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 Angelina Jolie: Complicit in what Dambisa Moyo calls "glamour aid"

In an open letter to the newly formed Coalition government in  August 2010, Andrew Mwenda, editor of the Independent newspaper in Uganda, urged Andrew Mitchell, then Secretary of State for International Development, to halt Britain's "half-century-long experiment with ‘development aid', which has, since its inception, stunted growth and subsidised bad governance in Africa." Mwenda concluded: "The British have a unique opportunity to cut the deficit and help Africa. Please, ask your government to stop your aid.'' 

Far from listening to Mwenda and his co-signatories, the Coalition has clung to its commitment to raise the budget for development aid, largely disbursed by the Department for International Development (DfID), to 0.7 per cent of GDP, some £11 billion by the end of the present parliament. This policy — reaffirmed by David Cameron at the United Nations in September — is Britain's contribution to "official development aid" (ODA), as distinct from emergency relief or the approximately £1.1 billion donated voluntarily to UK charities for overseas work. If the policy is not popular with African intellectuals such as Mwenda, it certainly reflects the establishment view in the West. While Live Aid in the 1980s raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia, the purpose of the Live 8 concerts organised around the world in 2008 to coincide with the meeting of the G8 nations in Edinburgh was to stimulate public demand for an increase in ODA in general — an ambition heralded by the hard-hitting if vacuous slogan "Make Poverty History". 

Predictably enough, this abundance of public money has given rise to something of a feeding-frenzy among the specialist consultancies, NGOs and commercial contractors operating in the "humanitarian sector". "There's lots of money!" Graham Hand, a former British ambassador to Bosnia and Algeria, announced to a "networking reception" for such organisations in London in September. "We've all got money! They've signed treaties so they have to give out the money!" Or as UK Trade and Investment, Whitehall's export promotion department, puts it, "Aid-funded business is about win-win: British companies win the business, the aid agency funds a sound project and the developing country gains a sustainable asset."

This new wave of public funding has created opportunities for senior civil servants to move into positions in privately-owned — though publicly-funded — consultancies and NGOs, where salaries and perks far exceed the civil service payscale. According to recent investigations by the Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph, some development professionals have been making hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in this way, in one case more than £1.2 million. 

These revelations are an embarrassment to DfID and the aid industry more widely, but it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that the prospect of private gain on its own explains the sector's great popularity-why, for instance, 85 per cent of applicants to the civil service state a preference for working at DfID over any other branch of government. Abundant funds naturally increase opportunities and add to an impression of glamour and prestige. But the critical factor for young recruits, as well as for senior politicians and celebrities endorsing the aid consensus, is surely the quasi-redemptive quality of overseas development. Being paid well to travel the world is not unique to the aid industry; what is peculiarly beguiling is the conviction that by living this lifestyle one is actually making the world a better place. 

It is always hard to disentangle the impact of material motives from considerations arising from altruism and compassion, self-image or public relations. Gordon Brown's knowledge of development politics, for instance, has contributed significantly to his £1.4 million earnings since leaving Downing Street (though his fees and royalties all go to the upkeep of his office and to charity). 

Nevertheless, the abundant availability of public money has nourished a seductive moral microclimate in which intellectual certainty is bolstered by the applause of the international political establishment and an impressive array of Western celebrities. The film star Angelina Jolie has described the American economist and development expert Jeffrey Sachs as "one of the smartest people in the world", while Bono wrote the foreword to Sachs's bestselling The End of Poverty. More significantly, according to William Easterly's account, when President George W. Bush wanted a photo-opportunity with Bono, the rock star demanded in exchange a 50 per cent increase in the US aid budget — and Bush agreed. 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the nexus of power, money and glamour that has come to represent the public face of international development is not just that it can give rise to such examples of wholly irrational decision-making; but even more that, by its nature, it excludes non-Westerners, both experts and the poor whose interests the aid industry exists to champion. 

The Zambian-born economist and writer Dambisa Moyo spoke for many when she remarked that "public discourse on Africa" had become "a public disco". "Scarcely does one see Africa's (elected) officials or . . . African policymakers . . . offer an opinion on what should be done, or what might actually work to save the continent from its regression," Moyo argues. "This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa." 

