Here’s what happens to aid projects when the money dries up and the spotlight fades

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Aid projects in Iraq had more money than ideas.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

Denis Dragovic, University of Melbourne

As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?

Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.

I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.

Government problems hobble South Sudan

These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.

Read more:
Development aid works over time, but must adapt to 21st-century needs

My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.

The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.

A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.

It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.

State officials in South Sudan refused to give former refugees property rights.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

Did aid make a difference in Iraq?

After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.

Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.

I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.

We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.

Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.

The same aid work in northern Iraq could have been undertaken by local authorities.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

East Timor didn’t lack money – just sense

From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.

A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.

We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.

The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.

Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.

The culture of the international bureaucracy won out over the culture of the East Timorese people.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

The lessons learned

Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.

Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.

The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.

It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.

The ConversationDenis Dragovic’s new book No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is published by Odyssey Books.

Denis Dragovic, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How to borrow tools from the startup world for aid and development

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New funding vehicles could finance large scale agricultural programs.

Danielle Logue, University of Technology Sydney; Gillian McAllister, University of Technology Sydney, and Jochen Schweitzer, University of Technology Sydney

Ideas borrowed from the startup world – crowdfunding, incubators, accelerators and online marketplaces – could help close the US$2.5 trillion shortfall in funding for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Our research with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows these methods can increase aid by attracting funding from private investors and diaspora communities.

But several barriers need to be overcome first. Education is the biggest challenge – all stakeholders, both investors and entrepreneurs, need to understand the potential of these methods as well as how (and when) to use them. We need to ensure programs are available in local languages and in rural areas. Lastly, we should not overburden entrepreneurs and grantees with complicated impact measurements.


Crowdfunding platforms, where entrepreneurs post a project and members of the public contribute small amounts, can be a very successful method not only to deliver funds, but to test how much interest there is in a product or project. The micro-lending platform Kiva is an example of this in action. Kiva claims to have provided over US$1 billion in loans to 2.5 million people since launching in 2005. Its funded projects range from small businesses to village development.

But crowdfunding faces a range of challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. These include a lack of access to bank accounts, large commissions charged on withdrawing funds, and a lack of education for entrepreneurs in how to run crowdfunding campaigns.

So while crowdfunding has been shown to work in funding development projects, it needs to be tailored to specific contexts. The platforms should be set up with local intermediaries. Funding is needed to provide initial educational support for social entrepreneurs in online campaigning. And campaigns should be run to reach potential funders in the developed world, including diaspora communities.

Incubators and accelerators

Incubators and accelerator programs help very early stage or startup businesses. These often provide co-working spaces, education, mentoring and connections to investors, often in return for a fee or a share of the business.

Our analysis of over 90 incubators and accelerator programs across the region found that entrepreneurial training and coaching opportunities were still limited. It is not simply a question of providing more incubator programs. Programs are needed in local languages and in locations outside major cities.

For example, programs in Myanmar and Vietnam are building up a startup ecosystem. Yet, more local language incubator programs are required to increase accessibility for other young entrepreneurs.


Online marketplaces, sometimes referred to as “social stock exchanges”, have recently emerged to help connect enterprises and investors and to standardise measures of financial and social return.

Just like mainstream stock exchanges, these platforms allow entrepreneurs to raise funds and investors to trade shares. But, on top of maximising monetary returns, the companies listed on these exchanges generally have social goals such as increasing clean energy or affordable housing stocks.

Social stock exchanges have taken off in the developed world – over CA$100 million has been raised on the SVX platform in Canada, and more than £400 million through the London Social Stock Exchange.

Existing platforms use different impact measures for enterprises wishing to list, such as B Corporation certification. While such platforms are a valuable part of market infrastructure, more needs to be done to educate enterprises and investors on business models for financial and social impact, and expectations of returns.

All up, the research shows that there is great potential in borrowing ideas from the startup world for economic development. These methods have been shown to effectively direct funds to projects that have community support, and to help entrepreneurs and organisations accomplish their goals. They can complement our existing approaches to aid and development.

The ConversationIn building a startup system for social impact, we also need to support those who do the intermediary work, who bring together these diverse groups, and who can understand the needs of aid, entrepreneurship and finance. We also need to try new types of collaboration and partnerships between public, private and non-profit actors.

Danielle Logue, Associate Professor in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy, University of Technology Sydney; Gillian McAllister, Senior Research Analyst, Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney, and Jochen Schweitzer, Director MBA Entrepreneurship and Senior Lecturer Strategy and Innovation, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Assist Haiti – Donate to World Vision Australia

If you are wondering how to assist the people of Haiti, please consider donating to World Vision Australia at:

Perhaps you would like to sponsor a child from Haiti through World Vision?

There is plenty of information at the site on how to help.

Haiti: Earthquake Tragedy

The terrible tragedy in Haiti continues to dominate world news, with fears that the death toll from the earthquake will top 200 000 deaths. 250 000 people were also injured in the earthquake and there is now a major effort to provide essential aid including food and medical provisions for the suffering Haitian population. This is a major tragedy and the world needs to respond to it – thankfully, this is happening.

The crisis will continue long after the headlines have ended, with some 2 million people having been rendered homeless as a consequence of the disaster. Millions of Haitians are at risk of illness and death as a consequence of the quake, with sanitary conditions, lack of drinking water, limited shelter, etc. These are just some of the problems that will continue to plague the poverty-stricken people of Haiti. The rebuilding process will be enormous and well out of reach of Haiti. The nation of Haiti will continue to need the assistance of the world for many years to come.

Organisations like World Vision, the Red Cross and many others, will need the continued support of governments and individuals around the world in order to continue to support and assist the victims of this earthquake. Please continue to assist by sending donations to the various aid organisations that are assisting in the work in Haiti. Over the coming days and weeks, ‘Random Thoughts’ will pass on information as to how people can continue to assist the Haitian people.