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Book Review

Still learning as we go along … are we?

So much Aid so little development: Stories from Pakistan
(Development Literature)
Samia Waheed Altaf
Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington, D.C.
ISBN 9781421401386
204pp. Rs1595

Some months back I visited a rural support program in a Central Asian country, executed by one of the world’s biggest development organizations with an excellent repute here and in similar areas in Pakistan. A European consultant, with ample experience in the area and his field – sustainable construction solutions – had recently visited the project. The outcome of this visit, a number of manuals as guidelines for the local execution, had just been printed and handed over to the local engineers. Among them seismic proof housing, and split latrines. These toilets are currently a very fancy topic in sanitary engineering for developing countries when discussed among experts in the West. They are very easy to construct, turn human excrements safely and without special treatment into fertilizer and are hence theoretically a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. But the link between smart and fancy ideas in the donors’ offices in Europe and sustainable solutions on the ground seem to be a hindrance that few want to deal with.

In default of pre-constructed toilet seats for this system in the respective country, the technical expert thought of a solution. Food bowls in two different sizes were acquired at cheap prices in the local market and assembled to a locally made split toilet. That sounds awfully convincing in a report, “using locally acquired material”, “supporting local merchants”, “easy to assemble”. The local program manager and a village engineer have already assembled the first sample. Sure, a smart idea from their friend the expert. They acknowledge his input and technical expertise, and are convinced that his intentions are the best. “But what will the people say when we propose to them to use food bowls to shit in?” They both laugh heartily. No, that won’t work, but they’ll do it anyway. Results need to be shown, reports are due and they are already behind schedule. It’s a comical situation, if it wouldn’t be frustrating to see so much effort, and money, brought to waste. A new book on similar encounters in Pakistan shows how this phenomenon may be an essential part of failures in international development initiatives.

Samia Waheed Altaf, former senior advisor of the Office of Health in the USAID Mission in Islamabad, has collected such comically frustrating episodes from her participation in the Social Action Plan (SAP) in the 90s in her So Much Aid, So Little Development – Stories from Pakistan (Wilson Woodrow Center Press, May 2011). The SAP was developed by the Pakistani Government and funded by the World Bank from 1993 to 2003 and targeted health supply services amongst others in Pakistan with a multi billion $ budget. It’s probably the most famous failure of aid and development in Pakistan. A number of papers have already been published on this issue, most notably from the CGDEV, which also Altaf refers to time and again. These papers are looking at why that could happen and how it could be avoided in future, providing mainly the dry figures of wasted inputs and unintended outcomes. They are essential reading to grasp how so much money could be invested in the country in recent decades with so little progress and conclude with definite policy recommendations. But they seldom go beyond the gross calculations of a development economist. Altaf portrays how these figures of failure are produced by the “human factor”.

“I speak the local languages and understand their cultures. […] I can speak the language of the international experts as well, so I form a bridge between these two groups.” Attached to the project as the local technical expert for the health and population sectors, standing in between, she is the perfect narrator for scenes that straddle between comedy and tragedy. Enter the foreign expert, who ‘didn’t even know where Pakistan was until she’d bought her tickets, […]. She had thought it was somewhere in India …”, who more than once finds that “[this] takes us nowhere.”, on which a government’s representative retorts: “Where would you like to go, madam?” Numerous accounts of meetings leave you laughing in disbelief, only to have your laugh choked by a story that portrays those suffering from a health system, which these projects fail to advance. By trying to find a basal flaw rather than a singular culprit, Altaf turns ridiculous meetings into stage play sketches and turns a dreadful issue in an enjoyable read, coming to a conclusion, which should receive attention and comprehension among the development community in Pakistan.

It’s the expert – local relationship that Altaf portrays as a main cause for failure. Western consultants proclaim in their office among themselves: “Honestly speaking, we do not know much about it. We are learning as we go along. And anyway we shall find out in a couple of years if we are right or wrong …” On the project they are understood to be the provider of solutions – for what other reason could they be paid such exorbitant salaries relative to their local counterparts and flown in to take all the most senior positions? “You give expert advice to national governments on a sensitive and crucial technical issue that has far reaching economic consequences. You know that your advice will be taken seriously, and you know very well that it is half-baked. You know you are “learning” as you go along. However the people in the country you are assisting do not know that you are only learning – at their expense – because you are sold as an expert.”
The tragic comedy is complete, when Lucymemsahib, a real figure posing as the proxy for the western expert in the book, exits the Pakistan stage after some weeks, now already being understood as an insider to this culture. With the newly acquired local dress and bangles, a dozen Urdu words she has mastered, she can now happily pass that ‘expertise’ on to her replacement in the post – ‘such a primitive place, I tell you’. Here, Altaf leaves little room for the illusion that the experts may acknowledge their problematic role themselves and hence bring a reasonable solution to the problem. If that is not happening – and from my own experience I see little progress in this regard – it may be up to local staff to shed some of the unquestioned belief in international expertise and press for accountability. It’s an unrewarding experience as Altaf shows – but if the failing international involvement in development in Pakistan has a potential for positive change, it is here where individuals can contribute to a change in mindset. This book is eye opening required reading for all who are about to join the development muddle in Pakistan, and an entertaining look at the scene for those who have already experienced it.



There are other reviews out on the book.

In Dawn, by Sakuntala Narasimhan (you may go to the SouthAsianIdea to comment and discuss it with other critical minds) and in Regional Studies, Volume 45 by Claudia R. Williamson.

They are interesting to read together, since they are written from the two perspectives, the Western ‘Expert’ (in this case a researcher) and the Eastern Intellectual (in this case a journalist). Those two which Altaf manages to include in a single narrative. And they are more or less stuck in precast conceptions of the problem. Williamson wants to read more on where failure is to locate in the local institutions, Narasimhan criticises the Western Experts decadence and ignorance. They are both not wrong in their criticisms, their understanding of where failures may be located. But they are both looking for where they are convinced failure emanates from and seem not to be too receptive to an alternative explanation – a change in mindset and acknowledging responsibility. This is which I think both parties – the International (Western) Expert and the Local Expert – should take from the book. If everyone just understands it as a confirmation of ones own best intentions, brought to no avail because of the failure of the Other, we stay stuck in the dilemma. Question expertise – of others and your own – and be prepared to reassess opinions.

Manan Ahmed has been writing on the ‘Expert’ problem on a wider and more political/historical scale. I think his thesis in this aid example so well documented by Altaf is backed up on the local scale and just confirms how this is an issue that should be studied with more depth in future.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.



  1. Pingback: Still learning as we go along … are we? | TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog - July 24, 2016

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