Yellow sign with black letters that says 'Foreign aid'.
Yellow sign with black letters that says 'Foreign aid'.

When does foreign aid work?

A year ago, a bloody war started in Sudan. Now, Sudan is confronted with the most significant food crisis the world has seen in decades. The United Nations (UN) speaks of the "worst humanitarian disaster in recent history" (Thom Canters, de Volkskrant). Good and professional foreign aid, as soon as possible, seems more vital than ever. But when is aid good and professional? Can good intentions cause unintended harm? What unintended results can foreign aid produce?

Providing good aid

To elevate the standard of foreign aid, it is crucial to anticipate all the unintended consequences of your aid programmes,' says Radboud researcher and anthropologist Dirk-Jan Koch. His seven-year endeavour, the book 'Foreign Aid and its Unintended Consequences', provides a practical roadmap for governments and aid organisations to identify and reduce the unintended effects of aid, underscoring the critical need for professionalisation in this field.

To elevate the standard of foreign aid, it is crucial to anticipate all the unintended consequences of your aid programmes

What are unintended consequences?

'When introducing a new drug to the market, it's crucial to demonstrate that the side effects are manageable. The same principle should apply to foreign aid,' argues Koch. He further explains: 'In my book, these 'side effects' are the real-life consequences for individuals who are left without support.'

Price effects: Inflation through 'cash transfers'

Koch mentions cash transfers as an example: families and individuals living just below a specific poverty line receive extra cash with which they can repurchase groceries. Koch explains, 'Inflation can then be an unintended negative consequence. People living above that poverty line suddenly can't pay for groceries.'

cartoon of a cash transfer

Behavioural effects: domestic violence through 'microcredit programmes'

Another example Koch mentions is microcredit programmes. These programmes aim to empower women economically and are being strengthened by many Dutch organisations, such as Oikocredit. They then get a loan with which they can start their own business. 'If we only look at the economic benefits, it is a success,' says Koch. 'In many families, however, men can cope poorly if the woman suddenly earns more money, so the programme can also lead to domestic violence. That means we need to experiment to develop programmes that maintain economic success without domestic violence as a side effect.

We regularly overestimate the positive impact of foreign aid if we only look at the people for whom it is intended

 He concludes, 'If we want to identify the unintended consequences of foreign aid, we must let go of that tunnel vision'.

Letting go of the tunnel vision with anthropology

'Anthropologists are good at this,' says Koch. They spend more time in an area and often think outside the official objectives of an aid organisation. Instead, they look at what is happening daily in an area.' Koch points out that 'it is the anthropologists who have mapped domestic violence in microcredit programmes; economists did not pay enough attention to that.'

Anthropological research, especially by local researchers, is often overlooked when evaluating aid programmes. Koch explains: 'this is because of the way we organise these evaluations. Often, someone from the aid organisation visits and stays for a maximum of two weeks in the capital of the country that needs help. That person discusses with local organisations how an aid programme is going; is there indeed a better drainage system?, have all children been vaccinated? If we were to change that process and work more with local universities, for example, there is already more room to investigate the unintended effects'.

It is the anthropologists who have mapped domestic violence in microcredit programmes; economists did not pay enough attention to that

Where do you begin with research into unintended effects?

'My goal is to professionalise aid organisations or government agencies,' says Koch. Yet, finding organisations willing to participate in my research was initially challenging. A lot of time goes into gaining trust. 'For example, organisations want me to research precisely the intended effects, or they are afraid of negative outcomes.' Organisations like Cordaid, het Rode Kruis, and government agencies like the German GiZ approved Koch's research on their aid programmes.

How do you conduct research into unintended effects?

Using text mining, Koch examined 700 evaluation reports of aid projects. He and Zunera Rana identified concepts, patterns, topics, keywords and sentiments in those reports using advanced search methods. What arose? Not one report included anti-Western sentiments. Koch explains: 'A big blind spot is how unlikable we actually are as white Westerners who come to bring aid'. 'If you follow the news, you see Ebola clinics burned down in West Africa. Or that Western-style LGBT organisations are under siege in Uganda. This is not reflected anywhere in such a report.' In addition to text mining, Koch analysed existing literature on international cooperation to discern a total of the top 10 unintended consequences.

A big blind spot is how unlikable we actually are as white Westerners who come to bring aid

Aren't the ten unintended effects still Westernised?

To ensure that these ten unintended consequences are not still very Westernised, Koch set up a read-along group with people worldwide. 'That feedback was really needed,' says Koch. In his book, he called migration to the West an unintended consequence of better education in Third World countries. 'What Western look on things, Dirk-Jan!", someone said to me at the time. The chance of a better future in the West is precisely why people join this programme, there is nothing unintended about that'.

Future

Koch hopes that any new aid programme will examine the possible unintended effects. 'We need to ask questions like, ' What does this programme do for violence against women? What does this do for CO2 emissions? What does this do to inflation?' If we want to professionalise foreign aid, we need to know the unintended consequences beforehand instead of experiencing them afterwards. An anthropological and local perspective can help us do this by looking at situations from multiple perspectives. It makes us more humble and nuanced.'