Sign in Venice tube / Cory Doctorow

April 22, 2016; CNBC

News emerged in April that Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o is partnering with popular Kenyan pop musicians Sauti Sol and Kenyan radio personality Caroline Muthoko in an anti-poaching campaign by the African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid. While laudable, and a certain magnet for high-level international attention, celebrity crusades like these tend to mask the real workings of international development and the resources that drive it.

According to a new report by the Rainforest Foundation on biodiversity in the Congo Basin, there isn’t enough to show for “the millions of dollars in international support spent on conservation efforts…. [B]iodiversity continues to dwindle and hardly any funds go toward actually protecting the rainforest.” The report and this article that accompanied its launch restate one of the oldest paradoxes of development, which centers on the balance between inputs and outputs, broadly defined, and raise some important issues.

This question is all the more poignant as international aid continues to dwindle in an era where nations increasingly resort to austerity. Contrary to popular perceptions, aid is not just money. In a 2013 CNN opinion piece, Charles Lwanga Ntale, director of Africa for Development Initiatives, wrote that poverty reduction aid “includes a wide variety of things, including food and commodities, advice and training, and debt relief. It is unclear how much of all this goes toward aid management or how this is calculated against the total amount.

Aid is not transferred unilaterally from donor to recipient, which makes its movement hard to follow. Moreover, information is not available from a single source. Different types of aid are measured differently by different sources, which use different labels that blur the linkages among them. Of what does constitute money, not only do significant amounts of aid not leave donor countries, but a comparable amount finds its way back to its source through various means, including expatriate salaries and taxes.

Demands for impact have intensified in recent years with the global financial crisis. It’s easy to build boreholes and roads in needy communities, yet many of the world’s most pressing development challenges, like conflict and terrorism, are too complex to solve in the short term. Progress is rarely linear, and development projects can and often do suffer periodic setbacks occasioned by factors like epidemics and inadequate buy-in from beneficiary communities. This latter fact can be the result of aid not reaching those who need it the most—whether it’s civil society organizations working in remote communities or community members themselves.

Whether impelled by cultural misperceptions or urgency to achieve results quickly, the aggressive approaches to community engagement described in the Rainforest Foundation’s report are clearly counterproductive, yet not uncommon. Much of this is exacerbated by tensions between the actual constituencies and “marketed” constituencies of local and international development advocates, and multilayered disconnects between and among them. What’s needed to prevent such occurrences is sufficient pre-intervention and continual consultation to determine local priorities, understand local contexts, and design appropriate engagement modalities that create impact without alienating or antagonizing those who stand to benefit most.

Repeated calls for greater global transparency and accountability in aid management are pertinent, but will require a targeted campaign if they are to create any lasting change.—Titilope Ajayi