For Moyo, the "glamour aid" phenomenon forms part of a wider tendency in the West, dating back to colonial times, to regard Africans as helpless children who cannot "improve their own lot in life without foreign guidance and help". This infantilising tendency manifests itself in a kind of moral megalomania, an attitude the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has dubbed "the white saviour industrial complex", which sees world poverty as "nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm". In Cole's view, the world of development aid "exists to satisfy the needs — including, importantly, the sentimental needs — of white people and Oprah [Winfrey]." 

This sentimental attitude towards the poor encourages an impatient, simplistic assessment of their political, social and economic situation. It is as if a sense of moral outrage becomes an end in itself, whereas in fact the moral imperative to help those in need ought to be regarded as the starting point in a long and demanding engagement with reality, in which it is often far from easy to bring relief to the poor, for all sorts of technical, economic, cultural, military and political reasons. 

These challenges and pitfalls have been well documented, at least since the economist Peter Bauer wrote his seminal studies on the effects of aid in Nigeria in the 1960s; but the extensive, fascinating literature on international aid has so far had a minimal impact on its public image. One important negative consequence of official aid, discussed by the Oxford economist Paul Collier among others, is simply that large injections of funds from the West unavoidably involve foreign exchange transactions that artificially drive up the price of local currencies. High exchange rates inhibit foreign investment and choke off nascent export industries, thereby depriving recipient states of the one tried-and-tested means by which poor countries such as Taiwan or South Korea have become rich over the last 50 years. 

Influxes of funds also tend to stimulate inflation and speculative booms in the host economy, forcing the authorities to raise interest rates, and thereby adding to the difficulties of home-grown businesses. Moreover, aid is generally provided in the form of loans, so that the West's largesse also increases the indebtedness of poor countries. Worse still, by providing an external source of funds, aid creates an incentive for coups and rebellions, since anyone who manages to get his hands on power can expect to enjoy the benefits of this revenue, regardless of the condition of the country at large. 

One of the critics' central arguments is that aid drives a wedge between the political elite and middle-class taxpayers, whose proportionate contribution to government revenue is diminished by the inflow of foreign cash. This means that, rather than being incentivised to encourage the growth of a prosperous and independently-minded citizen body, the ruling clique has every interest in prolonging a degree of misery at home, in the reasonable hope of maintaining the flow of foreign funds. Not only does official aid exacerbate corruption, therefore — it represents a serious form of public corruption in itself. 

Indeed one of the least attractive features of the aid consensus in the West is its tendency to understate or deny the culture of venality in recipient states. The Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo, who fled to the UK bringing with him a comprehensive dossier on corruption in President Mwai Kibaki's regime, has spoken of official Britain's long-held "quietly racist, patronising view that Kenyan affairs are being managed as well as anyone could expect . . . in other words, that Africans simply don't have the intelligence or sophistication to manage very well." When Githongo met two senior DfID officials in London following his resignation from Kibaki's administration in 2005, far from being welcomed as a champion of transparency and good governance, he was subjected to a "sneering and provocative" interview: "They kept referring to my ‘allegations', basically saying, ‘You've upset our programme.' I realised afterwards I'd been talking to two very angry men."

Not all British officials showed such contempt for the truth. Sir Edward Clay, Britain's High Commissioner to Kenya at the time of Githongo's resignation, was indignant about DfID's behaviour, which in his view set the worst possible precedent. "By their negligence, DfID have shown that they don't wish to see this issue pursued to a kill. And that's unforgivable . . . The message we're sending the Kenyan people is that, on the whole, we'll always line up with those in power."

One problem faced by the then Secretary of State Hilary Benn and his officials at DfID, and a partial explanation for their moral evasion, was simply that the department is under political pressure to spend its budget each year. "It's supply side pressure," in Clay's words. "Most departments have the Treasury breathing down their necks to spend less. DfID is unique in that it is required to spend more, and farther away from scrutiny than any other department." As the Africa expert Michela Wrong points out, this places DfID in a difficult — indeed, morally absurd — position, since if even relatively well-governed African countries like Kenya are excluded from the list of recipients on the ground of political corruption, the UK would be in danger of having nobody to give its money to at all. 

Another factor weighing on the minds of DfID officials is the rising influence of China, which has increased its trade with Africa 15-fold since 2000, and was described in a leaked US diplomatic cable  in 2010 as "a pernicious economic competitor with no morals". China's willingness to deal with literally anyone — even Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan — is a serious deterrent to anyone seeking to raise standards of governance in Britain's aid partners. If the British refuse aid to Kenya because of concerns over the abuse of funds, so the argument goes, China is more than willing to take Britain's place, no questions asked. The essential wisdom of this was demonstrated when Britain's High Commissioner to Malawi was expelled from the country in 2011 for describing President Bingu wa Mutharika as "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism". By contrast, Mutharika boasted that China had given Malawi aid with no strings attached. 

