Invisible Children

Aid Failure

"The scope and complexity of challenges facing children worldwide has generated its own range of responses. Millions of individuals and thousands of organizations are directing their work to alleviate these challenges. Yet clearly the whole of these efforts is less than the sum of their parts, and we are left looking at a glass that is only half full." - Invisible Children

Since 1990 there has been drastic improvement in the outcomes measuring the general state of the world’s children. Poverty alleviation efforts and health-based initiatives launched both by multilateral institutions and individual governments have touched the lives of millions of young people.  Despite these gains, though, we have not seen a “turning point” impact on the conditions of the majority of children worldwide. Time and again, we see how programs that may be effective in the moment lack sustainability once their sponsoring organizations shift focus, lose their funding for specific initiatives, or otherwise pull out of the arenas in which they are working. We see programs with delivery systems that fail to reach the children at the farthest edges, those who remain invisible.

There is a reason that the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) pointed to poverty reduction rates of only two-thirds or three-quarters. Reaching those on the outermost edges of society is costly. The logistical challenges of finding and impacting the lives of children in the most abject circumstances drains the resources of those coming into a society from the outside, and the expenses of service delivery to these children, even if they are found, can be daunting. The MDGs at their best aimed for incomplete successes.

As sweeping as the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might be, children and young people still remain largely outside the equation. In the final document, children were mentioned specifically in only 8 of the 17 goals, girls in only 3, and boys in just one.[i]  Money and funding does not ensure wisdom: wisdom comes best from the hard experience of working with children others have difficulty seeing. Without these voices, any strategy or set of goals will necessarily be academic, and crafted with incomplete knowledge of the realities on the ground.

The global financial crisis spurred economic vulnerability worldwide, bringing with it higher unemployment, reduced or lost income, and eradication of financial reserves. Children in the lowest-income households absorbed more than their share of the burden. Aside from the tendency to bond children into labor situations, remove them from school or displace them altogether from stable environments –all products of financial desperation – the crisis undercut the purchasing power of households across the globe and those in poverty suffered disproportionately.[ii] Donor countries feeling their own financial constraints, struggled to meet their financial commitments to foreign assistance programs. As a result, publicly supported multilaterals and country-based aid programs remain chronically underfunded.[iii]

But financial hardships were just one of these destructive variables. Climate changes and drought led to diminished food supplies in some regions, in turn contributing to under-nutrition and stunting. Beyond that, climate change has endangered people in extreme poverty because of their insufficient shelter, disproportionate exposure to pollutants, and inadequate sanitation. With poorer infrastructures and lack of sophisticated emergency systems, the developing world bears the brunt of the natural emanations of climate change, including flooding and major storms.[iv] Low and lower-middle income countries experienced 97 per cent of all fatalities brought about by natural disasters in 2008, and that trend has continued through the most recent natural crises.[v]

Through it all, the data used for analysis of these conditions is itself subject to question. Most low-income countries do not have systemic data collection processes, and especially in marginalized communities populations are fluid. The children in these communities are often invisible, uncounted and completely overlooked.[vi]

To be effective, development must be dynamic. Implementing a program is necessarily a first step in a process that ideally points to sustainability. The best programs adjust to circumstances that may have been unforeseen or arise from shifting social, political or economic realities. Pre-drawn strategies from far-away organizations often lack this flexibility and their program administrators, who are not indigenous and are operating from general rather than culturally specific guidelines, often lack this dynamism. Such programs deal with the situation at hand, in prescribed and well defined ways, but are not drawn with an eye towards long-range development.

How much of this assistance ever reaches communities in need? USAID’s investment models have long relied on ‘implementation partners,’ usually private contractors and large US based non-profit organizations. These implementation partners most often sub-contract with other groups to perform tasks on the ground, and many times these are local or regional NGOs. But tracking information from this point becomes difficult, and it is impossible to say with any certainty what percentage of this funding burrows into the community level.

