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In West Africa they describe people who waste money as being “as stupid as a white man.” As if to prove their point, the so-called ‘donor’ nations of the affluent industrialised West are changing the way they give their aid to less developed countries. Instead of allocating money, with conditions attached, for specific projects, such as building roads or schools, we increasingly allow the recipients to decide how to spend it. This is because ‘conditionality’ is viewed as colonialist and ‘confrontational,’ to borrow the jargon of the aid industry. This new fashion for unconditional aid is led by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and it comes in the form of “Budget Support”.

It is the most recent in a long line of initiatives, dating back to the 1950s, aimed at “building capacity,” ostensibly enabling developing countries to run themselves more efficiently and openly.

Consequently, twenty per cent of UK aid is put directly into the coffers of governments, allowing the recipients to ‘determine their own priorities.’ That percentage is set to rise, and governments such as the Canadians and Scandinavians are following suit, keen to be seen as sensitive to the needs of their ‘clients.’

At the root of budget support is an assumption that political elites in developing countries genuinely care about the welfare of their poor, diseased and ignorant masses, when this is manifestly not always the case.

Surely only politicians and civil servants seriously believe we can make poverty history by handing cash to their opposite numbers in poverty-stricken countries. As the development economist William Easterly asks, “What are the chances these billions are going to reach poor people?”

The results of this policy are plain for anyone inclined to inquire: in one central African nation, children sit seventy to a classroom, straining to see the blackboard in near darkness, while the Ministry of Defence leaves the lights burning day and night in its 1500 rooms.

Anti-malaria drugs and mosquito nets paid for by the British government fail to reach villages across Africa, and textbooks in local languages never arrive at schools.

A comprehensive and understated survey of seventeen countries receiving budget support from DFID published by Birmingham University in 2006 finds,

“…over-optimistic assumptions about the ability of international partners (meaning DFID) to influence matters that are deeply rooted in partner countries’ political systems.” Budget support, they conclude, “…does not transform underlying political realities.”

Attempts to improve efficiency according to “agreed performance targets and conditions,” are always “more significant in the eyes of the donors than in those of the partner governments.”

The American who administers his nation’s aid programme in one central African country laughs at loud at the naivety implicit in DFID’s policy.

Yet, curiously, there is cross-party consensus in Britain in favour of the 1960’s belief that the state can solve any development problem, given a big enough purse. The same parties noisily rejected this mantra in domestic politics twenty years ago.

More seriously, we ignore the concerns of African citizens who are incredulous that the rich West lectures them on the need for accountability and transparency, while bolstering their thieving or wasteful rulers with money.

As a community leader in a camp in northern Uganda commented to me last month, We never see the schools or clinics. Your aid buys Mercedes for the Big Men.”

Some recipient governments grasp exactly what donors want to hear, readily agreeing to ‘capacity building’ programmes emphasising increased accountability. They dutifully echo the donor’s jargon, while laughing behind our backs, and flicking through the latest Mercedes catalogue for their new ministerial limousine.

Indeed, the shrewdest foreign ‘clients’ spend some budget support hiring British consultants, many of whom once worked for DFID. Then they endure marathon meetings with DFID officials, drawing up consultation papers outlining how capacity is to be built, agreeing to whatever is being prescribed. And then they carry on as usual.

The corrupt African elite also understands which buttons elicit a response from well-meaning donors who are terrified of seeming colonialist or imperialist.

In case you think this sounds cynical, ask yourself for whose benefit are the signs, written in English, in Ethiopia proclaiming, “Support girls’ education”? The answer, of course, is visiting donors, such as DFID officials and politicians.

In extreme cases, such as the notoriously corrupt Cameroon and Malawi, DFID has partly suspended funding. But why were they given budget support in the first place? Don’t the people at DFID follow the latest corruption scandals in Africa Confidential?

An estimated $2.3 trillion of aid has gone to Africa since 1945 with disappointing results. The World Bank reluctantly concludes time and again in its reports that higher aid often leads to worse bureaucracy and more corruption.

Not surprisingly, we share the blame for this regrettable state of affairs. At independence we handed power to small elites, often from a favoured tribe, without ensuring home grown interest groups could adequately counter the private use of public power and resources, or military force used to terrorise citizens.

If we were serious about fighting poverty, ignorance and disease in Africa, we would do as the people – not their rulers – want: direct more funds through reputable UK charities working with local civil society groups at village level. Real empowerment and sustainable development happens at the grassroots, not in the corridors of power. Any visitor to Africa who has bothered to listen to the people grasps this simple truth. Why don’t our officials?

Meanwhile, we sign cheques, tick boxes, and feel better about ourselves. Perhaps we should wonder, as the characters in Elspeth Huxley’s African fable, ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ did, almost a hundred years ago, for whose benefit it all is.

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Tariku Hussein
January 28th, 2011
4:01 AM
The author clearly knows very little about development aid, neither its good nor its bad sides. Socalled "budget aid" where African governments get to administer the money, is NOT because ‘conditionality’ is viewed as colonialist or confrontational. It is simply based on the observation that aid works best when the people it is supposed to benefit are those who get to decide how it is spent, and if their leaders are elected representatives, they must be treated as such. There is in fact always "conditionality" involved in terms of certain health and education targets that the giovernments must reach. Mind you, I am very sceptical of development aid in general, but at least giving lump sums to democractically elected Afircan governments, demanding only a level of accountability in return, is one of the least harmful ways in which aid can be given, precisely because it does not distort local priorities too much.

