Friday, September 17, 2004

The nature of demining operations: foreign aid

This post (one of a series) will concentrate on the big picture issues of demining operations at a national level. First of all, demining is mainly funded through foreign aid. And, this foreign aid is often channeled through national governments. For example, the U.S. is a very large funder of demining efforts through the State Department (and USAID). Maybe this offsets the U.S. Defense Department's lack of willingness to sign onto the international treaty banning landmines.

Let's say the State Department gives your government two million dollars to spend on demining. What do you spend it on? Paying salaries of demobilized soldiers and rebels? Or, do you buy expensive technology solutions? Answer: you generally use it to pay staff and then buy what you have to in order to equip those folks. It has been noted to me on multiple occasions that demining is a critical jobs program in post-conflict countries. Demining pays well and carries some social credibility. It's dangerous, but not as dangerous as the war was. These jobs are often in high demand.

Most foreign aid doesn't some in the form of cash: it comes in the form of in-kind support. In-kind support means that the government of country X is happy to give you a million dollars, as long as that million dollars is paying for products made in country X, and comes with some strings. So, you're likely to get trucks and vehicles, as long as you agree you won't source trucks from some other country. You can get mine sniffing dogs, as long as you agree not to breed them and maybe not to take dogs from another country. These strings can often restrict what you do, and they often don't pay your staff.

Other commentators have talked about the distortions of foreign aid on countries. I recently read an excellent book called "The Road to Hell" on the impact of aid, mainly food aid, on destabilizing Somalia. My impression is that foreign aid's overall impact on demining is positive, but it is a force to be reckoned with. It does mean that demining can often be driven by priorities in addition to the core mission of removing mines.

People respond to incentives as well, and this impacts foreign aid and the philanthropic funding of demining. Funding for demining is going down in many of these countries. Donors are shifting priorities, Princess Diana is gone, the conflicts are receding into the past even as mines make their impact known into the present. The incentives mean that some groups exaggerate the mine problem by overstating the challenges. For example, some of Benetech's early writings on this project talked about the 1000 year time period it would take to clear all of the world's mines. As we met more demining groups, we realized that this hyperbolic statement (which we had picked up from another source) overstated the problem. The problem is still bad, and mines still need to be countered and removed, but overstating the problem consistently will create problems. The most responsible groups we have talked to have been clear about the difficulty of assessing mine issues in terms of simple metrics. Mine injuries and deaths are relatively easy to count, but you would like to measure demining by other measures. For example, if mines are no longer being deployed in a country, you'd expect injuries and deaths to decrease over time even if you did very little demining.

If you reward groups with more money using certain measures, you create the incentive for those groups to deliver higher numbers, whether or not these numbers represent reality. If groups are competing on numbers that are difficult to measure, the definitions might shift or be exaggerated. Measurement of social results is often difficult. The increased funding pressure does have positive impacts on people looking at new ways to help deminers. Deminers are trying to do more demining with less money, and that creates the opening to develop tools that help them do that.

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