This is a strong argument, but it is ironic that DfID officials have been advancing it. When Tony Blair's government separated DfID from the Foreign Office in 1997, assigning the new department its own budget, the move was explained as a way of ensuring that Britain's aid would not be given or withheld for reasons of national interest as determined by the Foreign Office. Yet in the Githongo affair, DfID found itself arguing that British aid must be continued regardless of the moral case against, simply in order to preempt Chinese influence. By contrast, some Foreign Office officials courageously argued that Britain should do the right thing and back the whistleblower, regardless of the short-term impact on Britain's influence. 

Justine Greening, who took over from Andrew Mitchell as Secretary of State for International Development in the September reshuffle, is reported to have been reluctant to take on her new portfolio. If she feels short of allies in Whitehall, perhaps she should pick up the phone and talk to Andrew Mwenda, who encouraged her predecessor to cut Britain's aid. "As Africans," Mwenda wrote, "we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need." 

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Terence Milbiourn
December 8th, 2012
8:12 PM
A beautifully written piece. I cannot take issue with a single word, and as elegantly written as it is, I hesitate to add my own views. But since I want to contribute to the debate on, and do my best to stop, almost all aid ~ I will. The industrialised nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty in the least developed countries of Africa. These good intentions have been damaging the continent for the past 40 years. I want to paint you a very different picture of Africa in the future. One with which you might not be quite so familiar. If the industrialised nations really want to help the Africans, except for occasional humanitarian emergencies, they would wind-down and terminate aid altogether. Why? Because the countries that have received the most development aid are the ones that are in the worst shape now. Despite the billions that have been poured into Africa, a lot of the continent remains poor, and more people are getting poorer. And as Einstein once said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The explanation for this paradox is twofold. Huge bureaucracies are financed with the aid money ~ voters are disconnected from their politicians, corruption and complacency are promoted ~ and Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. Additionally, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship they so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound, development aid is one of the primary reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, most Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would feel hard done-by. Which is why they maintain that the world would 'stop turning' without overseas development assistance (ODA). Take Kenya for an example ~ even with all that aid, people are still starving to death there each year. So someone should help them, right? But unless Kenya is going to be holding out its begging bowl forever, it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. But right now, whenever there's a drought in a region of Kenya, the corrupt politicians instinctively cry out for more help rather than ask themselves, what can we do? This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program ~ which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of being, on the one hand, dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other, faced with unemployment were hunger actually to be eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousand more tons of corn is shipped to Africa. Corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidised European and American farmers. And at some point, this corn ends up in the harbour of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers then give up or 'go under' in the face of this pressure, Kenya will have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but brutally fatal cycle. So you might ask, what if the World Food Program wound down their operation and eventually didn't do anything ~ would the people of Africa starve? I don't think they would. In such a case, the Kenyans, for example, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of inter-state trade is vital for Africa. It would force them to improve their own infrastructure, while making national borders ~ drawn by the Europeans, by the way ~ more permeable. It would also force Africans to establish laws favouring a market economy. Would Africa actually be able to solve these kinds of problems on its own? Of course they would. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds etc. Africa is always portrayed as a continent of suffering, war and disease, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrialised nations, there's a sense that Africa would 'go under' without development aid. But it has to be said, Africa existed before us Europeans came along. Their civilisations were highly advanced and they didn't do that poorly. It is certainly true that AIDS didn't exist at that time. But if one were to believe all the horrifying reports, then all Africans should actually be dead already. Now, tests are being carried out everywhere, and it turns out that the figures were vastly exaggerated. Again, in Kenya, for example, its not three million Kenyans that are infected. All of the sudden, it's about one million. Malaria is just as much of a problem, but people rarely talk about that. Why? Because AIDS is 'big business', maybe Africa's biggest business. There's nothing else that can generate as much aid money as shocking figures on AIDS. AIDS is a 'political disease' in Africa, and we all should be very sceptical of most things we see published about it there. In the past, both the Americans and Europeans have frozen funds previously pledged to Africa ~ “the country is