An analysis of
AidData’s information points to the conclusion that “The current flow of funding becomes invisible and unverifiable from an external perspective beyond a few steps along the chain. The lack of tracking suggests that if funding is trickling down to the community level, it is likely through a very top-down structure, with no direct accountability or decision-making at the lowest levels of implementation.”[vii]

Aid agencies are results driven, focusing on short term outputs, which are the products of planned program implementation, rather than long term outcomes. Especially in an environment where financial resources are limited and multiple hands reach for the same pool of funds, output measurements become critical in establishing the validity of the efforts and justifying further investment. The foundation sector, beset by more requests from the aid community than it could ever fund, seeks the best possible return on its investment in development programs. Similarly public sector programs must be able to quantify their results to funding authorities within their host governments. As a result, planners look for numbers.

Most of the time the numbers they seek are based on their interpretation of quantifiable factors, for example, the number of schools built, the number of children fed, the number of medicines distributed, cost per beneficiary, and so on. This can reduce the assessment of a program’s impact, and subsequently its likelihood of continued funding, to a mathematical exercise, the creation of a checklist against which successes can be counted. Moreover, limited funding cycles can impair accurate measurement of an initiative’s impact. A two-year grant may do well for that period, but its effect over the long-term, or its ability to develop sustainability, cannot be measured over so short a period.[viii]

Based in this reliance on financial contributions is the assumption that donors could provide all the conditions for healthy, sustainable social development. The paternalism in this assumption is offensive, and over several decades billions of dollars of foreign assistance was made less effective, or even squandered, by ignoring the thoughts, perceptions, reactions and ideas of the communities involved. Development under these terms is static, not dynamic. Funds are delivered, programs are imposed, and the communities themselves become bit players, the repositories of good intentions without counsel.[ix] When coupled with the insistence on output measurements that are essential in justifying public expenditures and used by donors to plan their next initiatives, creativity is stifled. Reliance upon the same methods, incomplete and under-effective, trumps the risks involved in devising new approaches.

The sum of all this is a perpetuation of a dynamic that places recipient countries in dependent relationships with donor countries. It is a dynamic that preserves the current flow of resources and the current mechanisms of control. In short, it is a dynamic which precludes systems change and the development of indigenous social capital. Within this framework, low-income countries are likely to remain low-income, and children within those countries will continue to lack long-term solutions to their vulnerabilities.

Examples of misguided development efforts, fueled by ample funds and a lack of critical analysis, are easy to find. A study by the World Bank concluded that a huge percentage, perhaps as much as 85 per cent, of foreign assistance lands in places where it was not originally intended. Often these funds are diverted to alternative initiatives, underwrite unanticipated costs, are wrongfully expropriated, or simply disappear.[x]

And so conflicting conclusions offer themselves in the assessment of the impact of foreign assistance over the past 70 years in general, and the past two decades in particular. Major indices capturing the health, education and wellbeing of children and young people have shown movement in positive directions. Through an influx of outside assistance, millions of lives have been touched for the better. Education has become more accessible, diseases have been pushed back, and more children are reaching the age of five.

Yet we cannot ignore the hundreds of millions of children that are not touched by this aid, nor can we assume that all who benefit from donor efforts are left better off than they were before. Foreign assistance is a critical component in meeting the challenges facing the most vulnerable young populations. But it is just that – a component, one that requires constant evaluation, adaptation and reimagination to be effective. Aid systems cannot solely rely on the formulas and timeworn processes that keep the means of financial and programmatic control solely in the hands of the donors. They cannot be the province of planners bound by budgets, guidelines and target areas insulated from the input of the communities they reach.

[ii] UNICEF, 2009. The State of the World’s Children, p. 9.
[iii] UNICEF, 2009. The State of the World’s Children, p.10.
[iv] UNICEF, 2012. Humanitarian Action for Children 2011, p. 6.
[v] UNICEF, 2012. Humanitarian Action for Children 2011, p. 9.
[vi] UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, 2013. Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2013, UNICEF, p. 5
[vii] Unpublished memorandum report: Madeleine Gleave, “Is US Foreign Assistance Reaching Children at the Grassroots Level?”, May 27, 2014, p.5.
[viii] Breslin, P. (2004). Thinking Outside of Newton's Box. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from Inter-American Foundation:
[ix] Daubon, R. (2002). Inter-American Foundation.
[x] Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What can be Done About It. Oxford University Press: Oxford. April 15, 2007. Chapter 3.