"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the stumbling boulder

This week I've been trying to sketch an outline of how Westerners tend to develop and characterize our relationship with Africa and the people who live there, specifically with reference to the international aid and development system. I've argued that the savior mentality is misguided, that Africa is not rightfully ours to save, and that a better way to assist would be through a paradigm of empowerment. The discussion on these posts has been fantastic; if you haven't had the chance to read through the comments, I strongly recommend doing so. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Today I want to conclude this series by thinking about what is probably the biggest barrier to moving into an empowerment paradigm: the governments that give and receive aid. I really believe that it would be possible to shift our way of thinking about Africa through education and experience at the individual, community, and organizational levels. But I am far less optimistic about the prospects for change at the level at which projects are funded, at least insofar as it involves governments.

Why? Because aid - for donor governments and the governments which receive the bulk of aid - is inherently political. Except in cases involving natural disasters or epidemic disease, donors don't typically give freely to everyone out of the goodness of their intentions. Aid projects are funded at least in part (and sometimes entirely) on the basis of donor priorities. When aid projects take into account the real, expressed needs of recipients (which is, I'm glad to say, increasingly real for most project), they are often structured in such a way as to advantage suppliers or producers in the donor state, or to reward good governance or provide support to an ally.

As we might expect, there is often a contrast between donor goals and what is actually needed in order to improve the material situations of the recipients. (This might explain some of the resistance to solid evaluations of development and aid activities.) An anecdotal example: several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a World Food Programme warehouse in North Kivu. The warehouse was enormous, with pallets of flour stacked ten meters high. Most of the bags of flour were from USAID, stamped with the ubiquitous "From the American people" label.

There is no question that food aid was needed. Millions of people in North Kivu live with chronic food insecurity, and that was a particularly violent year in the province.

But I couldn't help but be struck by the absurdity of it all. There we were, looking at stacks of food that had been shipped 5,000+ miles from the Great Plains of America while we were standing less than 50 kilometers from one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. It made no sense whatsoever that money should be wasted on shipping food when that same money could have been used to fund more peacekeepers, who could have stabilized the agricultural region, thus allowing farmers to continue their work, thus providing them with jobs and income while they supply the province with food.

So why does it work that way? Because U.S. food aid functions as a subsidy to American farmers, who vote for the representatives who keep the rules governing food aid in place. It's a form of patronage politics that is part of our foreign policy.

Moreover, despite lots of talk about improving well being for Africans and opening up trade with the continent, the West continues to keep a number of agricultural, immigration, and trade policies in place that make it almost impossible for African businesses to compete in global markets. AGOA, though tied to political conditionalities, was a good first step in moving away from protectionist trade policies that made it impossible for African textile producers to compete, but we need an AGOA for every sector, in every country that uses unfair trade practices while preaching the gospel of market liberalization. We need to play fair.

Is there anything wrong with governments politicizing aid? Shouldn't taxpayers in wealthy states expect that their financial contributions to the state will be used to advance the state's interest? It's a tough question, and not one that I have an answer for. Like Tales from the Hood, I'm not convinced that there's always a win-win outcome to be found in these matters.

(I won't go too far into the question of corrupt recipient governments here, but suffice it to say that there are issues on the recipient side that have just as much to do with politics as those made on the donor side. There are some creative ideas out there about how to sidestep these issues; cash-on-delivery and conditional cash transfers strike me as two of the most interesting.)

The politics of aid make me very cynical about the prospects for movement away from the savior complex. That's sad, because there are a lot of good people working at USAID, DfID, and other agencies who genuinely want to empower Africans and move away from the status quo.

The key to understanding this issue is to remember one thing: aid and development should not be about us. It should not be about Western-conceived preferences and priorities. Rather, it should be the product of collaboration, conversation, and concrete steps toward African ownership of African development.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! Very insightful.

It seems that one of the great advantages of (effective) NGOs is that there is, at least hopefully, less political influence on operations, and also less direct reliance upon people with ulterior motives. But you also can't beat the sheer number of resources available to the US government. So, pick your poison, I guess...

Friday, May 07, 2010 6:38:00 AM

Blogger Our Man in Africa said...

Did you come across this blog which touches on some of the issues regarding the Western regard on Africa?


Friday, May 07, 2010 7:43:00 AM

Anonymous Ian said...

Another great post!

A couple of related thoughts:

1. A fair bit of progress has actually been made on tied aid, and many donors do now have much more open policies on where they procure goods, and use much more local procurement, although there is still room for improvement. An area where tying is much stickier is in technical asstance. Often donors explicitly or implicitly tie TA to come from their own counry, or at least from the north. They often import models from the north and use the same few high profile northern institutions as resources. I think there is much more potential for untying technical assistance to include a greater south-south exchange of knowledge. This knowledge might be both more relevant and more cost effective.

2. Foreign policy, security policy trade policy etc. can be much more important to development than aid in positive and negative ways, but it's hard to imagine that donor countries would put international development ahead of their own national interest in these areas. Indeed one of the more effective arguments governments make to the general public to increase aid funds is that giving aid is in the national interest. It can be harder to make the case for purely altruistic aid (although maybe its preferable to have less money spent well, than more spent less well)

3. A big barrier to participatory development is also developing country governments. It's often not in politicians own interests to foster greater participation and transparency, which leads to greater citizen activism in their own countries - even if it is in the interest of the country. This is obviously worse in autocratic and corrupt regimes, but is also true for relatively well governed countries. This isn't related specifically to development, but more to politics, politicians and what incentives they are given. To my mind donors need to pay more attention to this in how aid is given to avoid aid money giving the wrong incentives and actually undermining local accountability of government in favour of international (donor-recipient) accountability.

