The Mountain Boy and The Foreign Aid Circus

The Mountain Boy and The Foreign Aid Circus
 By Claude W Bobillier(2015); Vajra Books, Kathmandu

April 14, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.09, No 18, April 1,2016 (Chaitra 19, 2072)

I asked myself why this title? The back page said it all adequately: and it served as an appetizer causing me to lay my hands on the book and review it. Because I, too, subscribe to the position that foreign aid has failed us by adopting development models that are largely inappropriate for our place and time and seem as if they have been designed in Washington DC to serve the interests of industrial nations.
The most glaring example was when we were ' forced ', as it were, to adopt liberalization, privatization and structural adjustment, pursued relentlessly since 1990.When the Maoists  withdrew from the parliamentary system and declared war on the state in 1996,the proponents of 'structural adjustment completely ignored the vital need to, then onwards, incorporate internal and external security--national security-- into the development paradigm.It needs to be emphasized that privatization gave rise to unprecedented political corruption with the sale of the state's assets, which further fuelled Maoism.  Worse: it reduced national think tanks into contract research centers doing their bidding and sapped the national capacity for creativity and innovation within the fragile bureaucracy by making it a dependent aid fiefdom.

 Furthermore, the top-down project and program interventions drawn up by external consultants without the participation of the executives concerned, thus reducing  the target groups  to objects rather than subjects were, more often than not, the root cause of aid failure.All this project designing totally ignored the gross instability in the bureaucracy, as it was commonplace that a project was drawn up at one time and then, when finalized, was  executed by  another short-term bureaucrat with no idea of the how and why of the process. The best example that comes to mind is the $ 3 million financial manuals designed for Nepal Electricity Authority landing up in the waste paper basket, so to speak.
The author of this book, Claude Bobillier, was born in the Swiss Alps but never felt at home there. He left for New Zealand where he spent time as a young adult struggling in life, to be rewarded eventually by a doctorate from London and a career in the field of education and human development. And here is the punch line: he served twenty-seven years working in thirty different countries in Asia and Africa advising "corrupt and incompetent governments and arrogant western aid bureaucracies" which have permitted him to "witness first-hand the scandals and failures of foreign aid". I thought to myself that 30 countries in 27years is a veritable kaleidoscope of technical development assistance-- hence the reference to circus? One can't help stress here how a Nordic country working in Bangladesh, assisting in the education sectors for mass education, chose to ignore reports from its own expert that most of the $ 60 million invested in the project was being siphoned off for personal use. Details of the embezzlement were ignored by the donor!

Dr. Bobillier also cites the case of Cambodia where the Khmer Project Director recruited an incompetent Indian consultant in exchange for a share of his salary!

He visualizes Nepal as a failed state after decades of development. The failure is accounted for by lack of political will and vision; as well as incompetence. Connivance with donors who wished to put into effect their pet projects was quite prevalent and the civil service cadres were mere passive recipients. He also witnessed NGOs run by family members of ministers and other political leaders. No wonder, NGOs in Nepal as in other developing countries are no more than quasi NGOs (QuaNGOs) or PONGOs -- politically owned NGOs.

This is a very readable, compact book of 147 pages. There's a foreword by Greta Rana who thinks that Bobillier's book provides a much needed frank, frontal assault on foreign aid. Yes, Graham Hancock's ' Lords of Poverty' gave us much food for thought, she remarks, but it lacked ' a requisite passion', she feels Claude Bobillier offers this passion in his book. Her own book, 'Guests in This Country', is a jolly satire on aid and aiders based on life in Laos, Afghanistan and Nepal.

In Africa Dr. Bobillier worked in Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Gambia, Senegal, Tanzania, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Togo. In Asia he served in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, The Philippines, India, and New Zealand; and in Europe, Switzerland and UK.

The book is an autobiographical memoir that straddles his childhood; reminiscences drawn from his native Switzerland during WW II when Switzerland “displayed many of the characteristics of an underdeveloped country". We get to appreciate the hardships and challenges at home and in his village and the defects in the education system, which led him to his passion to change society, especially the education sector; and to help the poor, the underprivileged and the socially oppressed. His PhD was in education sociology.

The significant lesson from Africa is that, without the emancipation of women, no country will be able to eradicate poverty and enjoy political stability and socio economic transformation. He found African society deeply patriarchal with men refusing to allow projects to empower women, including girls.

He insists that the term 'foreign aid' should be changed to ' mutual cooperation' to introduce a sense of partnership and to examine past assumptions in order to develop a new mindset. He calls for gradual abandonment of government-to-government aid to 'direct aid' to NGOs and local communities.

Here I would prefer even more 'direct aid' by depositing the money due to the beneficiaries into their own bank accounts leaving them to choose which schools to send their children to, or which health providers to use, so that development is turned around to being demand led rather than supply led within a regime of markets and competition amongst suppliers to honor consumer choice.

I had propounded this as early as 1985 in a seminar about alternative models of development after Nepal initiated liberalization in 1982. Now with banking expanded and with mobile banking to boot it is a desirable necessity for the financial inclusion of the poor as India under PM Modi has demonstrated successfully.

Interestingly, the author admires the phenomenal development achievements of his native country, Switzerland. Nevertheless, he shows greater preference for his second home country, New Zealand, as the model country for the world to emulate on account of its egalitarianism and fairness.

Switzerland he feels needs to face up to the ugly realities of its banking sector along with anti poor policies by food corporations like Nestle, as well as chemical corporations. I fully agree with him regarding the arrogance and suspicion of foreigners amidst the Swiss. This is the impression I had when I lived 2 years as a graduate student in Geneva University although, fortunately, I had much access to Swiss families and felt welcome always.

I have a deep yearning to visit New Zealand and, after reading Claude's impression of the country, it remains a lifetime dream for myself. I would tend to share his observations of New Zealanders from the many contacts with them in my student days in Switzerland, the UK and Canada as well as from its espousal of a more compassionate capitalism emanating from the exemplary economic reforms in that country.

Effective local governments and the dire necessity of political decentralization to bring about development participation are wonderful lessons we can draw from Switzerland. However, we also learn from New Zealand how under a unitary system of government we can have similar decentralization benefits albeit by relying on markets as avenues of change and development. If he prefers the New Zealand model over the Swiss model perhaps it is because of the arrogance, greed and rapacity in Switzerland compared to New Zealand.

 Of course neither are perfect states he says. To be perfect, he asserts, one needs to develop our societies with values such as fairness, solidarity, compassion and tolerance.

 Not all aid fails. Projects run in true partnership with women's groups, genuine NGOs, associations and user groups tend to succeed as they seek self reliance amongst the beneficiaries. South India's Rishi Valley Educational Centre (RVEC) is cited as a model project with magnificent success. It has succeeded in showing the world how learning can be fulfilling and transformational and a joy as well as an effective tool for poverty eradication.

The author also cites the women's associations of Senegal and Burkina Faso as success cases in informal, formal and non-formal education. They made illiterate women into an 'un-stoppable force' of development. Similar things have happened with Nepal Mothers' Clubs and User Groups, which were indigenous organizational and social innovations.

Rana is a former finance Minister 

Madhukar Sumsher.jpg

Prof. Madhukar SJB Rana

Executive Director, SAIM Leadership & Executive Development Center and Former Finance Minister . He can be reached at

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