The Harry Potter funds

16 Oct

I believe a good part of the European Social Funds (ESF) is successfully used for creating and maintaining a thriving industry of magical and obviously fake solutions. This is catastrophic not only when it comes to the spending efficiency of European public money but also for the credibility of European institutions. It gives populists and sociopaths such as Farage an easy argument against what I believe is the best thing that happened to Europe – the EU project.

Unfortunately, not just the ESF but most of the funds available for NGOs are based on the wrong assumption that ‘experts’ are able to predict the future and ‘good practices’/success can be copied and replicated. These funds I call: the Harry Potter Funds.

In the case of Eastern Europe most of these ‘experts’ are people that more or less share the same qualities, education and ideas as the people within the intergovernmental organisations, foundations and governments. They are all fluent in euronarnian jargon and have significant experience in being part of the show/circus around the European Funds. Conferences, reports, seminars, consultation with stakeholders, evaluation, trainings, field trips are part of their professional DNA. They all benefit (sometimes greatly) being part of the blessed individuals that fill airplane seats, hotels and conference rooms. A significant percentage of these people move from one intergovernmental institution to the other or switch forth and back between NGOs and these institutions.

Most of those that hold decision powers for distributing the funds do not have any hands on experience at the grassroots and know, at best, superficially the issues. That doesn’t stop them from proposing ‘solutions’. Unfortunately a very strong lip-service culture meant to please the authority makes it almost impossible to dismiss their solutions. The result is many moronic ideas at the core of calls of tens of millions of Euros. Money that end up with negative or no effect at the grassroots but with some grandiose speeches and reports presented during mostly useless but pompous and expensive conferences.

Success in the case of ‘experts’ receiving these funds depends often on their existing networks or ability to lobby/please as many donors/people in power positions as possible. The skills that they develop are rarely skills that are useful in designing or implementing successful projects in the most difficult communities. Writing applications that will score the highest and having the right connections matter a lot more than real experience making a difference in their respective fields. Relationships with people in power, paper production, number of speeches, trainings, certificates and conferences weight a lot more than the years spent in changing lives and helping directly the most vulnerable or the results.

Not once European Commission gave money to a government, a UN agency, to OSCE or to Council of Europe, institutions that charged a hefty administration fee and contracted the World Bank or a big consultancy that did the same before employing a big NGO that also took a slice of the funds before employing another one that finally employed people that work at grassroots. This type of practices is a direct result of a deeply flawed institutional culture and the’ skills’ I wrote about above.

People that do not play the game and dare to question the efficiency of projects and the fairy-tales described in the reports are seen as unwelcomed disruptors. The Eurocrats have well paid jobs and most are keen on having a comfortable life and not keen on taking risks or trying to change the world. The national bureaucrats also hate when somebody rocks the boat as that leads to problems in absorption of EU funds or penalties – things that are ‘deadly’ for their careers. ‘Experts’ hate to be challenged considering that they are vulnerable and that their livelihood depends on availability of Harry Potter type projects.

Spending the money and being covered by very clear indicators and outputs is what matters the most and not real change at the grassroots. That is the reason why a 500.000 EUR conference is always preferred to a 500.000 EUR invested in innovative but complex and rarely predictable projects meant to change to the better the situation of vulnerable communities. Decades and hundreds of millions spent on consultations, interviews, action groups, trainings, seminars, research, conferences and reports with often insignificant change at the grassroots resulted in a highly productive but toxic expertise that allows ‘specialists’ to rationalize the waste of EU money.

As long as people that produce papers and hot air are paid many times more than people that make a difference at the grassroots it is unlikely things will improve.

There are solutions but all these solutions will have to address the core of the problem: corrupt, weak or inept leadership and strong incentives to oppose any significant reform.

Sure there are exceptions but those are nothing but that – exceptions. There is a need of reports, conferences, consultations, trainings and field visits but those should represent a small percent of the way public money is spent. The majority of funding should make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged. And for now that is, again, just exceptional.

* I was part of these systems. I held senior management positions in the private sector, NGOs, government and intergovernmental organisations. All the organizational cultures are far from being the correct ones. The link between nepotism and corruption is highly disregarded in all of them. The high level of sociopathy among people in power and the absence or corruption of the mechanisms meant to ensure transparency and enforce the ethical and moral objectives of those organisations are among some of the worst problems. Lip-service disguised as diplomacy, fear of breaking the status quo, conformity and wrong incentives that encourage lying or long but ineffective work hours and not hard work and efficiency are all issues worth looking at.





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