All in Vain - 24/02/2010

Mathias Lemmens, senior editor, GIM International

Eighty percent of the wealth of a nation is created through twenty percent of its adult citizens: the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the visionary and the educated - their rung on the social ladder enables them to realise change. This minority determines the ca­­pacity of a society to be productive, to combat poverty and starvation, and to create wealth.

The conventional approach to maintaining and enhancing capacity is through education and training. Young people are encouraged to choose a course of study and career based on the prospects of higher income and exciting job opportunities. So when a society is weak in creating prosperity, what immediately comes to mind is propelling adults back towards the classroom. However, a decade or so later comes the surprise discovery that little has changed. The hoped-for adjustment has not occurred; the vast majority of the population still suffers from poverty; there is gender inequality, illiteracy and high child mortality. Then it begins to dawn that enhancing capacity implies more than just strengthening the knowledge base, abilities and skills of individuals. To do so presumes the presence of optimum organisations, and these exist only in rudimentary form in many parts of the globe. People discover that action is required to improve institutional structures and processes such that organisations may efficiently meet their missions and goals. Strength-ening the capacity of individuals turns into capacity building.

And capacity building refers to activities carried out by organisations in one or more countries to help those in others do better. Has capacity building worked? Not really. Why not? For the same fundamental reason most aid programmes fail. Because they are initiated and designed on the drawing boards of Brussels, headquarters of the European Union; or in New York and Washington, where reside respectively the United Nations and the World Bank. That is to say, aid is planned top-down. The people behind attempts at problem solving are planners with their roots in developed countries, not the sup­posed beneficiaries of aid offered. The result is minimal embedment in local organisational structures and low participation on the part of the local population. Aid programmes are thus inherently doomed to fall short: they ignore the essential of bottom-up engines. This is the main thrust of Professor William Easterly's message in his controversial book (see below).

I have noticed that referring to Easterly's book may ruin my reputation. But I have a right to speak out, having been deeply involved in aid programmes not at the planning stage, but at executive level. For more than a year I carried out capacity-building work in Nigeria, and did the same as project leader in Estonia. Do you think I enjoy the sense that all my efforts were in vain?

Further Reading

Easterly, W., 2006, The White Man's Burden, Why the west's efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good, The Penguin Press, New York. 

Last updated: 17/08/2019