Saturday, September 19, 2009

The (Failing) Performativity of Aid

In 1986 the University of Rhode Island (URI) and USAID started a coastal management development in program (CRMP) in three developing countries, Ecuador, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The leaders of this program from the URI, had just finished helping the State of Rhode Island develop its Coastal Management program. That program had been developed in response to the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act which called on, and funded, all coastal states to develop their own coastal management authorities.
The performativity of the CRMP lies in the way that it was implemented. In short their philosophy was: what works in the USA must work for Ecuador, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. In one of the many papers published from the activities of the CRMP, Stephen Olsen (1998), its director, stated

At the time the central ideas that had emerged from US experience were viewed as principles to be followed, not hypotheses to be tested and there was no consideration of either rigorously documenting baseline conditions as they existed when the pilots began or establishing control sites.

In other words, they didn't bother to understand the local conditions (the baseline), were supremely confident in their US experiences (principles vs. hypotheses), and set up no ways to measure if in fact they were making a difference (control sites). And all of this ironically is coming from a paper entitled A Learning Based Approach to Coastal Management.
To compound this the rest of the paper actually documents many of the difficulties they ran into in implementing the CRMP, I would argue precisely because of their cookie-cutter approach to the process, though the authors can never make themselves come to this conclusion. The best they could do was this line.

"Despite significant differences in management contexts the features of coastal management expressed by the hypotheses that underlie the US coastal management program were relevant and are believed to be critical to successes in the pilot countries."

Note how the paper retreated here, what were previously "principles" from US experience are now mere hypotheses, though thankful (was there ever any doubt?) they proved to be not only "revelant," but "critical." With this US paradigm securely in place, the problems in implementing the CRMP could not come from the now validated US principles/hypotheses, but instead from the usual culprits of any development project, namely corruption or a lack of "transparency," a "lack of capacity", and the absence of a concerned "constituency."
And so the CRMP performatively tried to turn US principles into Ecuadorian, Thai, and Sri Lankan reality. Small "successes" were made in this regard but generally speaking after 9 years work, not much sustainable fruit has been borne.

I'll leave it to you to decide if that is a good or a bad thing.


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