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INTERVIEW: Steven W. Sinding of Columbia University

Published by Newsweek on 1999-03-01

Steven W. Sinding, 56, heads a new initiative at Columbia University on foreign aid issues. He is widely considered an authority on population and development, and has worked for the United States Agency for International Development and the World Bank. Among his concerns is the fact that there has been a sharp decline in official development assistance -from a high water mark of $60 billion annually in the mid 1990s to less than $45 billion in 1999. Excerpts from an interview:

Where, at the cusp of this new millennium, does the whole question of foreign aid and development assistance stand?
Resource transfers from the industrialized countries to the developing countries are in a significant state of stagnation, if not decline. I think there are two primary reasons for this. First, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the end of East-West tensions clearly led to a reduction in aid levels. Second, I think that globalization and the diminishing role of government has led to a conclusion in many Western capitals that trade and open, global economic competition ought to be the basis for economic development in poor countries rather than aid. The substitution of market forces for government-managed economies has also had a dramatic effect on attitudes toward foreign aid. So the aid business, as such, is in trouble.

What is it that has persuaded donor countries that aid ought to be sliced?
Foreign aid has always been a difficult political sell in the United States, more so here, perhaps, that in Europe and Japan. There has been a consistently negative public image of foreign aid for as long as I have been in the business and that goes back to the early 1970s. However, Presidents and Secretaries of State were frequently able to go to Congress and to say "We need x billion dollars for such and such a country or for such and such a region" because of some actual or imminent threat--for example, a Soviet encroachment or some emerging regional political conflict and instability. It was very difficult for Congress to refuse a President making a claim of a foreign policy imperative. It's a little bit like the position that Congress is in vis-a-vis the Executive Branch in a time of war. No Congressman wants to be held responsible for weakening US forces. Well, that's disappeared. The general view in Congress that their constituents don't want them voting for aid no longer has the countervailing factor of an obvious political imperative.

What about disenchantment with the international institutions that administer aid?
I think that the unpopularity of aid, if anything, has increased and that has to do with a belief that not only the international organizations, but also the U.S. aid program, have not used the money very well. The media have rather consistently highlighted the failures of aid and rarely highlighted the successes, like the dramatic declines in birth and death rates, the increases in food production, and so on. The result is that the stories about failed projects, aid to corrupt regimes, or even misappropriation of funds tended to get the headlines. Over the last 20 or 25 years, the reputations of the organizations that design and implement aid programs have also declined. Certainly, in recent years the World Bank has come in for heavy criticism, as have USAID and many of the United Nations agencies.

So how would you make the case for aid?
Well, the rationale must shift from the relatively short-term use of aid to shore up alliances or secure loyalties to a longer run view of how and why development benefits the wealthy countries. For example, there has been strong support for many years for assistance that was directed toward increasing food production in developing countries; likewise, resources to improve health status--the high popularity, for example, of Unicef, with its child survival programs and its efforts to improve the health of women and children. In public-opinion polling that has been done, there is broad-based support for the kind of humanitarian assistance that is directed toward long-term development problems: the global environment, international health issues, population growth, food production and livelihoods, and the alleviation of poverty. We must begin to rebuild a constituency for aid. And it requires a very high level of political leadership. In the United States, the President himself--elsewhere prime ministers, foreign ministers, people at that level--explaining that, in the long run, the wellbeing of the industrialized countries depends upon a more prosperous and, therefore, more stable developing world.

Why should donor countries bother?
There's a general recognition that poverty, deprivation, and desperation lead to political instability. People understand the connection between poverty and instability in developing countries and our own wellbeing. I think the problem with public support comes in implementation--the belief that aid programs don't effectively address these problems. So I think the starting point for a rebuilding of a constituency for foreign aid has got to be in addressing the issues of aid effectiveness--using the funds appropriately and well, and getting aid to the people who really need it. Some reform in how aid programs are structured and actually carried out is required. I think the old way of doing things--which was essentially designed to transfer large amounts of money relatively quickly--needs to be transformed. The mechanisms of disbursing aid and of managing aid programs need to be seriously rethought and realigned.

Will it be possible to persuade political leaders to recommit to development aid?
There has never been a broad-based political constituency for development aid in the North. The case for aid has always been made on political grounds by foreign-policy insiders. What I am advocating is an approach to aid that would much more broadly engage the institutions of the civil society, the private sector, the nongovernmental organizations, the universities and the academic sector in the donor countries. This means getting them more fully engaged in the aid process and shifting our mentality about aid. We need a shift in focus, from government agencies designing aid packages and delivering them to other government agencies in the developing countries, to viewing government as a facilitating and enabling force, encouraging the institutions of the civil society to enter into long-term partnerships with institutions in developing countries that address the real building blocks of development: human capabilities and local institutions that work.. I think that much of the international assistance work that has been done over the last 30 years has essentially ignored those two fundamental building blocks of development.

There has been such preoccupation with the achievement of relatively short-term objectives, whether those are defined in political terms or in development terms, like securing a political alliance or reducing infant mortality by 10 points over a five-year period. That orientation has led to designing aid in a way that makes it heavily dependent upon outside experts, heavily dependent upon quick infusions of money, for example, bringing in outside experts to run immunization campaigns. It hasn't been focused on building a local capacity to manage primary health care. It has not been focused on building the institutions and the human capacity to manage development programs in the long run, in other words, to create sustainability. In fact, I think that the way aid has been organized and delivered over the last 25 or 30 years may have actually increased dependency rather than alleviated it.

What will it take to build a new network in support of aid?
First of all, it's already there at least in incipient form. There are many organizations and individuals that are eager to participate. They would very quickly rise to support a political leader who articulated this case, I believe. I don't kid myself that foreign aid is going to be a hot issue in the 2000 presidential campaign but I think that after the election a new President who argued the case for a new approach to foreign aid could very quickly capture the support of charitable organizations, including those that are church-based, involving hundreds of thousands of people in this country. U.S. universities have a longstanding tradition of training people from developing countries. Their faculties have been carrying out research for many years overseas--in fact, in many American universities now upwards of 25 or 30 percent of the student body comes from outside the United States, often heavily from developing countries. Universities and large nongovernmental organizations have millions of private donors who believe in what they do and who believe that the American people have a responsibility to help those who are less well-off, so I think there is a wellspring of support for effective foreign aid that could be mobilized relatively quickly.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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