January 3rd, 2009
5:01 PM
An intelligent and well written article. It is astonishing to know that $2.3 trillion has been given to Africa. The figures are mind-boggling and question the sense in sending more relief. Celebrity fools like Bono are always harping on that we should donate more and write off these countries' debts. A hollow gesture. I always believed that the infrastructure and business practice was in place when the colonialists departed. History has proved that the despots have been worse than any imperialist nation. It is a grave situation but I don't think humanitarian services and aid will help the plight of the common African. Maybe the current economic problems will force the dictatorships into more democratic reform. Ironically, could the downturn in the worlds money markets make Africa better?

July 2nd, 2008
11:07 PM
Firstly "the basket case that is 21st century Africa" should quite obviously read "20th century". The 21st century is only eight years old. It is a young child and no child at the age of eight should be written off as a basket case based on a few lousy years. The basket case is his parents. In this case the parent is the 20th century. The ideas and influences that are governing this eight year old century were fostered in the 20th century (and before). Secondly I agree completely with aid that HAS conditions attached. As soon as I was old enough to understand what was going on it has been a cause of great concern to me that anyone could be so stupid as to think that if you give large sums of money to someone they will do the honourable thing with it; whether conditions were attached or not. For NGO's and aid dispensers that don't wish to seem "colonial,etc" all they need do is figure out for themselves how much a thing will cost, such as: electricity for 100 schools, and then give the necessary person enough money to put electricity in one school, once that school has it's electricity you give them the second payment. You don't even have to mention "strings", "conditions" etc you just get on with it and the people who are receiving the money will probably think that that's simply how long it has taken to get the money together. If, indeed, they think anything at all, perhaps they'll just think "Isn't it nice that we have electricity?" I'm not saying that people are stupid but if they are seeing results regularly they wont question anyone unless the person that for some bizarre and inexplicable reason is afraid of being questioned starts acting stragely. Giving large sums without conditions is like giving £50 to a 5 year old and trusting him not to spend it all on candy! If you give what is needed then the money given will be spent on what is needed. If you give stupidly large sums of money it will disappear (as happened with the money that was raised at the first Red Nose Day and as is continuing to happen today). Unfortunately the late 20th century person has not had the morals and values chip installed yet. Perhaps it is too late for us but if we don't start teaching the 21st century children such basic morals and values as honesty and family then they too will be lost to greed and lust and nothing will change. Except perhaps that we will become even stupider and others even greedier.

Michael Williams-Jones
June 28th, 2008
10:06 AM
Adding to my earlier comment on "colonial guilt".... It should have read "colonial guilt/blame"......

June 27th, 2008
12:06 PM

Michael Williams-Jones
June 26th, 2008
10:06 AM
Unconditional Western "Guilt aid" has all too often been a hopeless and often demeaning example of gesture politics...consider the tragic plight of many Aborigines, Maories and Native Americans whose incentive to build better and meaningful lives for themselves has been significantly undermined by the easy availability of "guilt money". Today, Africa receives billions of tax payers' hard earned cash, much of which disappears without trace. Global economies are now reeling in the current economic environment and it's time for a harsh reality check. Political correctness and colonial guilt and their ghastly consequences must be dumped by all sides if we are ever to hope for a better world...and a real chance for the basket case that is 21st century Africa. The need for plain truth and transparency has never been greater.

Grumpy Old Man
June 24th, 2008
7:06 PM
Governmental foreign aid has littke to do with improving the lot of the population and everything to do with keeping the despotic regimes as clients. The PRC are throwing money about like oil, so the West has to follow suit. Too many NGO's are so keen on "image" that they betray their donors by handing over resources to anyone but those their donors thought they were supporting. If NGO's were being subjected to the same anti-corruption campaign as our political class, I have an uncomfortable feeling that there would have to be a lot of explaining done.

June 18th, 2008
3:06 AM
Free trade would be helpful, including microloans. If we must spend public money let's spend it on university research here at home into potentially helpful technologies like cheap vaccines, portable water filters, etc.

June 13th, 2008
3:06 PM
A compelling case - but how can the UK government ensure that those charities spend their (taxpayers') money effectively? Would it not be better to allow taxpayers to decide directly how and whether to give aid? Even if not so, there are serious foreign policy implications - giving and witholding aid allows us to influence recipient country's policies; this needs to be done more robustly through offical channels as advocated herein. Moreover, DFID should be abolished as a department and placed back under the FCO's purview ensuring a link between foreign and development policy (which would have mitigated some of the problems of Iraq) plus reducing bureaucracy. Lastly, of course, the whole concept of continuing to increase the amount aid is flawed; the problems lie more deeply rooted in the world's unfair trading system and the protectionism of European and US governments towards the developing world. The CAP most of all. Note the new protectionist axis recently announced by France and Italy and Americans move towards protectionism advocated by both McCain and Obama.

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