Sorry for the long comment. It's really great that you are putting thses issues out on the table.

Friday, May 07, 2010 9:08:00 AM

Blogger mwikali said...

I have really enjoyed this series, thank you for taking the time to discuss! during exams even (it is distracting me away from my grading).

I would like to point out that the laws which push American grain as aid are back as much (or more so) by the shipping and processing industries than the farmers themselves. It is a huge business that has become aggregated in only a few companies. Farmers do not make very much off the grain that is sent--the big money is in bagging and shipping. what comes to mind is CARE's decision a few years ago to refuse aid-in-kind and the subsequent push to change that portion of the Farm Bill. The fight against it was fought by shippers and processors.

Friday, May 07, 2010 9:17:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Ian. I ran out of room to get into the recipient governments issue, but suffice it to say I completely agree with what you've said here.

I don't have a good answer on how to - or whether to - make aid less political. It's similar to the dilemma about military intervention in weak states that I hear a lot here: can we really ask volunteer soldiers who signed up to defend our constitution and territory to go die in civil wars or genocides in which we have no significant national interest? National interests matter.

@therisingtides Exactly. The problem, though, is that most major NGO's get the bulk of their funding from donor governments. Individual donations help these organizations, but they would cease to operate without the huge grants Western governments disburse.

@OMIA, thanks for the link; I'll check it out.

Friday, May 07, 2010 9:18:00 AM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

During my brief times in Africa, I was very frustrated by the issue of food aid. In my mind it's the most necessary aid for survival, but the most detrimental for development. It's incredibly bothersome that the interest of American businesses dictate how we give this aid. What's frustrating is that there are some simple/obvious solutions out there, like opening up our trade markets, that will never be implemented due to politics.

I consider this blog a big part of my very informal education on foreign aid. I'd like to read more of your thoughts on policies that support exports from developing countries. Why has South East Asia been so effective in utilizing Western consumerism and not Africa? Why is it that anything sold from Africa, usually fair trade, tends to be something I absolutely do not need?

Friday, May 07, 2010 3:49:00 PM

Blogger savina said...

Thank you very much for this post, once again illuminating. I wrote my MA dissertation last summer on if and how social protection programmes and policies can be empowering for the most vulnerable who are their purported end users. In Africa experiences with social protection are very differentiated, from small NGO-led pilots to scaled-up nationwide programmes, and their ownership ranges from design, implementation and management firmly in the State's hands in some Southern African states, to programmes which are endorsed to varying degrees by donor and multilateral agencies. To put it a bit crudely, I am skeptical of the capacity of even the best-intentioned of donor agencies (DFID in the pastoralist Northern Region in Kenya is a good example) to do much “empowerment” of marginalised citizens they are not accountable to, with the government watching timidly (best case scenario) on the side. This is not to say that donors have no role to play, and in fact, as you mention, they are still indespensable for funding and much else too. In Ethiopia, for instance, it took donor insistence to ensure that the cash for work programme they were funding included a direct assistance component for households with no labour capacity, something the Government was very reluctant to grant. This said, to the extent that empowerment is a political process and that it relates to the possibility of addressing different interests within a democratic policy space, in my opinion foreign governments and their aid agencies necessarily have a minor role to play, not least because (again, as mentioned above) serving their national interests naturally contrasts with the aim of “empowering” citizens of another sovreign state.

Friday, May 07, 2010 6:16:00 PM

Blogger Joseph said...

One thing is that you hold AGOA up as a model for American foreign policy to Africa because it has opened up Africa's textile exports to American markets. AGOA’s stated goals include “facilitating sub-Saharan Africa integration into the global economy,” and it was slated to create thousands of new jobs on the continent. However, a 2008 AGOA report states that oil imports accounted for 93.3 percent of all imports from sub-Saharan Africa that year, which means the act is essentially a tariff-free oil scheme. The goal of AGOA is not to create a space for small-time African textile producers to make money, it is to get as much oil as possible for the lowest price.

Monday, May 10, 2010 4:58:00 PM

Anonymous J. said...

Excellent post (and great series in total!). As usual, you're quite right. Donor-supported aid is inherently politicized by default, and in my opinion, that extends even aid supported by non-governmental donors such as foundations, corporations, even private citizens who send in their checks for $30 to the address at the bottom of the screen. It is inevitable that You accept the politics of your donor - perhaps only partially and perhaps only temporarily - the moment you accept the donation.

One tiny bit to add to the food aid-specific part. That P.L. 480 and Title LL food programming is all wrapped up in American producers, shippers, value-adders (in some cases) looking out for each other and themselves in the name of "helping others" is one of the great paradoxes of foreign assistance and humanitarian aid. But in addition, as the Food For Peace officer in a particularly unstable sub-Saharan republic told me, "It's a hell of a lot cheaper than sending in the Marines!"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 3:01:00 AM


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