How would you reduce aid dependence?

Lofa County, in Liberia’s northwest, is the most densely packed NGO circus in the country. The road leading into town is lined with with the telltale signs: dozens of tall-walled lots topped with razor wire, the tips of radio antennas adorning the dozen white Land Cruisers just visible through the sharpened coils.

Most do an excellent job, but maybe too good a job.

I’m spending a lot of time in isolated villages, pre-testing our survey instrument. If you ask a villager who bears the most responsibility for building public latrines and wells, eight times out of ten you’ll hear, “the NGOs”. After five years of intense humanitarian aid, have people forgotten how to provide their own public goods?

Maybe not. The white guy in the funny hat undoubtedly hears a select message. But nary a self-built latrine or town hall can be found. This could be grounds for a next project: can we cure the patient of NGO-itis?

But what to do? Incentives? Demonstration villages? The so-called “sensitization”? Suggestions welcome…

13 thoughts on “How would you reduce aid dependence?

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  2. Take a look at

    The problem precisely, as Binyavanga Wainaina brings home, is that on the receiving end of the dynamic Paul Theroux observed, Africans themselves feel themselves reduced to a collection of needs. In an essay titled “How to Write About Africa,” a mock tip sheet for Western journalists that has been widely reprinted and discussed across the African continent, Wainaina described the message from the West that aid too often communicates: “We can save you from yourselves. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. … We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. … No one can empower you except us.” The power to help, Binyavanga Wainaina insists, can be as dangerous as “hard power.” (Krista Trippet, more at

  3. This is a huge problem in DRC. The best project I’ve seen there are funded largely by NGO’s, but they are administered by local civil society organizations, with the goal of long-term local capacity buildling. Forcing NGO’s to realize that they neither understand the cultures nor do anyone any lasting good when they set up projects that fall apart when they leave is the best cure for the disease.

  4. Please, someone prohibit NGO’s from giving away free services and goods!

    I know many of your eyes see this proposal as having issues of sorts with “making the world a better place” since much of what is going on in the “third” world is a result of people always wanting to make money over here.

    But from all experiece we have, the opposite is true: “Free” means dependance. With the nasty turn that it not only maintains it or increases it with direct users but also creates depednance regarding any third party involved in the same business previousely and now facing NGO’s dumping strategies.

    If that had been the case, with NGOs leading the way to new markets for lical private service providers, maybe Lofa would rightly lie in a country called “Liberia”.

    Great Blog!

  5. I should explain that “lofa” in swahili is derived from the english word “loafer”, and has the same meaning

  6. Lofians? Shouldn’t that be ‘Loafers’.

    I’m sorry, but aid dependent villages in Lofa County is just too funny.

  7. the perpetual existential crisis of the development enterprise!

    liberians are the most aid dependent, NGO de-motivated populace i’ve ever come across, and lofa county is probably the worst place of all. lofians themselves will tell you so.

    as someone who managed an NGO community development program in Lofa myself, i often thought it would might be useful to pilot a project to create some IEC materials and start community dialogs specifically around the issue of dependency, just to get people thinking about where it comes from, and what to do about it.

    given the wacky incentive$ at work in the aid busines, we’d probably be spitting in the wind. but a well-monitored and evaluated pilot would be a good start, as part of a wider palette of approaches.

    now that the civil wars are over, now is the time to start experimenting with giving communities much greater control over the interventions that are meant to benefit them. ownership, ownership, ownership!

    and what can be done to make NGOs more accountable to beneficiary communities? NGOs write reports to donors that are often B.S., and with few exceptions, the reports are rarely read. but communities almost never get a chance to give feedback on a project/program, or even get access to reports.

  8. it’s easy to criticise NGOs when you’re on the other side of the world and it’s even easier if you’ve studied social anthropology, just like me :-) I have to say, though, that both previous comments may hold some truth.

    The toilet example above is excellent. I’m pretty certain that people coming up from a western economics and development point of view could end up with a piece of pricey equipment occupying some space but not being useful at all, even if they only wanted the best for locals.

    I understand that NGOs work, or say they work on very specific problems that nevertheless come up to be too complicated to solve at the end. That is because it’s western NGOs that set the agenda rather than locals.

    Can the locals set the agenda or should the NGOs patronize this process? The colonial presence of Europeans in Africa, Asia and Latin America has made an enormous impact on these areas and we shouldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s both a matter of ethics and a very practical one. I feel that the corruption of local authorities is a result of the colonial past. So, you can’t leave decision to corrupted locals.

