ONLINE ONLY: How Not to Help Africa

Why Britain’s ‘Budget Support’ is the worst kind of foreign aid.

In West Africa they describe people who waste money as being “as stupid as a white man.” As if to prove their point, the so-called ‘donor’ nations of the affluent industrialised West are changing the way they give their aid to less developed countries. Instead of allocating money, with conditions attached, for specific projects, such as building roads or schools, we increasingly allow the recipients to decide how to spend it. This is because ‘conditionality’ is viewed as colonialist and ‘confrontational,’ to borrow the jargon of the aid industry. This new fashion for unconditional aid is led by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and it comes in the form of “Budget Support”.

It is the most recent in a long line of initiatives, dating back to the 1950s, aimed at “building capacity,” ostensibly enabling developing countries to run themselves more efficiently and openly.

Consequently, twenty per cent of UK aid is put directly into the coffers of governments, allowing the recipients to ‘determine their own priorities.’ That percentage is set to rise, and governments such as the Canadians and Scandinavians are following suit, keen to be seen as sensitive to the needs of their ‘clients.’

At the root of budget support is an assumption that political elites in developing countries genuinely care about the welfare of their poor, diseased and ignorant masses, when this is manifestly not always the case.

Surely only politicians and civil servants seriously believe we can make poverty history by handing cash to their opposite numbers in poverty-stricken countries. As the development economist William Easterly asks, “What are the chances these billions are going to reach poor people?”

The results of this policy are plain for anyone inclined to inquire: in one central African nation, children sit seventy to a classroom, straining to see the blackboard in near darkness, while the Ministry of Defence leaves the lights burning day and night in its 1500 rooms.

Anti-malaria drugs and mosquito nets paid for by the British government fail to reach villages across Africa, and textbooks in local languages never arrive at schools.

A comprehensive and understated survey of seventeen countries receiving budget support from DFID published by Birmingham University in 2006 finds,

“…over-optimistic assumptions about the ability of international partners (meaning DFID) to influence matters that are deeply rooted in partner countries’ political systems.” Budget support, they conclude, “…does not transform underlying political realities.”

Attempts to improve efficiency according to “agreed performance targets and conditions,” are always “more significant in the eyes of the donors than in those of the partner governments.”

The American who administers his nation’s aid programme in one central African country laughs at loud at the naivety implicit in DFID’s policy.

Yet, curiously, there is cross-party consensus in Britain in favour of the 1960’s belief that the state can solve any development problem, given a big enough purse. The same parties noisily rejected this mantra in domestic politics twenty years ago.

More seriously, we ignore the concerns of African citizens who are incredulous that the rich West lectures them on the need for accountability and transparency, while bolstering their thieving or wasteful rulers with money.

As a community leader in a camp in northern Uganda commented to me last month, We never see the schools or clinics. Your aid buys Mercedes for the Big Men.”

Some recipient governments grasp exactly what donors want to hear, readily agreeing to ‘capacity building’ programmes emphasising increased accountability. They dutifully echo the donor’s jargon, while laughing behind our backs, and flicking through the latest Mercedes catalogue for their new ministerial limousine.

Indeed, the shrewdest foreign ‘clients’ spend some budget support hiring British consultants, many of whom once worked for DFID. Then they endure marathon meetings with DFID officials, drawing up consultation papers outlining how capacity is to be built, agreeing to whatever is being prescribed. And then they carry on as usual.

The corrupt African elite also understands which buttons elicit a response from well-meaning donors who are terrified of seeming colonialist or imperialist.

In case you think this sounds cynical, ask yourself for whose benefit are the signs, written in English, in Ethiopia proclaiming, “Support girls’ education”? The answer, of course, is visiting donors, such as DFID officials and politicians.

In extreme cases, such as the notoriously corrupt Cameroon and Malawi, DFID has partly suspended funding. But why were they given budget support in the first place? Don’t the people at DFID follow the latest corruption scandals in Africa Confidential?

An estimated $2.3 trillion of aid has gone to Africa since 1945 with disappointing results. The World Bank reluctantly concludes time and again in its reports that higher aid often leads to worse bureaucracy and more corruption.

Not surprisingly, we share the blame for this regrettable state of affairs. At independence we handed power to small elites, often from a favoured tribe, without ensuring home grown interest groups could adequately counter the private use of public power and resources, or military force used to terrorise citizens.

If we were serious about fighting poverty, ignorance and disease in Africa, we would do as the people – not their rulers – want: direct more funds through reputable UK charities working with local civil society groups at village level. Real empowerment and sustainable development happens at the grassroots, not in the corridors of power. Any visitor to Africa who has bothered to listen to the people grasps this simple truth. Why don’t our officials?

Meanwhile, we sign cheques, tick boxes, and feel better about ourselves. Perhaps we should wonder, as the characters in Elspeth Huxley’s African fable, ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ did, almost a hundred years ago, for whose benefit it all is.

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