Why foreign aid has failed to lift Africa out of poverty

UK Secretary of State for International Devlopment Andrew Mitchell – are the UK’s aid priorities right?

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell recently set up an Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), aimed at overseeing whether UK aid is being spent sensibly, but the main question that may be lingering in the heads of most Africans is if the British government will be able to hold African leaders who misuse foreign aid to account.

By Erick Kabendera

I was born and bred in a small town in rural Tanzania, and this is what I saw around me as I grew up:

I saw a peasant who always worked hard in his small farm but could not transport his produce to the market because the roads had not been repaired since the British colonial government left in the early 1960s.

For orphans who hoped to get school uniforms, books and school fees from grassroots religious charity organisations, which paid for the education of over a thousand children in my home town, rains and impassable roads meant that even the most generous and caring of charity workers could hardly reach them.

Expectant mothers would walk for hours on end to reach the nearest health centre, where they badly needed the services of midwives and other experts. Some had no option but to give birth in the open – on the roadsides -before reaching the village dispensary.

Those lucky enough to reach there would sometimes find the only nurse at the village health centre gone to a distant village to visit other mothers. During those few times she would be around, she seldom helped the mothers because she lacked proper training and was without the facilities needed to take a mother through a safe birth.

That was more than twenty years ago, long before I could call myself an adolescent. I am now an adult – and a journalist. My work frequently entails visiting rural families to write about their lives. I stay in poor people’s homes while there, squat with them around a plate of boiled potatoes and greasy wild vegetable soup.

I sometimes sleep in their small huts, where the air is filled with the stench of goat urine. The ruminants bleat in my ears all night long. It is from such experiences that I have discovered the bitter truth about the little aid can do to change people’s lives.

In these particular cases, what the aid had done was to widen the gap between a poorly starving African and a beer-bellied senior civil servant entrusted with donor sponsored poverty reduction programmes.

Sometimes a ten-classroom school would be built. The cost of each classroom would officially be put at £3500 or thereabouts, but it would be built with half the amount, the balance going into the wrong people’s ever hungry pockets. A year later, when the long rains set in, the school buildings would start crumbling.

Senior civil servants overseeing the construction of a number of such schools in different parts of the country would write sweet reports for consumption by unsuspecting donors. The officials would pay themselves a daily £100 or so each per day for attending meetings to deliberate on the future of school construction plans, the meetings being conveniently held twice a week.

Those involved in the implementation of the projects would compete against each other in buying ultramodern Toyota Land Cruisers, Japanese brand fuel guzzlers that no honest civil servant in a poor nation could afford even if it meant hoarding a whole lifetime’s salary.

One of them would happily shout at a pub how he would pay a staggering £30,000 the following week for his son or daughter to study at a prestigious university in London or South Africa. He would do so while juggling his Iphone in one hand and Blackberry in the other.

The conversation would be incomplete if he forgot to brag about his plan to buy a new house in a posh neighbourhood for his newly found long-legged mistress, a mere 20 years old. “Small change” – coming to a few thousand pounds – would then be deposited in an offshore account somewhere in Europe or the Americas.

President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, a popular name with the West, admitted months ago that about 30 per cent of the government’s national budget got “lost” through corruption and embezzlement. He was in fact talking of an amount equivalent to the country’s annual budget support, a warning that the system in use had serious shortcomings and called for urgent review.

As the British Conservatives and other leaders of the world’s richest nations devise ways to meet their historic pledge to double aid to Africa, they must also think of coming up with comprehensive plans on how to make aid work better.

They need to help strengthen local councils and charities at the grassroots not only to a competitive wage but also to hold leaders who misuse aid to account. This could help end the embezzlement or misuse of British taxpayers’ money.

The author is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.

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4 thoughts on “Why foreign aid has failed to lift Africa out of poverty

  1. The roads !! The roads and all the problems you talk about of course, but I barely hear about the problems of building more of the most basic infrastructure!
    So many countries have some latent potential to develop (to a certain extent) organically, simply by having people moving from market to market but how are they supposed to do so without roads nor long distance bus service.
    If anybody’s interested in reading more, I’m currently building a website based on academic and professional research (showing that some people in the West DO know all of the problems and not “just” corruption, education etc). You can check this page: http://www.poverties.org/poverty-in-africa.html

    But i’d also recommend the one on poverty in ethiopia for a good example of the impact of roads in the country.

    Anyways… thanks for your post Erick, hope this can getter better sooner than later…

  2. Are is there a clear example, anywhere in the world, of a country being lifted out of poverty through foreign aid?

  3. Partner with people on the ground not just governments. We (SEED project) have been trying to work Aid organisations and Governments to look at better partnerships, enabling local people to have a voice, to hold governments to account for promises made. The love and fear of intergovernmental politics has been a stumbling block for too long. If Aid or development investment is only approved when there is buy in from the community that will benefit. When it is not just about what the external donors will give but what government will contribute and local people have their part to play (not just receive) and the end result is confirmed by all three parties. When NGOs prioritise and nurture empowerment over dependency. When the solutions are not imposed but negotiated. When education is at the heart of it all. When people who are poor are treated with dignity.

