So aid doesn't work?
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
January 5, 2011
Aid to Third World countries, some totally mired in poverty like Afghanistan, Bolivia or Upper Volta or some, more economically advanced but with poverty-stricken hinterlands like Nigeria or India, has a bad name. With reason? Yes, but more emphatically, no.
At the moment the “nos” have it. According to a recent BBC report, “The US government has spent about £55 billion on rebuilding Afghanistan since 2001 but cannot easily show how the money was spent, a US government watchdog says.” It adds that “record keeping has been so poor that most of the money has not been properly recorded.”
Afghanistan is riven with immense corruption and incompetence, as the above figures suggest. Moreover, in many areas it is just too dangerous to do development work. Nevertheless, there are plenty of parts where the war barely touches and non-governmental organisations as well as foreign government aid programs, including that of the US, are doing good work.
Foreign aid donors spent $2 billion in Tanzania during the last three decades building roads. But the roads have deteriorated faster than the donors built new ones. “Tanzanians are not good at maintenance”, one presidential aide told me. That is for sure. One can visit umpteen villages where aid programs have dug wells and provided pumps and see many that are no longer working. This is true in many other parts of Africa and for many other aspects of development - local mini dams, the introduction of tractors and health clinics. In Tanzania, the railway that the Chinese built in the 1960s, linking the country to Zambia has deteriorated to such a degree it barely functions.
I have my own theory for this. Diplomats don’t want to appear too paternalistic. The British and Scandinavians with their aid to Tanzania sign an annual check and let the government get on with it despite the local bureaucracy’s known inefficiency and, too often, lack of motivation.
For that reason the US, the world’s largest aid-giver, prefers a more hands on approach. Their problem is the fact that diplomats turn over every three years. Their replacements rarely have much background information on or feel for what their predecessors did. Moreover, the temptation is to strike out and start a new project. That, they think, will impress their bosses more that simply supervising what has gone on before. Thus maintenance becomes relegated to “things to do” down the list.
Need it be like this in Africa? Botswana, the northern neighbour of South Africa, has shown it doesn’t. Since 1960 Botswana, until recent times when it was struck by a veritable plague of the AIDS epidemic, was for decades the fastest growing economy in the world. At the beginning aid was a significant pump-primer and per capita aid was a significant fraction of per capita income. But after a few years Botswana took off. Aid declined while income soared. A good deal of the growing income provided a stream of tax revenue for the government that was spent on rural development, schools and health clinics.
It is true that Botswana was blessed with rich diamond mines, but many other African countries are rich in minerals, oil and gas and have much less to show for it. Botswana succeeded because it didn’t mess around with nationalising private businesses, as was the vogue in many parts of newly independent Africa. Its political leadership was not corrupt. It didn’t have a hang-up about expatriates running many things and took its time in Africanisation, waiting until locals had enough education and experience to take over (which 40 years after independence they mainly have).
Africa has taken the long way round. Many countries have realized their mistakes and have now taken the faster “Botswana route”. This is why many African countries after decades of near stagnation are growing at 6% a year and some at 7% or even more. Apart from increasing wealth it helps motivate bureaucrats to take their jobs more seriously. I have seen this in Tanzania and these past three years have returned from my trips there having felt the country moving under my feet.
One more thing - not everything shows up directly in GNP statistics. Malaria is in retreat in many African countries after a huge effort over the last two years to get bed nets and indoor spraying into areas where the disease is endemic. 289 million nets have been supplied to Africa by UN agencies, charities, celebrities and local governments. Polio has recently been almost conquered in Africa, as has river blindness. Over the continent child mortality has fallen fast and life expectancy noticeably increased. Such achievements depended in large measure on foreign aid, sometimes that of governments, sometimes that of NGOs and much by the UN.
Aid is working. But aid could work so much better if the lessons of its previous failures were more fully digested and acted upon.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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