The archives of official aid bureaucracies are crammed with bulky ‘appraisals’, ‘assessments’ and ‘evaluations’ of projects. Very few, however, really grasp the nettle and try to find out who benefits, how and why. Two non-governmental agencies in Australia, however, have taken the unusual step of evaluating Australian-backed aid projects in the Philippines.
Community Aid Abroad (CAA) in Melbourne and the Sydney-based Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace decided to investigate after receiving complaints from Filipino church and development groups. Both projects in question are situated in regions of extreme poverty, deep social unrest and intensive military activity. And complaints centred on the local military’s use of roads built with Australian aid in the brutal pacification of local insurgency movements. It was also suggested that the projects were not benefiting the poorest groups.
CAA sent an experienced development administrator to evaluate one of the projects in the province of Zamboanga del Sur on the island of Mindanao. This $86 million scheme, begun 8 years earlier, defined its ‘ultimate goal’ as ‘Peace and Order in the Province’, while its ‘immediate purpose’ was ‘to raise the living standards of the majority of the population in the project area’. This was to be done through the construction of roads, irrigation facilities, agricultural improvements and livestock development.
For the other project, the Justice and Peace Commission used its contacts with the Catholic Church in the Philippines and a Filipino organisation. Concerned Citizens for Human Rights, agreed to carry out field research and compile the report. This project, which was in the north of the island of Samar, was backed both by the Australian government and the World Bank and it too involved road and bridge building, with smaller amounts for irrigation and agriculture. The project also constructed six ports, as well as providing airport and telecommunications facilities, electrification and water supplies.
The findings of both evaluations were similar. In particular:
• Roads: The major beneficiaries were the wealthier traders and business people, who could afford to pay for transport to get their goods to market. For the landless labourers, tenants and small farmers, who have little agricultural produce to sell, the roads have brought little or no improvement. In Zamboanga del Sur the local fishermen have a particular grudge against the roads because they have enabled entrepreneurs with motorised boats and refrigerated transport facilities to take over the fishing industry.
The evaluations also found that the high level of military activity and violence against civilians in the project areas raised serious questions. The roads permit the free movement of army vehicles, helping the military’s task of ‘preventing armed insurrection’. But the activities of the military also include the repression of ‘dissident elements — the term being used to include what many Australians would regard as a legitimate expression of democratic rights of speech and assembly’ (Zamboanga del Sur report).
• Agriculture: In Northern Samar the programme covers only farmers who own the land they till and can afford to buy the fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and equipment necessary for modern fanning. This obviously excludes poor tenants and farm-workers, but includes wealthy landowners. ‘The programme, therefore, services primarily the relatively privileged and wealthy rather than the poor and the needy.’
In Zamboanga del Sur the results did not match the optimistic predictions which promised ‘a smorgasbord of potentially successful crops for year-round profitability’. Only one crop — upland rice — ‘could conceivably raise the living standards of the majority of the farming sample chosen for experimentation. The majority in question would be the more well-to-do’. And although modern technology could increase crop yields, it did not necessarily raise the income of a poor tenant farmer having to bear the increased costs. ‘What we have is an application in the field of agriculture of the trickle - down approach to development which for many years has been subject to serious criticism.’
• Livestock development: Poor peasants missed out on the cows or buffaloes distributed by the projects because the recipients were chosen by local officials of the Ministry of Agriculture. Recipients included village leaders, government officials, teachers and shopkeepers. A small farmer in Zamboanga del Sur commented bitterly: ‘It is not the small farmer who is receiving the cows but the people who are in the better living.’
The evaluator of the Zamboanga del Sur project concluded that the project, by advocating purely technical solutions to essentially social and political problems, might well be exacerbating the poverty and inequality it was intended to relieve.
The Filipino evaluators of the Samar project are even more scathing: ‘The project, which is avowed to improve the well-being of the people, has resulted — and could only result — in greater exploitation’. The evaluators suggest that aid donors who want to assist the poor in the Philippines should support ‘people’s organisations: peasants, fishermen, factory workers, drivers, students, logging workers etc’. In Northern Samar such organisations already exist and have demonstrated their potential through successful actions to lower land rents and usurious interest rates.
Both agencies made their research available to the Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) and to the project staff, thus opening up a dialogue of ‘critical collaboration’. Subsequent assessments by ADAB have confirmed some of the criticisms made in the evaluations and efforts have been made to target the projects’ resources more clearly on the needs of the poorest groups.
But the attitude of the Filipino government towards the evaluations has been predictably negative. The Minister of National Defence Juan Ponce Enrile sidestepped criticisms and instead attacked the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace for pouring money for ‘manufactured research’ into the coffers of the ‘Marxist movement’.
This knee-jerk reaction by a high-ranking Minister of the Philippines government raises some fundamental questions. Why was Australia giving aid to the Philippines anyway? Why did the aid take the form it did? Was the Australian government really concerned to help the poorest people in Zamboanga del Sur and Northern Samar? And to what extent does Australia’s official aid programme take account of the structural obstacles to the development of poor communities in countries — like the Philippines —ruled by undemocratic elites?
These and other basic questions about the direction and shape of Australia’s official aid programme are now at the centre of an aid review committee set up by the recently elected Labour government.
The evaluations carried out in the Philippines by CAA and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace have added weight to a growing recognition of the need for a ‘root - and - branch’ review of the official aid machine. But to hold the government to its election promise of a ‘more development-oriented’ aid programme, ‘aid audits’ by independent evaluators are going to be needed on a regular basis.