Foreign Aid Workers Programmed to Fail
By C. Payne Lucas
C. Payne Lucas was president of Africare from May 1971 to June 15, 2002. This article was first published as an editorial in The Atlanta Constitution (July 30, 1981).
Author's note: This article is more relevant today than it was in 1981. Development has become even more complicated, and current development officers are less trained. Moreover, the computer age is demanding that development specialists receive intense training to fully understand the meaning and implications of information technology in the Third World and the global community generally. The gap between the defense and diplomacy experts and their development counterparts widens each day. We continue to ignore the need to upgrade our development officers at the U.S. Agency for International Development and at other development agencies in the public and private sectors. (March 2000)
Defense, diplomacy and development: Together, these are the tools with which we maintain our security and protect our national interests abroad. America's military and foreign service officers rank among the best-trained in the world. Their outstanding record speaks for itself. Not so with development, a field not unacquainted with distinction but one whose constant uphill battle against great odds generally hampers maximum effectiveness.
The military spends more than $1 million to train a single pilot in the operation of some of the more advanced high-speed aircraft. The four years of officer training at our service academies are marked only by excellence. No officer can be graduated until he meets every requirement.
The same tough standards are applied to the professional men and women who conduct our foreign policy. Diplomats are always undergoing training. The weak rarely survive and almost never advance to the senior ranks.
By contrast, our Agency for International Development (AID) program officers frequently are asked to design multimillion-dollar programs with the benefit of little or no reliable baseline data on economic, educational or health conditions in the target country. All too often we recruit a Ph.D. agronomist, for example, from one of our snowbound university campuses, send him almost immediately to his work site and expect him to succeed in increasing agricultural production in a semi-arid developing country — one with no farm-to-market roads, inadequate sources of energy and a bureaucracy whose leadership changes hands every six months.
Frequently such technical assistance is further short-circuited because the American adviser has been taught nothing of the culture or language of the people he has been sent to help. He has been programmed for failure, at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of nearly $175,000 each year.
Surely the case can be convincingly made that it is just as difficult to harness population growth, reduce chronic malnutrition, increase food production, raise income levels and institute land reforms — to name just a few of the nagging development problems facing Third World nations — as it is to knock out a strategic bunker, launch a Polaris submarine or negotiate a Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty.
Our AID program officers and technicians work in developing environments characterized by a paucity of trained manpower and available capital.
In some countries, for example, there is only one physician for every 75,000 people. An entire agricultural ministry may employ fewer than 10 college graduates. A public works department may have only five qualified engineers and five bulldozers to service a population of 5 million. Average annual per capita income may be less than $100. Ninety percent of the population may be illiterate. Tropical diseases pose a constant threat to animals. Rainfall may be scattered and insufficient.
This kind of environment breeds political instability and so creates an opening for Communism, dictatorships and other ideologies incompatible with our democratic ideals.
Development is a serious, costly and complicated process. Every time we put a development program officer or technician in the field with marginal language skills, inadequate cross-cultural sensitivity and a superficial understanding of the political, economic and social environment, we invite disaster. Simply put, we compromise our national interests and security.
Granted, our foreign assistance programs are seriously underfunded. We are not, however, likely to make additional breakthroughs in development of any significance or substance until we provide our development officers with the same training and benefits presently afforded our career military and foreign service officers.
It is urgent that we create a career development service in which AID program officers and technicians, who can meet exacting selection standards, would be subjected to the same performance expectations and competition for advancement as their colleagues in the diplomatic and military services.
At the heart of the system should be a National Development Institute, whose strict entry requirements and excellence of training would assure the steady availability of program officers and technicians equipped to serve in the developing world. If realized, such capability would exceed that of any country, East or West.
Current AID practices of recruiting employees for only one tour of duty and crisis staffing missions and projects would become unnecessary and obsolete. Consistency and excellence of development skills, as well as smooth administration, would be ensured.
The improved quality of U.S. aid would, by achieving more meaningful and long-lasting results, enhance our national image abroad and in so doing give the American taxpayer the full advantage of his foreign assistance dollar.
Development is a task of high stakes and complexity. Its fallout can be equal in magnitude to that resulting from military or diplomatic efforts. Development must be elevated to its rightful place of equality, in terms of the public impression and the available support systems, with defense and diplomacy. The national interests abroad need all of the protection they can get.
Copyright 1981, C. Payne Lucas. All rights reserved.