Development Industry Fail

April 14, 2009

USA Today has a really frustrating story about the UN’s abusive misuse of USAID funds for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Basically, if you can think up a malicious way to screw up a development project, the UN probably did it. They built bridges that weren’t stable; “fixed” banks to make their basements leaky; and even siphoned funds into off-shore accounts.

USA Today includes a handy PDF of the USAID report.

For anyone who’s read James Ferguson’s classic The Anti-Politics Machine, this may all sound eerily familiar. Ferguson is a Cultural Anthropologist who teaches at Stanford. While the book is pretty heavy in the social theory department (if you don’t like Foucault, don’t even go there…), it chronicles how systematic failures occur as a consistent by-product of global governance and development organization interventions in the Global South.

This particular catastrophe is a totally different kind of failure than Ferguson talks about, but I think there’s a fantastic study to be done looking at how graft has become a systematic by-product of US interventions in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We’ve gotten accustomed to passing off this kind of thing as a symptom or consequence of the Bush administration, but the problem with that explanation is that the phenomenon has replicated across such different bureaucracies and contexts. This is not just a few bad apples, it’s a series of institutions that unintentionally –  but consistently – create opportunities for abuse.

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