Science - January 12, 2012

Civil servants' squabbling cripples development aid

Dreams are a key factor in Dutch development policy. If there are conflicting dreams within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is difficult to get projects off the ground. These are the conclusions of PhD student Jilles van Gastel, who has given a fascinating peek inside the development aid world with her study of a case that went badly wrong.

The tussles between civil servants and politicians in the British comedy series 'Yes minister' seem to reflect reality sometimes.
When Agnes van Ardenne became development aid minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2003, she had a dream. She believed that collaboration with the private sector could give aid a new boost. This point of view was at odds with the convictions of predecessors such as Jan Pronk, who felt a profit objective was incompatible with development aid, something many people at the ministry still agreed with. Van Gastel was working at the ministry at the time and she later worked for the embassy in the developing country where the anonymous case took place.
Yes, Minister
The project she describes went as follows. Van Ardenne wanted to use a Dutch pharmaceutical company, referred to as Pharmaco, to improve the availability of contraceptives in developing countries. The idea was to promote Pharmaco's contraceptives. This would make the company a profit as well as giving the very poorest people access to contraceptives.
A development organization was also involved in the project but this group had its own ideas. It felt the promotion activities should cover not just Pharmaco's contraceptives but also cheaper, generic contraceptives. However the ministry was afraid Pharmaco would pull out if they did this, so they stick to the original objective: the campaign had to revolve around Pharmaco's products.
In her study, Van Gastel describes how a fascinating exchange of memos and e-mails followed between The Hague and the Dutch embassy in Country Z. The embassy felt the project was wrong because it was mainly Pharmaco that would benefit. The ministry in The Hague saw this criticism as ideologically motivated obstinacy.
What happened next is reminiscent of an episode in the TV series ‘Yes Minister'. The ambassador swore the embassy was not against collaboration with private companies and asked for more information. An excellent way of gaining time, because the information never came - until the minister went through her ‘to do' list and asked about the project's status. That led to a temporary surge in e-mail correspondence with the development experts, which died out just as suddenly until the next time the minister made an enquiry. This went on for two years until Pharmaco pulled out and the project finally foundered.
Self-seeking experts
‘Development aid comes in for a lot of criticism', says Van Gastel. ‘Development workers are often portrayed as self-seeking experts who lounge around swimming pools in country X supposedly helping the poor. However, what I have shown in my PhD thesis is how very passionate development workers are about improving the world, and the dilemmas they face. Development aid goes to the heart of our own identity and our dreams about our ideal world. When you are discussing a project you should ask the participants first: What are your dreams and what are they based on? A project's success depends on the support of the participants.'

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