs of the community are. Most of the money will go to the International Rescue Committee. And secondly, much of this money will be spent on the construction of a brand new fistula treatment center. That kind of assistance is greatly needed here, the problem is that such a facility already exists in Heal Africa. Instead of supporting and expanding current operations, the US will be starting over from scratch. What of the years of skills and experience possessed by the Heal Africa staff? This new facility will, at best, create competition where there should be cooperation. At worst, the greater resources of this new facility could very well canabalize the success of Heal Africa as talented individuals are lured away by higher salaries.

This situation reminds me of some fictional situations presented in the foreign service oral assessment, which I have attempted several times. The purpose of the scenarios is to judge one's critical thinking skills under pressure. This aid package, which threatens so much of what Heal Africa does, was announced at Heal Africa itself! Based on how genuinely sympathetic Clinton appeared during her trip, it seems that she was poorly informed about how her announcement would be perceived. This is a great example of the kind of situation the oral assessment would present; a shame then that it appears Ms. Clinton would not have passed this section of the exam.


  1. This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who used to work for US AID. Every time a new director would come in, they would cancel a lot of existing projects and want to start new ones -- basically to make _their_ mark on the organization, instead of continuing existing projects that are working well.

    IMHO (my very limited experience) this is a consequence of the fact that lot of the work at the high level is unfortunately grounded on political, philosophical views on how development is to be done. For example: use only free markets, focus on sustainability, ictd :-) Whenever there's a shift, there's a huge reallocation of projects to these criteria. In addition, the ultimate goal of aid from political actors is for political influence (e.g. diplomacy) -- moral imperative aside. New things make the news.

  2. Yeah I've thought about "newness" as I've dived into some of these issues. The fact is much of the work that I am now involved with isn't new, and it's not cutting edge. Being surrounded by PhD students, I have to remind myself that much of the work that needs to be done is BASIC. People need clean water, and I don't need to attach a bunch of sensors to the equipment to make the project worthwhile. Continuously evaluating the process and community involvement is challenging enough. But as you said, that kind of work doesn't tend to make headlines.

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