This is Iulian Nanu’s world and we are all just living in it

Editor’s memo
 
Such as it is, here’s the inevitable first guest post on this site.
 
Tired with office routine and disillusioned by the rat race of corporate Britain, a friend of the Deviant decided one year ago to develop the White Saviour inside himself and build some much-needed justification for his selfish views of the world. He wanted to believe he deserves his easy life because he is a good guy, and to cement this largely illusory pillar of his mind, he conveniently took a year off to travel and volunteer.
 

Iulian in the back appearing busy and Maurice in the fore appearing satisfied with Iulian's volunteering work or perhaps merely tolerating Iulian and smiling at the contents of his mobile phone.
Iulian in the back appearing busy and Maurice in the fore appearing satisfied with Iulian’s volunteering work or perhaps merely tolerating Iulian and smiling at the mobile phone he is holding.
As the Deviant still owes him money from bygone & unrelated business dealings, ours is the platform graced with publishing Iulian’s wisdom.
 
Before converting to travelling for a living he has been an eager student of marcoeconomics and big-ticket business management, so naturally the thread and the tone of the story run in the vein of sober-sounding, even academic-sounding economic analysis, slipping into overt flattery of his betters toward the end. Classic and evergreen journalistic analysis, I’d say. We are promised this is merely a ploy to fool Her Majesty into believing he’s a serious, employable and upwardly mobile young white man, while the real sleaze he’s done in his travels will soon follow in a future, much more candid article. Right now, we can but thank him and pray for his well-being. Over to him:
 

Aid, voluntourism and the International Citizen Service

International development

In 1964, the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development took place in Geneva. Among other things, it set out a debate on how much money should rich countries give to poor ones in order to reduce poverty and bring about economic convergence. The following year, a figure of 0.7% of GDP was agreed. And while this target has been achieved by just a few countries and only recently, aid constantly grew from $40bn in 1960 to almost $135bn in 2013 (World Bank figures, adjusted for inflation).

Nonetheless, economists are still undecided on how much this helps, and whether it does help at all. While the UN sees aid as the balm the impoverished need, critics from the US Congress to the European Parliament (mostly Tea Party, UKIP, Le Front National and erratic, viciously opportunistic echoes in the moderate center) see it as money down the drain which needs to be spent somewhere else. Those who favor aid argue more is needed to make a difference. The argument against is that if aid indeed helped development, then the most impoverished countries would have grown richer in the past 40 years, which according to the World Bank they have not, at least in terms of GDP per capita.

Both sides of the argument tend to use witty metaphors and analogies to further their point, eerily lacking convincing evidence or factual relevancy: the “wildfire” theory – poverty cannot be stopped unless absolutely all the resources it needs to be stopped are allocated; the “dependency” or “moral hazard” theory – the more aid is provided, the less inclined will the receivers be to make other needed reforms, such as eliminating corruption or disbanding monopolies that hurt the poor by keeping prices high.

No studies categorically exist neither for nor against these two Holy Grails of extreme right and left wing-originating sophistic discourse (widely used in the Greek debt crisis as well), although one study by two prominent World Bank policymakers together with two top-brow University of Maryland academics shows that there is a direct link between aid and economic growth. And as the 2014 annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation points out, even when there is little economic growth in the countries receiving aid, there are other huge improvements in the quality of life, from the average number of disease-free years to the average life expectancy, which need not be reflected immediately in economic terms.

Then there is the quiver that aid has been the biggest help dictators around the world received in consolidating their brutal grip on power. Syria received almost as much (or little) aid in 1990 when Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current war criminal who still rules bits of the ravaged country, was president, as it did last year during one of the most brutal civil wars in the history of mankind. Calls abound to stop the decrepit system of continuous band-aid funding and replace it with an integrated, long-term, value-driven strategy towards aid, based on facts rather than emotional response.

Without international aid, the counterargument goes, the most impoverished in dictatorial jurisdictions would stand an even smaller chance of survival. It would not be easy to find a development professional who refutes this. And in the short-term, that may very well be true. Without the help of Medecins Sans Frontieres to contain the Ebola crisis, the national health system of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone would probably crash in a matter of days. But it is easy to see why a constant MSF presence post-crisis would encourage the governments of these countries not to invest in healthcare.

As an American Economic Review study shows, (institutional access or subscription required), there can even be a correlation between aid and increased conflict. In this case, the researchers looked at a community-driven development programme (CDD) in the Philippines. CDDs have become the flagship of World Bank projects, as they aim to give control over the respective project budget predominantly to local communities rather than the supposedly out-of-touch staff shackled by bureaucracy in offices thousands of miles away.

In this case, in a randomized control trial, some poor municipalities in areas prone to conflict were given grants for public infrastructure such as roads and hospitals amounting to up to 20% of those municipalities´ annual budgets. Others in nearby areas with similar risks did not receive anything. Armed attacks increased immediately after the announcement of aid, leading the researchers to conclude that “insurgents try to sabotage the program because its success would weaken their support in the population”. In other words, the local community would become more self-sufficient, which could of course stifle the demand for armed thugs with revolutionary mottos.

Yet this is not the most extreme evidence of correlation between aid and conflict. In fact, there is intractable evidence (institutional access or subscription required) that civil conflict in Africa has been, and probably still is, prolonged by favorable weather in the United States. Unfortunately, this is not a delirious quip but a clearly established link.

In the US, the government stabilizes the price for wheat by purchasing high amounts of it when the output is high thanks to say, good weather, in order to make sure farmers do not have a sudden drop in income due to the price drop that the law of supply and demand would otherwise cause.

