DFID is NOT the victim

While I am the first to have a good old dig at inefficiencies and overspending within the aid sector, I find “aid actor bashing” (and I use the words “aid actor” broadly in this context) and the sector’s mental block with “profit” particularly irritating when not balanced.  This was the article that prompted this blog in The Times but you can also read about it (for free) on the Guardian.

ASI is, and i don’t believe they have ever hidden, a private ltd company. They are a business, they aim to make money and profit. Their product is, they say, impact. Whether we like it or not is a different matter. If no one liked what they sold they would eventually go bust like any other company.

The focus here shouldn’t really be whether ASI made a profit large or small. But rather how did DFID continue using ASI for so long if it felt it’s “profiteering” was excessive? In order for ASI to have got the contracts in the first place DFID would likely have launched a tender. Bids would have been received by DFID, and DFID would have reviewed and compared those bids. DFID would have interviewed and interrogated each potential bidder before making a final decision. DFID would also have considered the price and whether the desired outcome would have justified the value they were going to pay. DFID would then have monitored the impact and outcome of that contract. No one obliged DFID to use ASI, and there are certainly other options if DFID was willing to take the time to find them out.

The problem is money, time and convenience. The rhetoric over the last 50 years has been that everything is a problem that simply requires an intervention, in the form of money. DFID gets a budget every year. There are problems in the world. They are looking for implementers. They know that if they don’t spend the money they’ll have to give it back. Worse they’ll have to explain why they didn’t spend it. So they have to implement projects, big projects that have big results (11.3 million people here; 5.6 million people there). It need to looks…big. But they don’t have much time to choose a partner, and frankly it takes too much time to find, trust and work with smaller partners. So they’ll find the one that offers the most convenient service, with the result they want, at a price they can pay that seems the most reputable.

Yes it is questionnable whether large companies should and do profit excessively from the aid budget. Yes ASI tried to exploit confidential information for their own benefit. But portraying DFID as the defenceless victim is too easy. It glosses over an important question, did ASI actually achieve what they were tasked to achieve in line with what DFID had expected and planned?

The issue is unfortunately NOT the chancers but DFID (or Donors in general), and the aid system, itself. The issue is that we still continue to focus on “who spent what”, “who made what profit”, rather than looking at the outcome achieved.  It’s time to stop thinking about what we’re spending and start thinking about what we’re achieving.

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