Notes from the Field

Improving Aid Effectiveness: Local Context is Everything

February 2, 2011

In my decades in the Philippines, I have traveled from one end of the country to the other – ranging from Basco in the northern province of Batanes to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi in the south. But until now I had never been on the Pacific Ocean coast of Mindanao. Here I was, though, in a calm cove on White Sand Beach, walking along the shore at dawn.

While strolling along I was mulling over the complex issue of aid effectiveness, which is very much in the air. My Asia Foundation colleagues have been writing about the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness due to take place in November and on AusAID’s Independent Review on Aid Effectiveness.

Spurring my thoughts was that the program I was about to attend in Cagwait in Surigao del Sur province to help celebrate the municipality’s 58th anniversary of its foundation, was structured around specific donor-supported projects that had benefited the town. Here I was, in a remote municipality some three hours from the nearest airport (over roads which, though quite nice now, just months ago presented a severe challenge for the tourist trade). Yet here were several ongoing donor-supported projects. What, it occurred to me to wonder, is a worm’s-eye view of aid effectiveness?

The Mindanao Rural Development Program, funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Department of Agriculture, gave a huge (literally – it was reproduced as a poster) check for 7 million pesos ($160,000) for a Natural Resource Management project that focuses on river bank establishment, marine sanctuary, mangrove rehabilitation, and agro-forestry. This accounts for over 10 percent of the total annual budget of the entire town. The Asia Foundation’s Transparent Accountable Governance (TAG) project here – supported by the United States Agency for International Development – is less lavish. We are providing technical assistance to help the municipality raise more locally generated revenue – and also providing books to each elementary and high school through our Books for Asia program.

Cagwait citizens watch as books, donated by Books for Asia, are distributed. The powerful effects of leadership on development effectiveness in Cagwait are evident.

The mayor of this town laughs that he has friends in very useful places, based on his unusual career. First, Bonafacio Ordona worked for the non-government Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement in various areas on the island of Mindanao. Then he worked as regional project coordinator for a World Bank-funded Community Based Resource Management Project at the regional capital, Butuan. For 20 years he was the municipal planning and development coordinator for the municipality of Cagwait. Since 2007, he has served as the elected Cagwait mayor. Donors are naturally attracted to a local chief executive of his ilk who knows both the value of planning and how to network among many resource institutions.

The powerful effects of leadership on development effectiveness are clear here, and widely recognized. Cagwait will accept this month one of the “Galing Pook” (Excellence in Local Government) awards for its social transformation project entitled “Cagwait’s Best” (which provides small incentives throughout the town for excellent achievement). And the Philippines’ Department of Interior also recognized this excellence with a 1 million peso check (this one just normal sized – but immediately negotiable).

Such success stories have created a great deal of confidence here that aid can be used effectively. But what lessons can we learn besides “find a good leader and provide resources?” One lesson, from the 2009 World Development Report, focuses on the integration of “far-flung” areas such as this with potential growth centers. As noted, it was only within the past year that good roads connected the town to the nearest airport, and for that matter, it was only within the last few months that the resort at White Sands was connected to the town by a concrete road. This is a typical story in Mindanao – while headline news is about conflict and violence, underlying factors such as lack of good transportation hamper everyday efforts toward peace and development.

Another lesson, though, is the need for a larger scale. The town of Cagwait has less than 30,000 residents and is one of over 1,400 municipalities in the Philippines. Donors, no matter how flexible, cannot handle that level of local detail so some agglomeration must be made. This has been recognized, and Canada’s Local Government Support Programme in the late 1990s helped municipalities coalesce into larger groupings. One of these includes Cagwait and six other nearby municipalities, Yet, without sustained program support the alliance faltered. The alliance was recently revived with some planning assistance from the agency formerly known as GTZ (German Technical Cooperation).

Drawing this together, we can see the need to seek out, nurture, and reward effective leaders in localities, the national government, civil society, and among donor institutions and aid organizations. Local context is everything – what needs to be done, and how it will work, varies endlessly. The need for detailed contextual local knowledge requires investing the time, money, and effort continually to understand the situation and opportunities for investments. Finally, all of this emphasizes the need for flexibility in programming – just as “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” all programs must be grounded in the reality that development is dynamic. Knowing who the leaders are and where social capital exists –and the readiness to shift emphases – will improve impact.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available