Samoa Post: End of semester observations

So I’ve been in Samoa for a semester now, working with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and getting things in order to do dissertation fieldwork. I’ll probably post again before the end of the year, but here are a few key themes that have emerged in conversation as I’ve developed relationships with my counterparts.

Disorganization is a two-way street. I hear a lot of development professionals talk about how disorganized governments in developing countries are. They’re not wrong, but I’ll also add that a notable amount of this disorganization is caused by the donor community itself. I’ve seen two things that drive this. Donors have a bad habit of coming up with a global policy, giving money to governments to develop domestic policies to address that global policy’s goals, then developing a new global policy a year or two later. This leads to duplication of efforts, since a domestic policy may only make it to the draft stage before the new international policy comes into effect, requiring the drafting of a new domestic policy. The second problem is that there’s always funding for drafting a new domestic policy, but matching support for implementation is harder to come by. What I’ve seen here is that a donor pays for the development of a domestic policy, then leaves it to the government to implement it (sans resources). Developing countries rely on aid dollars; if the donors don’t have a cohesive strategy or are changing course regularly, recipient governments will also lack a cohesive strategy and will be changing course regularly.

People generally know what they need. My colleagues in my ministry are competent. They developed an ICT sector plan that is solid, and if fully implemented would be good policy. If anyone wonders why the Chinese are making inroads with developing governments, from what I’ve seen it’s pretty simple: they listen to what the government wants, and they get it done. Huawei just installed a country-wide broadband cable and 4G network in Samoa, with testing beginning this month. Are there major political-economic strings attached to it? Absolutely. But in one fell swoop, Huawei just installed a piece of infrastructure that helps my ministry tick a bunch of boxes in its sector strategy. If you want beneficiary governments to like your aid strategy, help get them what they need to implement their sector strategies, along with the good-governance lectures.

People are generally competent. My counterparts are competent and hardworking. They take their jobs seriously. To the previous point, they know what they need to make their country work. To the point before that, many times they can’t do what they know they need to do because of the donor community’s lack of strategy and organization. Sure, at times the ministry could use an outside hand working through a policy problem. But so could a lot of developed countries (ahem, Eurozone economic spiral and U.S. Government shutdown).

These observations aren’t meant as a scolding. They’re derived from the first few months of getting to work closely with a variety of people in Samoa’s government, and the themes that come up in conversations with them during tea or over beers. They’re also not meant to denigrate the efforts of my colleagues here who work for the donor organizations; I’d venture to guess many of these observations are shared by them. While they’re perhaps self-evident, they’re also easy to forget during the grind of policy writing and project delivery. They’ll be what I’m meditating on though during Christmas break, while I charge my batteries in preparation for a busy couple months after we ring in the New Year!

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