When there is good weather a few years consecutively, the barns overflowing with wheat from previous years need to be discarded somewhere. But you probably guessed that no government wants the media to report them throwing away leviathan quantities of food. So they quickly ship it to countries in Africa without performing even the most basic needs assessment or analysis of how the sudden drop in prices affects local producers and employment, never mind whether the supplies are distributed to trusted organizations or randomly to corrupt governments or even, occasionally, “friendly” warlords. Every such unexpected 20% increase in food aid increases the chance of conflict by 8% in the recipient countries.

But not everything is grim. American policy towards aid can be, like many policies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, conspicuously bipolar. USAID is trying to establish itself as the forefront of Research & Development in the most effective ways that aid can be provided. The newly-established US Global Development Lab will seek innovative solutions to end extreme poverty, involving scientists, universities, foundations and even the private sector. The new lab has been labelled the DARPA of international development (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – which amongst other technological breakthroughs laid the foundation for such inventions as the internet or the GPS).

The truth is no study on aid policy can ever completely determine the exact effects on the recipient country. One cannot decide whether “aid works” or “aid does not work” by simply looking at GDP figures. But everyone involved, from policymakers who decide budgets to big international charities and local charities and social enterprises, need to come to terms with the fact that generous input does not always determine great outcomes, and good intentions do require at least a similarly enthusiastic logical approach. This is not at all an attempt for a nihilistic diatribe against selfless people who want to help, but rather a fillip for the idea that change is slow, gradual, difficult to notice and sometimes, unfortunately and despite the best intentions, just a Fata Morgana. The answer can never be to stop providing vital support to those most in need, but to have a healthy skepticism towards how the support is provided can make for a world of change in the lives of the world´s most helpless.

Voluntourism

Considering the intricate overall picture of international development, one does not need a boatload of skepticism in order to doubt the benefits of the recent trend in the world of gap years and open-return holiday makers: “voluntourism”.

Volunteering has become big business. A simple Google search for “volunteer in Africa” will trigger an instant auction for the paid ads with an average winning price of £10 per click. In the world of student gap years and summer holidays, marketing budgets to attract young adventurers in so-called “volunteering projects” are virtually unlimited.

Only in the UK, this is a market estimated at £6bn/year and growing. The outcome of paying up to £6,000 for what is rarely more than a 2-month stint in a developing country building huts or caring for children in an orphanage ranges from completely useless but harmless to useless and actively detrimental to the supposed beneficiaries. Moreover, Britain´s arduously re-established international soft power and standing after its tumultuous post-WWII decolonization phase is at stake,  not to mention its collective sense of righteousness, sometimes nurtured through tragic individual sacrifices.

International Citizen Service (ICS)

Within this context, sending young people to work abroad in some of the world´s poorest countries must seem a rather intrepid way of spending taxpayers´ money. Except that it doesn´t have to be that way. Leaving the really big picture of aid effectiveness and how to extract the best value for each dollar spent aside, here are a few facts about ICS and the many ways through which it is different from voluntourism.

What it is

ICS is a DFID-funded scheme (Department for International Development) that gives young people aged 18 to 25 (or 23 and above for Team Leaders) from all backgrounds the chance to volunteer abroad with established, reputable charities. The scheme is coordinated by VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas), which has the best resources and experience for delivering such a scheme thanks to its previous similar work. ICS has the main aim of providing assistance to those in need, and the secondary aim of improving the personal development of the volunteers, both those from the UK and local ones.

Why it is not voluntourism

The work areas and issues ICS deals with are very varied, from human rights advocacy, women empowerment, disability rights and reproductive health to civic participation and access to education. The common objective is ending extreme poverty, and each UK-based charity has its own areas of focus. However, they all work in partnership with a local organization that better understands the local ecosystem, and there is a parity of one local volunteer for every UK one.

The volunteers do not need specific skills to be granted a placement. Everyone receives pre-departure as well as in-country training, after which they join an ongoing project. They normally engage through activities such as community awareness events, research, peer education and study and sports clubs.

Whilst technically demanding or infrastructure-related projects do exist, never is there any chance of having a bunch of unskilled foreigners build a house that falls down the next month. All projects need to be sustainable and to have continuity after the volunteers leave, for example by sourcing or providing training for a social enterprise that enables the workers to be more productive. This is where the local organization and national volunteers, who are paired with the British ones, play a crucial role. Also, no ICS project involves emotionally demanding yet unhelpful work such as caring for children in orphanages.

Normally, volunteers live with host families. When that is not possible, they live in rented, clean but basic accommodation within their assigned communities. The proximity to those the project aims to help or empower makes it easy to create a positive relationship and this in turn improves the chances of the project succeeding.

Finally, the ICS program is audited and monitored constantly to ensure it stays true to its objectives. Volunteers´ involvement does not end with their placement, as they have to complete an “action at home”, which is usually an activity that raises the profile of the issues they encountered whilst on placement or further activities that help solve similar issues back in the UK, such as further volunteering.

Duration and financial aspects

The placements last from 10-12 weeks for volunteers, and 6 to 12 months for Team Leaders. Before the placement, every volunteer needs to do fundraising for the charity that he was selected for. The total cost of the program amounts to about £6500 for each volunteer, and it is fully supported by the UK government. This includes flights, visas, insurance, accommodation, training and a basic allowance that is enough for food and travel to/from the project location in-country. Before departure, each volunteer needs to raise £800 or £1500, depending on their own or their parents´ income. Only 12% of volunteers need to raise the higher amount.

***

Nb: Iulian, not quenched by Ghana, has since been to Morocco, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Portugal, France, Denmark and Belgium and is now said to be on his way to Brazil, Argentina and Tanzania. How? By the mercy of fate, he has managed somehow to clasp and nibble on another, richer bosom at least for a while: that of the European Commission itself. He goes and goes, like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia…

 

Note: this post originally appeared on my former website, www.deviantreporter.co.uk, now defunct.

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