The high cost of meddling

by Sasha Alyson

For a quarter of a century, U.N. agencies and foreign NGOs have said they’ll improve education in the global South. In that time, schools have gotten worse.

That isn’t in spite of these efforts; in large part it’s because of them. The outside agencies do not understand local conditions, they push local people aside, they focus on what donors want, even though it doesn’t work. Foreign donors call the shots.

The meddling isn’t merely ineffective. It does great harm. Here are a few ways that happens.

Pilot projects

Save the Children describes itself as the world’s leading independent organization for children. From 2013 to 2015, Save (as insiders call it) offered an inspiring, concrete example of its success:

Thanks to our long-term education work in partnership with the Government of Laos, everyone living in Bolikanh district can now read and write, increasing their ability to break the poverty cycle.”(1)

Everyone!? Rubbish. This absurd claim appeared on the main Education page of Save the Children International’s website, as the only specific example of their achievements in the education sector.

Then, in 2015, Save made this announcement about an adjacent province in Laos:

Save the Children Korea has provided support for a pilot project to enhance the literacy skills of early grade children in rural areas of Borikhamxay province. The financial support of over US $400,000 (more than 3.2 billion kip) has been given to Save the Children International in Laos to implement the Literacy Boost pilot project….

“It is expected that 1,600 Grade 1 to Grade 3 students… will benefit from the project…. Mr Franchi [Country Director of Save the Children] also expressed potential future support for the education sector in Laos, saying ‘if successful, the approach piloted in this project will be replicated in a number of provinces throughout the country.'”(2)

Despite Save’s declared success in one district, it was starting from scratch with a new pilot project, in an adjacent province. Why weren’t they replicating the magnificently successful project next door? Save did not address that question; the claim that “everyone living in Bolikanh district can now read and write” had disappeared from its website.

Money distracts. Money buys silence.

These pilot projects make no sense if you assume that INGOs want to use funds efficiently. It all snaps into focus after you look at the real motivations. A pilot project is new, so the cost is expected to be higher than for an ongoing program. While most of the money will go to pay foreign salaries, that still leaves plenty to spread around locally, and a strong organization knows how to spread it – not too much to any one individual, but always enough so that anyone who suspects this is a farce will find it profitable to keep silent.

Furthermore, it’s pleasant work for well-paid foreign staff. The travel and networking opportunities will come in handy when you’re ready to move on. The organization has announced a big budget, so everyone treats you with great respect. There are problems to solve, and sometimes that’s satisfying. Problems that are merely frustrating can be written up in the notes that you pass along to your successor – who will ignore them and start all over.


Pilot projects lead to another element of counter-productive aid: Churn. Most things become useful only after a long process of evolution. Wheeled vehicles, language, and hummingbirds all developed over eons, usually through small, incremental changes. It’s a slow process.

But donors don’t get excited about small, incremental changes. They’ve been told things are a mess; therefore it’s time for something big and transformative. They want to fund new programs, each arriving with a new staff and a budget big enough to draw everyone’s attention from whatever they were doing. These programs never have time to adapt into existing systems because the budget runs out, then someone else arrives with a new budget and a new transformative plan. Karma colonialism is about foreigners maintaining control. It leaves no room for people to work things out on their own.

The bystander effect

In Bangladesh, Save the Children’s evaluation monitored not just the Literacy Boost program, but also five literacy habits, such as having someone read a book to you. On all five habits, children in Literacy Boost showed fewer gains (or greater losses) than those not in it.(3) The authors of the report were puzzled by this.

Here’s a likely explanation. Psychologists refer to the bystander effect. If more people see a crime take place, each of them becomes less likely to do something. A similar shift in responsibility takes place when an expert is involved. If you come upon an overturned car on a rural road, wheels still spinning, probably you’ll go see if someone inside needs help. If an ambulance arrives right then, you’ll step aside and do nothing, confident that the experts can handle it better.

Save the Children arrives, claiming to be the expert. At that point, others may well do less. They weren’t sure what to do anyway. Save the Children had noted in the same report that “children naturally view learning to read as an activity that takes place primarily in the community and with their family members.” Anything that discourages family and community involvement is likely to hurt literacy.

Talk is cheap. Research conducted by Save the Children itself found that a Literacy Boost program had a harmful effect on outside reading habits. But it didn’t broadcast that particular finding. Instead, in a brochure for philanthropists, it claims precisely the opposite.

Notes and Sources

Top cartoon: Artwork by Chittakone Vilayphong, text by the author.

1. Website of Save the Children International, 3 March, 2015. At that time, the “everyone can read” claim had been there for about two years. Six months later it was gone but the passage we quote can still be seen on the Web Archive.

2. News release from Save the Children. Save the Children’s report on this pilot project states that: “Nearly half of the provinces [in Laos] have a lower completion rate than the average for the country.” Of course they do! Typically, about half of anything will be below average, half will be above. But Save the Children must scrape up a reason to meddle. Half the provinces need assistance, the data proves it! (To download the report, click here.)

3. Literacy Boost Bangladesh, Endline Report, May 2013, from Save the Children, page 37. (Clicking this link will cause the report to download.)

4. “Talk is Cheap” photo from: Power of Philanthropy: Investing in Literacy Boost for Vulnerable Youth. Save the Children, USA. Undated. (Clicking this link will cause the PDF to download.)

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