1. World Bank pump diverts community water
My first eye opener was already on the way from the airport into Bamako, Mali’s capital. We passed a recently built water pump on our way into the commune Kalabancoro where our Mali Initiative’s school is and where we lived the last two month. The water pump is a neat little building surrounded by a fence, built by the government and financed by the World Bank. It pumps water out of the ground for the more central suburbs of Bamako – a great idea if only the pump would not dry out the water resource of the population-increasing commune Kalabancoro.
Thanks to this project, now there flows no more water out of the tabs of many people in Kalabancoro and our school. Instead, water needs to be carried in containers from a more distant well.
Has the World Bank still not implemented sustainability and environmental impact assessments?
2. Top-down Aid Money does not reach Bottom
Having tried to source money for the Mali Initiative I have spoken to many development agencies of the big international donors, including Germany, Netherlands, Canada etc. Result: Frustrating. Their approach has shifted from working with grass-roots NGOs (the civil society) to “sector-budget support” of the government. This basically means billions of tax-payers’ Euros and Dollars are dropped into the Ministers’ pockets and hope that the money will be passed down the pyramid until it reaches the community level. Has this “trickle-down effect” happened in the last 10 years? Unfortunately: No. Any signs that the poor will benefit any time soon? Also, nope.
The aid money gets lost somewhere in the Bermuda triangle between Ministers, regions and commune. This was mentioned to me by the people who are handing out the aid money. Let me illustrate the effects of this: We met the mayor of Kalabancoro (with a good reputation, in contrast to many corrupt government officials). The commune would need many more schools with about thousand of children having no access to any education. The commune made its need clear to the Ministry of Education. The ministry promised money to build 13 schools which was later reduced to 3. Unfortunately, not even the money for the 3 schools has trickled down yet.
Have the donors not yet heard that the “trickle down” effect might be myth? Have they not read William Easterly’s fascinating and important book “The White Man’s Burden”?
4. The Aid Game and the dependent Patient
The donors and recipients are part of an interesting political system. Both play ‘the game’ because there is something in for them and no one gets in trouble due to lack of accountability. The only problem is that the main objective of development to help the poor people is completely missed. Some people in corrupt elites divert money into their own pockets and the donors will not admit that tax-payers money is wasted. The development aid experts I spoke to are all reasonable people which happily tell the truth “off-the record”. They continue to play the game because it would be political incorrect to speak out and criticize the current aid system of donor countries and their recipient counterparts.
A big donor’s director summarized the picture of the development aid game picturesque: Mali is like a patient in a comfortable intensive care bed in a hospital. It is in a comfortable position where it receives care from outside and is not forced to address its own problems itself. They can accept or deny treatments because doctors (donors) queue up.
5. Cooking the Numbers: Quantity versus Quality in Education
During the analysis of the education sector we found some interesting cases of statistical manipulation. Last month we visited the rural communes of Niamana and Konosso, near Mali’s second largest city Segou, for our needs assessment. Speaking to the mayor, school directors and teachers revealed that 99% pass the test between primary and secondary school. We were instantly impressed with the number because we wanted to use the result of this official government test as a benchmark for our schools in Kalabancoro.
The catch is that the numbers are cooked to appease the donors’ statistics. When asked how many children after the primary school (in Mali grade 1-6) can speak French (because secondary school is in French) the answer was "meager 5%"! This speaks a lot for the challenges of education quality due to lack of means (due to missing class-rooms, too big class-sizes, lack of teacher and educational material etc.). But sadly this also confirms the saying “never trust statistics that you have not forged yourself”. The government lowered the test so much and gave instructions to schools to let everyone pass the test, so Mali would be able to show a high secondary school-enrollment rate.
When I then saw this World Bank success story about Mali, I wondered when the World Bank staff writing this have actually been on their last field visit?
So what is the way forward? “Find solutions - not problems”
There are certainly no simple answers or quick fixes to the underlying problems of these case stories but there is a way forward. I do not want to become a never-ending criticizer finding problems but be a pathfinder for solutions. Firstly, we need to analyse and learn what in development has (and has not!) worked in the last decades. I haven’t found any better book that The White Man’s Burden doing so.
Secondly, we have to work with what is and therefore my personal focus lies on education in Mali and social entrepreneurship as a model for the Mali Initiative. Education because educated children will find solutions to their countries challenges, will be able to check their government, find and create jobs etc. Social Entrepreneurship because we use entrepreneurial approaches searching for local solutions rather vague utopian plans. Our objectives and progress are tangible and measurable. Being inspired by Peace Nobel Prize Winner Prof. Yunus and the Microfinance concept, we aim to find local micro solutions that we then facilitate to scale up.
Finally, we also hope that the big donors read the White Men’s Burden (all donors I spoke to, have not yet!) and realize that working with smart NGOs on the ground can provide them with feedback and solutions. Then the West’s taxpayers billions of aid will be spent more efficiently on real development to alleviate extreme poverty.