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Disscussing the merits of aid

Less would be more

by Volker Seitz
The Germans like to help and give. No public appeal to assist African people and regions in need ever goes unheard. Yet rarely does the question arise whether – and if so, how – financial aid is effective and in what ways funds are employed. Development aid is financed by tax money. Whoever dares to put aid as it is practiced in question is met with scorn and scolded for supposedly threatening the flow of funds. Such a person is likely to be suspected of racism and heartlessness. Development aid, however, has brought about precious little change to African misery in the past 50 years. To increase funds seems to spruce up our image – but does not make sense otherwise. Only the African people can help themselves. [ By Volker Seitz ]

A growing number of Africans is criticising development aid and rejecting it in order to finally obtain independence. They realise that 50 years of development aid has not succeeded in encouraging the continent’s own initiatives.

People, however, are reluctant to acknowledge that critical Africans might know their continent’s realities better than Western experts think they do. It is insinuated that African’s are trying to provoke and get public attention with “banal ideas”. The critics are labelled as “controversial”. Why should African opinions matter when white people decide to “help”?

The truth is, African intellectuals are merely expressing inconvenient truths. It is true that African regimes and the international media are systematically using the people’s misery as a resource for their own good.

Development policy lacks concepts for agricultural issues, so farmers are being neglected. Since the beginning of the 1980s, sub-Saharan agriculture has constantly been going downhill. Barely an African government cares about train links, roads and warehouses, marketing instruments or processing companies. The elites are not interested in development and infrastructure for rural areas that would add up to food security. Farmers’ salaries are decreasing. Young people are flocking to the cities, causing trouble as jobless persons.

It is all the more welcome that a growing number of Africans rises to speak. In his book “Architects of Poverty,” published in 2009, Moeletsi Mbeki – a South African political scientist and the younger brother of former president Thabo Mbeki – tells us how the elites of post-independence African states availed themselves of their countries’ riches. After independence, farmers were not allowed to sell their products autonomously on the international market; they had to sell them to the governmental marketing organisations, at substantially lower prices. This way, people from rural areas – roughly 80 % of the total population – have remained dependent on the government while the elites kept reaping in the profits.

Famine and dictatorship

Indian Noble prize laureate Amartya Sen has shown that independent democratic countries with a free press have never suffered from famines. Famines are a phenomenon of dictatorial countries where elites live in luxury and purchase foreign products in the capital’s supermarkets. The poorer classes, struggling to even organise the everyday necessities, are ignored by politics.

Food aid increases the dependency on other countries. The agricultural potential of the developing nations has to be utilised more efficiently – this is the primary prerequisite for fighting hunger. For this purpose, investments in the agricultural infrastructure are most suitable.

A good investment climate and a well-functioning judiciary are conducive to swift development. Preservation of property, enforceable contract laws and institutional environment that is efficiently administrated allow for capital to be efficiently allocated. Moreover, officials who are responsible for implementing regulations have to be trained in order to coherently apply the laws. As long as this is not the case, many African countries will continue to be rated “high risk locations” by international enterprises. The question is: why invest in a country that falls into chaos as soon as the president loses an election, such as in Kenya or Zimbabwe.

The words of Peter Eigen, who founded Transparency International (TI) as an independent watch dog in 1993, still hold true today: “Many developing countries are poor because they are corrupt.” Those who claim that corruption in Africa is a regrettable cultural phenomenon and therefore insoluble, are offending the Africans. The poverty of many nations is a result of their irresponsible elites. Any government that takes the fight against corruption seriously and aims for overall economic growth must abandon the emotional and moralising level of personal blames. It has to evaluate, measure and elucidate the damage caused by corruption.

Insufficient evaluation

The suitability of our aid is shown by how much it strengthens the African engagement and whether it persuades Africans to take the development of the continent into their own hands. In May 2009, scientists of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (Hamburger Weltwirtschaftsinstitut, HWWI) came to the conclusion that the testing of aid effectiveness by the Federal Ministry of Development and Cooperation (BMZ) as well as the implementing organisations are only insufficiently organised. Moreover, they criticised government bodies for not adequately involving foreign partners in the inspection processes. “While the churches and the Welthungerhilfe are doing so intensively and successfully, the government side is still rejecting (this approach) to a considerable extent.” Consequently, the credibility of the evaluation processes is put in jeopardy.

Aid lobbyists argue that payments and their effectiveness are being tested independently, and that the audit offices of the different countries are supporting this process. I do not know of a single audit office that is actually doing so. By no means do the recipient countries have to prove transparently that they are really implementing their strategies against poverty. Those who inspect, analyse or judge are met with irritated suspicion and hostility. Take for instance the Cameroonian aid critic Axelle Kabou whose 1991 book “Neither poor nor powerless” was reprinted in 2009: Kabou is still hiding in France today.

All summed up, the poor people ensure that development aid keeps pouring into a country. Aid has turned into a giant industry that is embarrassed to demand evidence of activity for funds it grants. If poverty is to be successfully fought in Africa, however, Africans themselves will have to make that happen. More is needed than charitable programmes. People must get opportunities to earn a living. In the end, sustainable growth of businesses is what really matters.

Only the Africans themselves hold the key to the development of their continent. The first Western politicians to stress this point were US president Barack Obama in his Accra speech of July 2009 and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Kenya in August 2009. Africa’s potential will only ever unfold if the elites understand that corruption, bad governance and missing democratic structures are putting at risk the development of the continent. Maybe the “Obama effect” will help stop the absurdity and insanity of “simply carrying on” with the same old development policy.

Role model Rwanda

It would be best to grant the African continent the freedom to solve its own problems without the intervention of over-zealous donor organisations. The irresponsibly acting governments have to be reminded of their duties. Until now, they have taken the easy way out by simply “outsourcing” the major responsibilities for failed development to foreign donors. If Africa wants to recover on its own initiative, a fundamental understanding of necessities has to be called for. Real reforms start with self-criticism and reflection, even if the African elites do not like to hear this. The determination to implement far-reaching reforms is essential.

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, has shown the way. He invested in education and healthcare. His government has tried out everything to find the right way. According to a World Bank report of September 2009, Rwanda has developed its economic legislation and the associated institutions. After amendments in the credit approval processes and new insolvency legislation, the World Bank counts Rwanda among the top reformers. Due to its independent development, Rwanda is now regarded as the role model of the continent.

There should be an open debate on the development of the various countries. In many African nations, the citizens do not have the feeling that their governments are safeguarding their interests. We should finally start discussing our development policies in a critical and honest way and think carefully how the developing countries can detach themselves from development aid that has proven incapable of abolishing poverty.