Najib Saab 8/1/2023′

A former senior official at an international organization reminded me, when we met recently, of an article I wrote in 2000, entitled ‘EU Follows UN in Wasting Development Aid.’ This official, who retired years ago after decades of international development work, said: “When it was first published, we thought that your article was an exaggeration and an unjustified attack on what we honestly considered to be noble work for the good of humanity. However, experience has shown that most of the money was spent on ad-hoc short-term tasks, from which few people benefited, while the programs faded away when external funding drained.”

The article pointed to countless examples in the Arab region of the chaos created by international programs in the field of environment and sustainable development, on which hundreds of millions are spent without credible accountability. Those who undertake the task of evaluation are either employees of the donors and executing agencies, or consultants whose contracts depend on the approval of the officials of these agencies. This explains why the relationship is based on exchanging benefits and interests, embodying the motto “Live and Let Live”. Some of the loudest dissenting voices, whether in media or civil society, who usually expose irregularities, are often absorbed by the system and silenced, or suddenly start to sing the praises and achievements of corrupt ministries and aid agencies, after being bribed by a token job as “experts” or “consultants” or “project managers”, or invited to sightseeing holidays under the pretext of international conferences. In the absence of actual accountability, the bulk of the millions allocated for development and environment is spent on repetitive reports, meetings and sporadic initiatives, including, for example, covering the cost of street decorations for the holidays by an international development program, in a country where the majority of the population falls below the poverty line.

Among the biggest money squandering schemes are the international programs that aim to collect data on the state of the environment and development, and end up, after spending millions, publishing tables full of voids, reading “n/a” (not available), because most of this data had not been created in the first place. It would have been more appropriate to allocate larger budgets to laboratories and scientific research centers that are competent to produce reliable data, as how can the level of air pollution be calculated, for example, in the absence of reliable measuring devices operated by specialized scientific centers?

Environment and development funding in third world countries either goes to government departments, most of which are, at best, inefficient and often corrupt, or to NGOs. However, the corruption and incompetence of government agencies does not justify the transfer of funding for public projects, especially in infrastructure, to civil society groups, as this is not their job. The NGOs mission is to involve the civil society in environment and development work, by raising awareness and building pressure groups to induce and pressure for change on the basis of clearly structured programs, capable of influencing government policies. NGOs may go beyond this to build pilot projects to demonstrate the validity of their ideas. If, for example, they build a waste sorting and recycling project in a specific area, the aim is to encourage local authorities and governments to adopt and replicate the idea. Whatever the objections to the incompetence and corruption in government agencies, public programs related to infrastructure can only be managed through them. Hence, it is required to train and supervise government agencies to develop and manage programs such as waste collection and treatment, water treatment and distribution, sanitation, as proxy bodies cannot offer a sustainable long-term solution.

The answer is certainly not to create parallel departments within ministries, as some international development programs do. There are countless examples of this in Arab countries, where international organizations implement programs within the ministries, by hiring what they call “experts.” Those are paid many times more than regular public employees with whom they share the same offices, and often similar qualifications. This hampers work, creates conflicts, and impedes continuity, not to mention the ambiguity of the monitoring and accountability mechanism. What the public does not know is that inflated payments that these people receive, in many cases, are borne by their almost bankrupt governments, and channeled through international programs. Whereas many of the employees working as experts, under the umbrella of international programs, do enjoy high qualifications and perform great tasks, a large proportion of them occupy their positions because of loyalty to political leaders who impose them on international programs within the framework of exchanging interests. Therefore it is not surprising that evaluation reports always talk about the success of the programs and the need for their continuation, in turn to ensure the continuation of the exchange of services and interests. A case in point for the absence of transparency and strict accountability is the cover-up of squandered millions by the WHO office in Damascus, under the auspices of its director, as a result of the alliance of interests between ‘international’ employees and local officials.

It is unfortunate that the successful ‘locals’ who take up jobs with international programs often use their temporary position as a means to a higher permanent assignment in organizations outside their own country. This leads to losing experienced personnel, trained at the expense of their own governments, or from grants and loans destined for the support of local development programs.

Days after the late confessions of the retired international official, a former high executive of a UN program commented on a recent article I wrote, about the need to reduce the number of participants in climate summits, limiting them to the main stakeholders from governments, experts, relevant private sector and active civil society organizations. My friend said: “It is true that it will be impossible to reach serious results in the carnival atmosphere that hangs over some international conferences. But who dares to demand that, after tens of thousands have become accustomed to travel to environmental conferences as a sort of tourism?”

We would be better off if those in high positions speak up early enough to help rectify faults and affect positive change in time.