Good development can't happen quicklyThe non-spending of poverty funds by the Department of Welfare has rightfully become an embarrassing scandal for government. Typically, however, the search is on for whose head will roll. But the problem is deeper that that. The question is: does government understand development?
Take your time
‘Good development can’t happen quickly’. That sentence will be found in every development text book and is the experience of every development practitioner and evaluator. The reasons? Development projects have to be designed, budgeted, piloted, receive official support and then specific budget allocations. With government departments suffering from a lack of capacity, this can take years not months. Then, specific beneficiary communities have to be identified, projects negotiated with them and re-designed if necessary, and goals agreed to - such as the employment of women, participatory management, and so on. Local stakeholders - chiefs, NGOs, political parties, and many more - have to be consulted and brought on board. Add more months for this. Finally, tenders have to be issued - for technical consultants, social facilitators, programme implementing agents and so on. Add yet more months, and then more to resolve the squabbling that explodes when people who lose tenders try to use political influence to get decisions reversed.
The poverty auction
But then we face the crunch problem: the Department of Finance, not known for its developmental sympathies, treats the annual anti-poverty fund as if it were the national lottery. Departments have very little time to submit proposals for funds. The Department takes months to decide who gets how much - and then announces the ‘winners’ with great fanfare. What criteria are used - beyond economic sustainability, scarcely a hallmark of most versions of welfare - no-one beyond Trevor & Maria know. The Finance Department is also a lot quieter about the fact that if monies are not spent - entirely - within the financial year they are clawed back. It is in this context that the Department of Welfare’s failure should be analysed.
We have had the privilege of evaluating both the Transitional National Development Trust (TNDT) and the first R50m of anti-poverty money spent by the Department of Welfare in the 1997/8 financial year. Both cases highlight the problem of funding development year-on-year instead of changing to funding on a developmental basis.
Corruption and venality
Corrupt officials do exist. Corrupt private sector companies tender for and win government contracts. NGOs are not blameless either: many ‘eat money’ while others simply lack the capacity to deliver. By the same token, Ministers love press headlines. When we reviewed the Department of Welfare’s anti-poverty spending, departmental officials complained about the Minister telling the press that money would be spent on this or that project by such and such a date - regardless of whether the department was in any shape to live up to these commitments. Money was ‘dumped’ on projects so that commitments could be met. This problem doesn’t just affect the department of welfare. Unsurprisingly, some projects are now receiving funds from a range of government departments for the same activity. All of these are real problems. But they compound - they do not cause - the systemic problems in development funding.
Timing is everything
The issue of timeframes operates on two different levels. The first is the length of time taken for the funding agency or department to become operational and respond to needs coming from grass-roots? After the TNDT was established in April 1996, much of the first year was spent developing funding criteria and systems to respond to the enormous number of applications for funding. The Department of Welfare experienced similar problems in their first disbursement as there was no developed policy with respect to poverty alleviation and social development. Both were widely criticised for taking too long - but what alternatives did they have?u Secondly, the most important issue is how long the agency has to spend its money. The TNDT, as an interim funding mechanism, could only allocate funds to organisations for a maximum of twelve months. This severely limited the ability of the TNDT to make a serious developmental impact on the organisations and the communities they served. The extremely tight timeframes forced onto the Department of Welfare by the Department of Finance also compromised development processes. A large number of the projects funded by the TNDT and Welfare needed serious capacity building if they were to become sustainable. However, the bulk of capacity building focused on financial management - important, but not the only aspect of sustainability. The sustainability of projects is an expressed goals of many funders. Both evaluations show that community participation, capacity building and financial viability are all needed to increase the sustainability of a project.
To achieve these goals needs time, commitment and appropriate skills on the part of the funder. Where Department of Welfare staff are incompetent or corrupt, their heads should roll. But if we want real development then we need a funding cycle that does not contradict development itself.