The shadow government

by Sasha Alyson

“When discussing programmes and services within a child and family welfare case management system, it is important to consider the totality of programmes and services in place that offer protective and preventative responses to abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence….”

HEY! WAKE UP! That’s just the opening sentence of today’s report, there are 68 pages in all. But if you do fall asleep, you won’t be the only one. In fact, I suspect not a soul on this planet has read the entire thing – not even the proofreader. (We’ll get to that later.)

This gobbledy-gook appears in a report titled Assessment of case management systems for improved access to basic social services for vulnerable children and adolescents in Zambia. It offers a dull yet crisp example of karma colonialism in action.


The Assessment (for short) is one of many reports I’ve come across where it is clear that UNICEF was calling the shots, decided what needed attention, got a report written, arranged funding (in this case from USAID), then turned over the ready-to-print files to a government agency which slapped its name on the cover. This gives the impression that the government is running the country, when actually, in this case at least, it’s just following the priorities and publishing the opinions of U.N. agencies and foreign NGOs. UNICEF contributes to the deception. It makes the report available on its website, where it says “Author: The Government of the Republic of Zambia Ministry of Community Development and Social Services.”

Skeptical? Let’s take a closer look at this particular example.

The copyright page states that the report was “Prepared for the Government of Zambia by the Economic Policy Research Institute (EPRI), with support from UNICEF and USAID.” EPRI says that it is “committed to pro-poor, equitable and inclusive economic growth and social protection for vulnerable people as a developmental response to poverty.” Sounds good – until you try to figure out if it means anything.

EPRI has offices in Thailand, South Africa, Ethiopia, Belgium, and the United States; not in Zambia. It is one of numerous agencies and think-tanks that feed off the aid industry. Well-connected Western insiders get contracts from USAID, the EU, etc., to write reports, hold workshops, run projects, and fly to conferences.

This Facebook screenshot confirms that EPRI does nurture those aid-industry contacts, even if it’s weak about attention to detail. EPRI posted an identical announcement 22 times in a row on its Facebook page.

Local people in the countries “served” see the money flowing to wealthy Westerners who repeatedly demonstrate their clueless ineptitude, and wonder “We could do better, for much less, why don’t they hire any of us?” The short, honest answer is: Because you’re not part of the club.

The writing is pure bureaucratese. Sometimes it seems like a bad parody of bureaucratese. Here’s another sample:

“The vast majority of interviewed case management actors perceive that the frequency of referrals between partners is generally high and has been improving, particularly through the strengthening of bodies like the DCPC; this assessment cannot substantiate this perception through comparing numbers of referrals over the years.”

No more samples, I promise. It hurts my feelings to see readers running away.

Even complex ideas can usually be expressed in clear, everyday language, and there was nothing complex in the pages I read. (Which, I admit, wasn’t all of them.) I copied the first paragraph into a site that evaluates reading difficulty of text. It said:

Your text has an average grade level of about 22. Ooh, that’s probably a bit too complicated. Have you thought about using smaller words and shorter sentences?

And that comment assumes the text was written for native English speakers. Only about 2% of Zambia’s population speaks English as a first language. Education is weak. If you’re writing English-language reports for this population, it’s sheer, self-absorbed idiocy to write at a post-graduate level. But that’s what EPRI and its unnamed writers did; then USAID and UNICEF funded it. Did anyone think about this?

Not a single Zambian photographer is represented in the report; all photographs are the work of a South African woman who frequently handles UNICEF assignments. From her photo and name, she appears to be of European ancestry. I dislike categorizing people by ancestry, but given all that Europeans and their descendants have done to, and taken from, Africa over the centuries, my humble opinion is that UNICEF and EPRI should have used a Zambian photographer for a Zambian report funded by money that was supposed to benefit Zambia.

