Saturday, October 11, 2014

The case of the $6.7 million phantom cocoa improvement project, part IV

At last I am returning to the story of Action Aid Australia’s  $6.7 million EDFF project in 2009 called Improving Competitiveness of Aceh Cocoa Value Chain to Increase Farmers Income, Create Jobs and Alleviate Poverty, and their local implementing partner, Keumang Foundation, and how through a series of investigations worthy of an Indonesian version of Inspector Clouseau we discovered that the project never existed. 

I spoke of my emails to AAA, the documents they sent me indicating that they had never completed the project or done a follow-up, and that great chunks of the project that had been paid for up front were scrapped due to the “realization” after the fact that those components were never feasible.  And these were only the parts that were available through the incomplete document—the complete one, with financials, having been sent to the World Bank (we assumed).

You must go back and read my August 28 post; it really is a corker.

So the next thing we did, simultaneously, was scour the countryside for the implementing partner (Keumang) and contact AAA’s US headquarters, since they had disappeared from Indonesia.

What JMD staff on the ground found out about Keumang was that it wasn’t ever really a sustainable livelihoods agency; rather, it was a group of data collectors and participatory rural appraisers who had just finished a project for the Australian government’s agriculture research department called “Integrated soil and crop management for rehabilitation of vegetable production in the tsunami-affected areas of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province, Indonesia.”

Apparently they had performed adequately, and the 300+ page report states that they were in charge of basically getting the farmers together and helping the agency administer surveys. 
It may have been merely a case of biting off more than they could chew, but no RFP ever went out, so AAA probably just used them on the recommendation of this project, which was about the most lunkheaded thing I can think of to do, since what AAA was proposing was worlds away from community surveys: it was construction, fleet procurement, logistics, investment banking, training, co-op development, value chain improvement, actual agricultural knowledge . . . I have to lie down just thinking about what a bunch of geniuses this group was. 

But soon, as the final cocoa improvement report hints, AAA’s international people realized that they were being used by this sneaky faux-NGO, or else they just did not know how to control this big of a project with this incompetent a local partner, and so they justified all over the place as to why they had to spend the money the way they did.

Meanwhile, after I was taken off “hold” at AAA’s US headquarters, I was told that yes, indeed, they no longer had a presence in Indonesia, but that one of their Pacific representatives would get back to me.
Twice I called, and twice received the same message.
No one has any intention of getting back to me.

The representative who had returned my emails in 2013 (who had forwarded me the “final” 2010 report) had asked that we not use any of this information publically without contacting them.  Believe me, I tried.

What I wrote and asked her was what she thought of JMD performing the final program evaluation that AAA could not do because of the disappearance/demise of Keumang. World Bank blacklisted/suspended them in October 2013, at which point we fund out that they were NOT a local agency but ANOTHER international NGO (from Sri Lanka) posing as Acehnese.  Nice work!).

It was clear at this point that AAA had washed its hands of Aceh and cocoa farming assistance, that no one was going to return any of that $6.7 million that was unspent, and that the only positive thing to do was to perform a post-project evaluation of the whole thing, which we were certain World Bank would love, and which the Provincial government would thank us for.  After all, weren’t bureaucracies always mad for those “lessons learned” documents that showed how to yank victory from the jaws of defeat?

Besides, by conducting this evaluation, JMD could do two important things: 1) learn a lot about the area in which it wanted to expand in terms of farmer assistance, and 2) network with communities that had been severely burned by this project, in order to re-establish their faith in civil society and non-profit assistance.  So we asked AAA if it would mind if we looked for additional funding to conduct this evaluation based on the report document we had.

I know you think you know what comes next, but you will be very surprised to learn just how convoluted things get, especially when this project that never existed refused to die even in the minds and on the books of Aceh government officials who still believe that it exists, much like the tooth fairy or Santa.   

More to come!

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