Last week in The Nation newspaper in an opinion column was an article entitled ‘It’s time to wean ourselves from donor aid’ by Rasna Warah, an editor with the UN. It was written in the context of the ‘Aid Effectiveness’ conference that was staged in Accra, Ghana last week and the recent publication of a book by Yash Tandon entitled ‘Ending Aid Dependence’. Benjamin Mkapa (former Tanzanian President) had written the forward to this book, urging developing countries, ‘to formulate strategies to exit from the aid dependence bandwagon’. This interested me as we were living in Tanzania when Mkapa was President and for a year I worked in Dar es Salaam as a ‘local hire’ employee in DFID (the British Department for International Development). I think I am right in saying that since Independence, Tanzania has been the most aid dependant country in the region. Nyerere looked for help from the communists and when he stepped down and his socialist principles were switched to democratic, aid money from the West flooded in.
I also write this in light of receiving my monthly text message today, from the night watchman we employed (through a guard company) two years ago who after a short while gave up working as an askari altogether and for the last year or two has been unemployed and asking us for enough money to get by every month. To be fair, he lives in Kibera slum and is trying to set up a business making wool rugs (first it was going to be school uniforms) that he hopes will be supported by an HIV related NGO but for the last eight months progress has been frustratingly slow. The disruption of the election didn’t help. In the past his messages have been heart wrenching, ‘I have been very sick. No money, food finished, now drinking unga’ but of late they have become more pedestrian, ‘Good morning Madam, we r well.pls help us tis month. Sms me convenient time to meet.regards from wife.’ I wonder, after months of this, if we are in fact actually helping him?
I don’t want to get tied up in knots on a subject that I don’t have sufficient expertise to comment on, but my experience showed me that the aid system as it stands (in East Africa) does not work efficiently because a phenomenal amount of cash is squandered through corruption both on the recipient and the donor side. I saw this for myself. The author of the above article quoted Susan George and Arturo Escobar who argue that aid is just another form of colonialism. Ms Warah also quoted from African writers who have published works giving an African perspective on the aid industry and why it has failed to lift millions out of poverty. She writes ‘Bindra argues that “far from being productive or necessary, the donor dependent relationship most often ends in mutual hatred” and that by and large, countries that have ignored donor prescriptions have prospered’.
I also recently visited a small orphanage whose Kenyan boss (a Pastor) receives a steady income from overseas donors and volunteers but refuses to buy in clean water for the children, pay for medication when they are sick or pay school fees for them or even proper food. He, however, is enjoying the gravy train and has recently bought four computers and a second hand car. After some weeks my volunteer friend left the place in heartbroken disgust.
To become independent from aid as Malaysia, Singapore and Brazil have done would be a triumph in Africa but no one seems to be able to agree on exactly how to do it. Without wanting to sound patronising, I would imagine that withdrawing aid money in Africa would be a little like withholding hard drugs from an addict. So entrenched is the aid dependence here that a dreadful period of cold turkey would surely take place as the money is withdrawn and people all over the country would suffer as a consequence. Thereafter would follow a period of relearning of how to run the country independently culminating in the triumph of prospering unaided. Of course there is also the possibility of utter failure to survive. I won’t deny that aid money helps millions directly and improves lives but in the long run is it also holding developing nations back from being able to help itself and stand on its own two feet?
I wonder if our ex-nightwatchman might get his business plan off the ground quicker if we weren’t paying him a monthly ‘salary’ gratis, in order to keep the wolves from his door. Either way, I am not brave enough to stop giving, though the ‘mutual hatred’ phase could possibly rear its ugly head if progress is not made soon.