The report is typical of those that fill shelves in U.N. offices. It includes the now-standard two-page guide to “Acronyms and Abbreviations.” UNICEF always notes that it works closely with its government partners, so a couple of local officials add a short introductory note and sign it with a flourish. The actual authors are never named.

Later is a “Theory of Change” chart. This represents a current fad within the aid industry. As a growing number of people point out that foreign aid undermines the very societies it claims to help, the industry scrambles to show that it’s got some great new ideas. Proposing a “Theory of Change” is intended to buy another five years of meddling time, at which point they’ll find a new way to postpone any actual accountability. Here’s the Theory of Change chart:

Three Western-run aid agencies -- Unicef, USAID, and the Economic Policy Research Institute  (EPRI) -- produced a report for the government of Zambia to publish under its name. Is there a problem with this?

Do you reckon that will fix things?

It’s usually hard to prove that a document was produced under UNICEF control, then published under the government’s name. But in this case UNICEF left a fingerprint:

This internal note obviously should have been removed before publication but it looks like the proofreader slept through this section. Who can blame them? So here we have it in writing: UNICEF even wanted to control what type font was used.

The government merely had to publish it under its own name. Why would the government of Zambia go along with being treated like a puppet? For the same reason that many others do: The perks are good. Wherever it goes, the aid industry must get official permission to operate, and thinly-disguised bribes win a warm welcome. In another story, I’ve told how the UNICEF office in Zambia gave 78 motorbikes to the education ministry… to improve monitoring of education progress.

Is all this a problem?

Some may believe it’s wonderful that UNICEF is so helpful. I believe this illustrates several big problems.

First, UNICEF clearly thinks that Zambians are not capable of figuring out how to improve social systems in their own country. It didn’t even trust them to decide what type font to use. So it found others to do it. What does all this tell us about UNICEF?

Second, let’s note that UNICEF is often wrong. Very often. On education, for a quarter century, UNICEF has led the U.N. push to get more children enrolled in school while ignoring whether they learn anything. That’s been a disaster. Lately, it sometimes admits this isn’t working, then it goes right back to pushing it again, because that’s what Western donors have been trained to support. Do you really want UNICEF behind the scenes, running your government in whatever way pleases its foreign donors?

Third, every government needs to develop its capabilities to manage, to make decisions and set priorities, to gather and share information, to fix problems. It won’t do that if UNICEF gives it a neat package, ready to be signed off on.

Zambians, if they’ve been shut out of policymaking in their own country, might indeed do a weak job their first time — though it’s hard to see how they could do worse than a report written by non-Zambians who couldn’t even figure out that their recommendations should be readable. Had Zambians done it, they would be around later to see what worked and what didn’t. They would develop the abilities, if they had space to do so. UNICEF is not giving them an inch.

This is the aid industry at work. It needs to be needed – or at least, it must convince the world that it’s needed. It cannot imagine a world in which developing countries are finding their own way and their own solutions. It does not want such a world. It certainly is not trying to create such a world.

In short

Europeans and their descendants make money for themselves by running the affairs of people in Africa, whom they choose to believe are unable to do anything – even picking a type font – for themselves. They are weakening they country they claim to be saving.

That sounds suspiciously like colonialism.

But this time they’re not using guns. They are nice. They even give motorbikes to government officials who cooperate.

Now it’s colonialism with a veneer of good karma.

Notes and Sources

Assessment of case management systems for improved access to basic social services for vulnerable children and adolescents in Zambia, 2019, published by — well, hard to say, really. (The UNICEF website gives the date as 2018, but the report that downloads from that page says 2019.) All three text samples, including the one in the top illustration, are taken verbatim from the report.

EPRI Facebook screenshot was made on on 22 May 2020

Reading difficulty. This score was generated by the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale. I tried two other passages; they came in at grade 22 and grade 25 levels.

Follow-up

When I posted this, UNICEF’s website said the government agency was the author. The story generated considerable attention within certain Zambian circles, and within days UNICEF’s page had changed. Here are before and after screenshots:

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