    When children and young people in Africa and other developing areas are educated about the value of their own resources and not about $US and £GB. When Democracy is a by product of a education not imposed by dictators or foreigner in exchange for aid. How can we vote if we do not understand what we are choosing? Why can someone who has never run a shoe shop qualify to run a country? How can we be prod of our own journey and history if the lies are allowed to remain (David Livingstone discovered the Victoria falls?????) Children will not love their own history, people, culture and or vision for the future if every time their version of the story is deemed inferior.

    AID with dignity. Poverty not measured by how many $US a day you have or have not but by your ability to feed yourself, clothe yourself, house yourself but above all have a choice! A choice to live in a hut and drink from the river and eat roots and wear animal skins. A choice to develop this way of life in a sustainable way in harmony with nature. A choice for the girl child to go to school and not just be a wife one day. A choice to say no to government or aid.

    Corruption exists because we allow it. If we all said no and left it no room and no way to breath then it can be choked and defeated. In my home country doing business on the black market is normal. Making shoddy deals is the norm not the exception. A whole nation accepting this way of living even though they can see how it is destroying the country. A whole generation has now grown up with only this way of living. What future can AID facilitate when everyone knows only the corrupt way?

    Generational transformation. A way to have a long term view of change. Starting by educating the children with real values and principles. Rewarding progress and proactive philanthropy not just individual success. Giving communities incentives for improving quality of life (their definition now ours). Global debate and information sharing to improve and develop tools, skills and technologies. A global perspective that sees all human being as having a role to play in the development and management of our home planet.

    I have a dream that one day someone will listen to the child who lies dying needlessly because we would rather not offend the mayor the chief, protocol has to be observed. I have a dream that success will be measured by reduced dependancy and self actualisation of communities. I have dream that life will be celebrated and encouraged whatever it’s manifestation. I have dream that my generation will be the generation that restores not destroys. The generation that brings peace not war, hope not regret. I have a dream.

    My apologies. I am not a good writer and I am dyslexic but I hope that my rant has made some sense.

    Jackson

  4. Partner with people on the ground not just governments. We (SEED project) have been trying to work Aid organisations and Governments to look at better partnerships, enabling local people to have a voice, to hold governments to account for promises made. The love and fear of intergovernmental politics has been a stumbling block for too long. If Aid or development investment is only approved when there is buy in from the community that will benefit the maybe AID has a chance. When it is not just about what the external donors will give but what government will contribute and local people have their part to play (not just receive) and the end result is confirmed by all three parties the maybe AID can be sustainable. When NGOs prioritise and nurture empowerment over dependency, when the solutions are not imposed but negotiated, when education is at the heart of it all, when people who are poor are treated with dignity then maybe AID can make a difference.

    When children and young people in Africa and other developing areas are educated about the value of their own resources and not about $US and £GB. When Democracy is a by product of a education not imposed by dictators or foreigners in exchange for AID and support. How can we vote if we do not understand what we are choosing? Why can someone who has never run a shoe shop qualify to run a country after winning a popularity contest? How can we be proud of our own journey and history if the lies are allowed to remain and are taught in the classroom (David Livingstone discovered the Victoria falls?????). Children will not love their own history, people, culture and or vision for the future if every time their version of the story is deemed inferior.

    AID with dignity, poverty not measured by how many $US a day you have or have not but by your ability to feed yourself, clothe yourself, house yourself but above all have a choice! A choice to live in a hut and to drink from the river and eat roots and wear animal skins. A choice to develop this way of life in an effective and sustainable way, in harmony with nature. A choice for the girl child to go to school and not just to be a wife one day. A choice to say no to government local or foreign or to AID.

    Corruption exists because we allow it. If we all said no and left it no room and no way to breath then it can be choked and defeated. In my home country doing business on the black market is normal. Making shoddy deals is the norm not the exception. A whole nation accepting this way of living even though they can see how it is destroying the country, even the continent. A whole generation has now grown up with only this way of living. What future can AID facilitate when everyone knows only the corrupt way? No road building can change that!

    Generational transformation. A way to have a long term view of change starting by educating the children with real values and principles. Rewarding progress and proactive philanthropy not just individual success. Giving communities incentives for improving quality of life (their definition not ours). Global debate and information sharing to improve and develop tools, skills and technologies. A global perspective that sees all human being as having a role to play in the development and management of our home planet. Responsibilities advocated alongside human rights. We all know our rights now but do we understand our responsibilities?

    I have a dream that one day someone will listen to the child who lies dying needlessly because we would rather not offend the mayor, the chief, protocol has to be observed! I have a dream that success will be measured by reduced dependancy and self actualisation of communities. I have a dream that life will be celebrated and encouraged whatever it’s manifestation. I have a dream that my generation will be the generation that restores not destroys, the generation that brings peace not war, hope not regret. I have a dream of not just walking hand in hand but working hand in hand!

    My apologies. I am not a good writer and I am dyslexic but I hope that my rant has made some sense.

    Jackson

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