    So, what could be a way of reaching the core of local needs and putting your resources into fulfilling them? I don’t think it’s a matter of red tape, as the fellow above commented.

    Take a look at your very long lists of subjects you write on, and you’ll only find one post filed under “anthropology”.

    I believe that both economists and political scientists should trust the anthropological methods and forget a little bit the methods they were teached at the university. It’s not everything, of course, but it might be something.

    You use them already, you know. All these excellent field notes that you publish through this blog are on this way of getting away from economics and into real life.

    Just wanted to add that I really enjoy your posts. Keep up the good work.

  9. Tying aid to tax-funded expenditure is a good idea, giving the state incentive to gather taxes and develop delivery capacity for itself. Isn’t something like that one of the CGDEV ideas?

  10. What are all the NGO employees going to do if their interventions become self sustainable?

    Claim mission accomplished and go home? Stop soliciting funds? Take a job as an accountant in New Jersey?

    Hardly. The incentives are not there. The circus is built to last…

  11. I think that aid dependence stems from the age old ploy of NGO’s and Aid organisations to give because they can.

    As much as this stands well and true, it also led to what you are describing – dependence.

    While working for a human rights NGO in Somaliland this year, I went to a conference led by UNICEF, DFID and DRC etc… they gave the opinion that they were finally trying to sort this problem out by actually allowing communities to take charge of their own communities and needs – – – about time – – – .

    However during this meeting – mostly populated by NGO staff – when the community members were given their chance to speak they came up with the same points “we are capable of making our own decisions, we just need the finances to be able to do the things we want. Give us the money that we need and we can make changes,’

    Local communities don’t want to be dependant on the west. They want to be able to go out and feed their own families with their own hard work. But they can’t… they get locked into this cycle of dependence.

    Getting Communities out of this cycle is the hardest thing to do. How do you go around it?

    Yes, giving communities complete control of their skills and communities is the way forward – but even doing that is a challenge, maybe to much?

    The conference that I went to made a point of telling the communities that there were delays with cash flow due to forms and funding proposals not being filled out properly, and due to communities not taking their requests to the correct people.

    Let’s just ask our selves this question…

    If you live and work in a community which has low education, low literacy and poor health rates ( because the need for education and literacy is minimal due to there being alack of need in many circumstances…. How do you expect citizens to have the knowledge to fill out funding proposals? While working I was given a document by the organisation to assist me in writing funding proposals, it was 20 pages long. Could I still write up a proposal? Yes, but only because I was given the tools and am educated.

    How can NGO’s and international organisations really assist communities with finances without giving them the tools that they need to be able to carry out simple requests?

    If you are the chef du village, and are not educated then you of course will make mistakes with funding proposals, it only makes sense, on top of this the confusion over forms and red tape will become to overwhelming – so adding to dislike of organisations and their influence over communities in Africa (and around the world).

    So even these large organisations are having difficulty trying to reduce dependence on the west.

    One sure fire way that Countries can assist in reducing dependence on communities will be to place more money into the education of the average citizen. That includes NGO’s and International organisations – education is the key!

    I am not just talking about educating school children, but even taking on board what Bandhan has done.

    This orgtanisation has empowered women in Indian communities, it has educated them on micro finance and enabled them to start small business and make money – you know the way it works. These women are string heads of families, and , they are plugging their successes back into the community to encourage more women to work for a living and encouraging community members to source education to improve their circumstances…

    That is truly giving communities the autonomy that they deserve, and in my opinion that is the way that communities will be able to really let go of the dependence they have relied upon.

    There is only so much that organisations can do to develop a country after war… but after a while it is up to governments themselves to realise the importance of their citizens.

    Here is an idea….. Why don’t we start empowering political structures, putting structures in to maintain accountability, and making it easier for communities to borrow/have money for reasons that they need…?

    Sometimes a hole in the ground is better than a purpose built toilet in the middle of a community, in reality, in the middle of a village in liberia –who needs a public toilet which will hold disease and dirt and will not be cleaned? A hole in the ground is sustainable and healthier than the alternative. ( p.s I have seen the public toilets that organisations have plugged into communities – and as you will probably have seen aswell, they are not sustainable and end up not being used as they were originally intended for)
    I bet that was a western mans way of helping out…

    Anyway! That’s just my input, I am all for development – but when I graduate and start working full time I will be actively campaigning for education and for the true accountability for governmental spending habits.

    Loving the Blog!


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