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The Wellington Dilemma

…[I] request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…

2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


—Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, during the Peninsular Campaign, in a message to the British Foreign Office in London, 11 August 1812

This quote is pilfered from a new Center for Global Development essay by Andrew Natsios, former USAID Administrator and current Georgetown Prof. In the full (though possibly apocryphal) letter, the Duke complains that the demands of regulation, bureaucracy and compliance (“the accountants and copy-boys in London”) threaten to compromise the achievement of his country’s true goal (driving Napoleon out of Spain).

Natsios makes a similar argument about US aid programs, which he says are suffering from a disfiguring imbalance. The compliance side of aid, which he calls the “counter-bureaucracy,” has grown grotesquely out of proportion to the programmatic, technical side, and threatens to undermine aid’s goals.

As on Wellington’s plains of Spain, the goals of the US counter-bureaucracy are not necessarily compatible with or even complementary to the goals of the organization as a whole. That is, the counter-bureaucracy exists to make sure that US aid programs are managed according to voluminous, archaic, and sometimes internally-contradictory US laws, regulations, and management systems, while aid programs exist to encourage development abroad by building developing-country partnerships and strengthening institutions. US aid has become paralyzed by endless reporting requirements.

Natsios writes:

…[T]he question is whether the counter-bureaucracy has become counter-developmental.

Of course, we would all be a lot more sympathetic to the counter-bureaucracy if it performed functions like preventing waste and corruption, or if it performed independent evaluations of whether aid actually brought benefits to the intended beneficiaries. Unfortunately, a string of recent scandals (made possible of course by reports from the counter-bureaucracy) showed millions of USAID dollars going astray in Afghanistan and Iraq, with little assurance in USAID’s reaction so far that the same will not happen again in the future. So exactly what IS accomplished by those costly reporting requirements?

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  1. Blair wrote:

    I explain to most of my friends who ask about what “development” is, and how USAID does it, that we’re not really doing “development” in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and (for the most part) Pakistan. USAID is simply paying off thugs and warlords by somewhat indirect means – throwing money out of a helicopter, so to speak – in exchange for the hope that they won’t attack our troops. Which is why I, an experienced and savvy development worker myself, have no desire to go work for them.

    Has anyone noticed how USAID reporting requirements are one element that creates the ecosystem of a few huge development contractors who go after the biggest contracts, as opposed to in the UK, where you see a much larger universe of smaller actors? Is that an accident?

    Posted July 16, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  2. Sadly “reporting requirements” rarely means what it sounds like. It does not mean, “reporting to the public at home and abroad, in formats that make the information easy to use.” Instead, all that compliance data is typically locked up tight.

    If we instead opened this information to the public, hunting waste and abuse would look less like an army of copy clerks (who may or may not have incentives to notice any abuse) and more like journalism or forensic accounting. And open accounting can be done with or without government support and tends to focus on the interests of citizens, rather than institutions.

    Laura: I enjoy your writing, thank you.

    Jonathan at Global Integrity

    Posted July 16, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  3. didier wrote:

    So…according to this post….USAID wastes a lot of money so a counter-bureaucracy emerges to try and gain some control over that..but the only result is that the conter-bureaucracy exposes more waste but it doesn’t efect any change in behaviour at the USAID level….yet the solution is to get rid of the conter-bureaucracy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to get rid of USAID since it doesn’t seem to be able to change no matter what the oversight?

    Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Jeffrey Barnes wrote:

    Thank you Aidwatch for publicizing this important piece by Andrew Natsios. I strongly urge anyone who cares about the US’s role in promoting development to read the full paper. In fact, the counter bureaucracy does very little to expose or prevent waste or theft and does a lot to increase investment in “defensive management” by aid organizations that are more concerned about being compliant than actually achieving anything of value. The counter bureaucracy kills entrepreneuriship, risk taking and flexible approaches. It is the searchers’ nightmare. Natsios also makes some very important points about what passes for monitoring and evaluation that are very relevant to Aidwatch’s promotion of using real evidence to drive development investment. The counter bureaucracy is behind the current obsession with short term process indicators and arbitrary targets. Natsios should be congratulated for his willingness to speak these important truths.

    Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  5. An excellent summary of an excellent article. I have posted my own thoughts here.

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex B. Hill, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: The Wellington Dilemma […]

  2. […] of human nature). The idea of putting incentive in the prevention equation will definitively pleases some economists. Here are some more ideas based on the same principle that could be easily tested and may well […]

  3. […] messing up Africa, or so thinks Boubacar Boris Diop. Yves Gounin begs to differ. Laura Freschi comments on Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development, a recent essay critical of USAID’s […]

  4. […] messing up Africa, or so thinks Boubacar Boris Diop. Yves Gounin begs to differ. Laura Freschi comments on Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development, a recent essay critical of USAID’s […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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