Is it time to pull the plug on AID?
Even in the depths of the current recession, no mainstream British political party has suggested that International Aid will be cut. As the Independent recently reported, DFID is seen as untouchable with a budget now touching £8billion per year. There have always been dissenting voices on aid but they are now finding new and diversified strength. Rwanda, a country heavily dependent on aid has become a source of criticism both from President Paul Kagame who praises the no-strings attached infrastructure investments of the Chinese (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8301826.stm ) , and from Paul Rusesabagina (of Hotel Rwanda fame) who lambasts western governments (particularly the British) for continuing to pour in aid whilst turning a blind eye to the corrupt excesses and territorial ambitions of the Kagame government (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/ian-birrell-why-are-repressive-regimes-given-the-succour-of-british-aid-1788507.html .
I agree with both Kagame and Rusesabagina. It is time to question the mantra of ‘more and better aid’. The UK Department of International Development spends increasing resources on cajoling a marginally interested public to develop an understanding of global development (under the banner of development awareness) but we are in danger of seeing only the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ .
Another prominent critic of aid, Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, in her book ‘Dead Aid’ blames aid for the dependency and corruption of African states and sees salvation in capital markets and microfinance and NGOs. Yet her analysis doesn’t really offer anything new. It is well known within the aid industry that aid is problematic and such ‘solutions’ have been the battle cry for 20 years of neo-liberal aid conditionalities. Whilst she makes some very good points concerning the crisis of African governance and aid’s role in fostering dependency and feeding the elites, she does read as something of an apologist for her mentor, Paul Collier.
Jonathan Glennies’ ‘The trouble with aid’ offers a more nuanced account tracking both the positive and negative impacts of aid. He counts the positive direct impacts often aligned with MDG targets as the increase in numbers of children accessing school. But he also charts the indirect impact of aid such as the conditionalities that force poor economies to open up their markets which has led to the destruction of local industries and reinforced dependence on the aid-givers. He also correctly points out that the conventions of ‘good governance’ which seek to decrease the size of the state have led to a policy rhetoric which promotes decentralisation, partnerships with NGOs and the private sector in addition to the ‘empowerment’ of the people. This mantra of good governance has led to only marginal reductions in poverty, some disastrous privatisations benefiting only the elites and an excuse for governments to pass responsibilities conveniently to ‘the people’.
Aid has become focused on policy reform which does little more than produce extensive shopping lists and policy documents. Rather than encouraging governments to be accountable to citizens, power and accountability tends to be to the donors. It encourages reactive rather than proactive government. Aid fundamentally undermines the social contract between government and citizens , but as Glennie says from the point of view of the donor aid is easy and buys friends. That is much easier than really attempting to tackle the global inequalities and post-colonial history that have shaped and created Africa.
However, Glennie too has a blind spot (given his employment in International NGOs). He only singles out government aid in his analysis but his conclusion points to a growing role for NGOs. However they are just as capable as government of creating dependency, supporting corruption and elite capture and imposing conditionalities albeit on a smaller scale.
However, his general conclusion that Africa need LESS and BETTER aid is valid and he is right that in tackling poverty in Africa a far more serious and complex discussion is required concerning the role of trade, migration, climate change and taxation. All of which are major global trans-boundary challenges with no simple solutions.
As a community of Africanists we need to heed this call.