There are seminars you attend and you leave both depressed and inspired. Last week, I attended a seminar on the rules of the game - how things really work not how they are supposed to work - governing two sectors in an African country: forestry and wild life management. As with any kind of gritty political economy analysis, you learn how corruption networks work in a particular context, how they reach to the very top, and how intractable they are.
To cut a long story short, this is an aid-dependent country so badly governed it is losing more in tax revenue to corruption than what donors contribute directly to its budget... good old budget support. As one of the experts presenting the case studies pointed out: donors are in effect subsidizing corruption. With donors contributing a huge percentage of the country's budget every year, the leaders of the country can concentrate on corrupt enrichment.Not only that, the leaders block all attempts at reform. Well, so far so depressingly familiar.
What struck and encouraged me was the solution the technical experts offered.: collective action by citizens, citizen monitoring and pressure for accountability. Newspapers are important because they keep the stories of bad governance alive, but media ownership came up as an issue.
So, why are donors not supporting the capacity of citizens in such environments to engage in effective collective action? The following answer is what came: donors don't support collective action because donors are too short term. Donors come and go and want quick results. Collective action needs patience. It is long-term work.
There you have it. You attend a seminar on forestry and wild life management and what do you find? The truth that you need collective action by citizens to overcome the networks of corruption that undermine development...even when donors are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a country every year.
A good two-part article that captures good international experiences regarding engaging citizens in natural resource decisions can be found here: 'Governing Nature, Governing Ourselves: Engaging Citizens in Natural Resource Decisions' by Matthew McKinney and Will Harmon in the International Journal of Public Participation.
Photo credit: Flickr user Martin_Heigan