Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Creating Effective Assistance Programs for Poor Countries

Funding for technical assistance, particularly in the ever-controversial area of international trade, continues to grow. Every year, both the World Trade Organization and individual member states spend millions of dollars funding technical assistance programs in the developing world. The goal of these programs is to assist developing countries in building the legal infrastructure and institutional capacity to export their goods and services effectively and to attract foreign investment in order to support their development objectives.
In my last post, I asked whether trade-related technical assistance can help poor countries develop. Ultimately, I believe that it can—with some limitations. Assistance will never propel poor countries to prosperity, but it can become a stepping stone to greater participation in world trade. If will managed, trade can lead to greater wealth; it certainly has done so far a number of countries, including China and the “Asian Tigers.”
But some have dismissed technical assistance as a “joke.” Stories of waste, graft, ineptitude or just plain stupidity abound in the technical assistance world (see, for example, Matt Bivens’ article, Aboard the Gravy Train: In Kazakhstan, the Farce That Is U.S. Foreign Aid, in which one assistance provider allegedly took off his swim shorts to give them to a government official who expressed an interest in them; the provider feared if he didn’t keep the official happy, he might not get a renewal of his USAID-funded project). In his book Globalization and its Discontents, one of the most distinguished critics of technical assistance programs, Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, decries the heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach of the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, Amy Chua’s World on Fire highlights the dangers of technical assistance projects that export U.S.-style free markets and democracy to developing countries without the legal and regulatory mechanism to protect against a “market-dominant minority” hijacking the bulk of economic activity.
The technical assistance programs described by Bivens, Stiglitz, Chua and others clearly fall within the bounds of “what not to do”. But technical assistance itself is not a dirty word. As I mentioned in my previous post, to be effective, however, technical assistance must meet certain criteria: (1) Individual projects must have “buy-in” from the recipient country; (2) Assistance providers would do well to remember the human emotions—suspicion and fear on the part of recipient countries must be addressed (“why are they here? What do the really want?”); and (3) Neither recipients nor beneficiaries should offer up more than they can afford to give away (i.e., don’t take your pants off for anyone—literally or figuratively).
In this post, I want to explore other models of assistance that work in partnership with developing countries to achieve goals and objectives identified by the recipients rather than imposed by the donors. Specifically, partnerships between developing countries and universities in the developed world hold out much promise as an effective model for providing technical assistance training. Because many of the trade-related technical assistance projects focus on building a legal infrastructure for development, partnerships between laws schools and beneficiary countries look to be particularly promising.
The World Trade Organization has recently adopted programs that foster such partnerships. In Africa, the WTO works in partnership with local universities to deliver training programs throughout the Continent. Faculty members from the region co-teach some of the courses with WTO personnel. And the WTO is committed to working with local universities to build their capacity in trade law; the universities are expected to play a lead role in course delivery in the future. The promise of these programs is that when technical assistance providers leave, there will be a cadre of educated professionals in the beneficiary country ready, willing and able to “do for themselves.”
In many ways the WTO model offers the perfect opportunity for U.S. law schools. U.S. academic institutions can provide for faculty and student exchanges as well as long-term advanced legal training, thus increasing the pool of local experts and broadening the depth of institutional expertise. U.S. law schools and universities have the comparative advantage in building knowledge, and I believe more of them should get involved in technical assistance projects.
Technical assistance is no joke but a very serious business. If done well, it provides a real opportunity for poor countries to make progress.

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