Naomi Roht-Arriaza on Foreign-Aid Protections

Published on: Author: David Takacs

The United States remains the world’s largest foreign-aid donor yet lacks a coordinated system of guidelines and protections to ensure that the aid does more good than harm. Professor Naomi Roht-Arriaza investigates this problem in “Safeguarding Development: Risk Reduction in U.S. Government Foreign Aid and Investment Facilitation Beyond the Current Patchwork,” a new paper published in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

Poorly conceived aid projects can and do destroy lives and livelihoods. Bureaucrats in Washington D.C. will decide that a community in the global South must be lifted out of poverty, and they will thus build a new dam, install electric power, help farmers grow a novel export crop…whether or not the local people ever wanted these projects in the first place. Having worked in international development in West Africa, I have seen firsthand (and, alas, contributed to) the havoc even well-intentioned projects can wreak.

Well-designed, carefully implemented social and environmental safeguards may ensure that projects funded by the U.S. government do not erode human rights or produce environmental damage. Such safeguards should be designed to minimize, mitigate, and monitor projects in foreign communities. As Professor Roht-Arriaza summarizes it, “[f]rom the perspective of affected communities, [safeguards] can avoid a slide into destitution, social disintegration, out-migration and violence. From the perspective of the financers and donors, they can avoid harms to reputation and wasted resources, and allow for timely course-corrections.” Professor Roht-Arriaza details the confusing maze of obligations (some of which are not obligatory at all) operating across U.S. agencies and the many ways that poorly designed or implemented standards undermine the goals that these agencies seek to achieve. One comes away from this article surprised that the billions of dollars of foreign aid we provide ever does more good than harm.

In one case study, Professor Roht-Arriaza describes “Power Africa,” a partnership of multiple actors (U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, private donors, the EU, and many others) that aims to double the number of citizens in Sub-Saharan Africa who have access to electric power. The donors have conflicting, overlapping safeguard protocols (and some have none at all), creating, unsurprisingly, a dysfunctional mess. As a result, the initiative has been hobbled due to inadequate consultation with local people (a frequent shortcoming in top-down aid projects), insufficient attention to local property rights (ditto), inattention to gender inequities (ditto again), and more. As complaints grew, project managers instituted a review process (to be completed in Northern capitals, rather than through site visits to affected communities) to include “displacement and relocation of population, land tenure status, biological and emissions impacts, and social/cultural/political/economic considerations, including the risk of investing in the country at all.” These reviews were implemented after the projects were imposed and still prompt confusion over who has to do what in which agency when.

Professor Roht-Arriaza bravely attempts to map the disparate safeguards of U.S. agencies, and finds (1) “inconsistency is the constant,” (2) agencies interpret and implement specific safeguards inconsistently, (3) agency leaders and staff are ill-equipped to apply (or not interested in applying) safeguards diligently, (4) staff and subcontractors will often simply check the appropriate boxes without actually doing anything, and (5) very little reform results from reported safeguard failures.

Professor Roht-Arriaza notes that the current Administration is rethinking its approach to foreign aid, and Congress increasingly monitors how the money it budgets is spent. With “increasing worries that U.S. policy will favor unbridled resource extraction,” the time is ripe to improve safeguards. Professor Roht-Arriaza suggests that researchers should find best practices from multiple agencies to create a minimum standard that would protect human and nonhuman communities, specify agency roles and responsibilities, create a core set of requirements for consulting with affected communities, and establish clear monitoring and grievance procedures. Given the heterogeneity of agencies’ cultures and missions, each could develop a specific protocol for implementing core safeguards for the specific kinds of projects they fund.

She concludes: “It will take an inclusive, imaginative and politically savvy process, with both Congressional and Executive branch buy-in, to move forward, but it can and must be done in order to ensure that our foreign aid dollars are spent effectively, development goals are achieved, and human rights respected.” Given the well-known, frequent failures of international-aid projects, it’s baffling that Professor Roht-Arriaza’s sensible ideas were not implemented decades ago.