too corrupt”, they said. But before too long, that money was being transferred anyway. After all, it has to go somewhere ~ its aid money! Unfortunately, it seems, our devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason. It makes no sense whatsoever that directly after the new Kenyan government was elected, for example ~ a leadership change that ended the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Mois ~ the aid taps were suddenly opened wide and streams of money deluged into the country. Such aid is usually earmarked for a specific objective, but that doesn't change anything. Millions of dollars earmarked for the fight against AIDS are still stashed away in Kenyan bank accounts and have not been spent. Kenya's politicians were overwhelmed with money, so they tried to siphon off as much as possible. In the face of such willingness by the fool to be parted from his money, some would argue, its only human nature to oblige. The late tyrant of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, cynically summed it up by saying: "The French government pays for everything in our country. We ask the French for money. We get it, and then we waste it." What if we were as realistic about our own efforts? In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags and they flood African markets with that stuff. In Africa, if they want to, they can buy these donated clothes cheaply at, so-called, Mitumba markets. Why do we send these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing in Africa. Instead, their tailors, clothes store owners and employees lose their livelihoods. They're in the same position as the farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. For example, in 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide. There doesn't seem to be much joined-up thinking going on. UNICEF, for instance, just announced it is to save $20 million over the next 12 months with open-sourcing, and a price reduction of 20% for mosquito nets. And what about when celebrities just decide to helicopter in and dump thousands of free mosquito nets bought in other countries; putting the local mosquito net manufacturers out of business? Surely its not beyond their wit to see, albeit with hindsight, even a fraction of that $20 million would be much better invested in local bed-net manufacturers, who in turn would create employment for thousands of people, who can then feed and educate their families? The answer is, of course, they can. But they have other agendas. The aid agencies need to keep donor nations sweet, to keep aid flowing, and often ageing pop-stars are far more interested in spending their money to enhance their own fame and fortune, than the lives of others. The modern concept of overseas aid came out of the last World War. Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into their country through the Marshall Plan. So wouldn't that qualify as a successful development aid model? And if it worked there, why doesn't it work in Africa? The Marshall Plan had an outer shell ~ the European Recovery Programme ~ and an inner core ~ the economic reconstruction of Europe on the basis of debt forgiveness to, and trade integration with, Germany. So I guess there are one or two similarities. But lets not forget what they really wanted was to curry favour with of as many European countries as possible, so that they would join NATO, and support the USA instead of the USSR, who were doing similar things in East Europe in the hopes that they would join the Warsaw Pact, and support the USSR instead of the USA. Trade and looking like the 'good guys', was just a bonus ~ the main reason was to halt 'Joe Stalin' and delay the spread of Communism. However, in Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly- industrialised country before the war. And lets not forget, although the prime beneficiaries were the German people; US companies didn't do too badly either. Similarly, the damage created by the Tsunami in Thailand, for example, can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, is only just taking the first steps into modernity on its own. And for that to be successful, first there must be a real change in mentality. Right now, many Africans can only perceive themselves as victims. They have first to stop thinking of themselves as beggars in need of charity ~ something I am afraid aid has taught them to rely on for years. On the other hand, due to the focus of aid agencies, charities and the media, on wars, famine and corruption; nobody can really picture an African as a businessman ~ unless, that is, he's writing you some kind of dodgy email offering free $millions, or if your name is Kweku Adoboli, who's just been jailed for the UK's biggest bank fraud of £1.5bn. In order to change the current perception of Africa and Africans, it would be really helpful if the aid organisations were to wind down and pull out, and the media would do their job properly and portray Africa as it really is, not as a disaster zone full of warlords, dictators, pirates, famine victims and disease. Right now, jobs are being created artificially for all the wrong reasons, and this too distorts reality. Jobs with foreign aid organisations are, of course, quite popular, but these organisations can be very selective in choosing the best people. When an aid organisation needs a driver, dozens apply. And because it's unacceptable that the aid worker's chauffeur only speaks his own tribal language, an applicant is needed who also speaks English fluently and, ideally, one who is also well mannered. So you end up with some poor African biochemist driving a young aid worker intern around in a shiny white Landcruiser, distributing unwanted European food, forcing local farmers out of their livelihoods. Now that's just plain crazy! Somewhat belatedly ~ better late than never, I suppose ~ some Governments and a few aid organisations are now starting to put real effort into monitoring precisely the recipients/beneficiaries of its funding. And what's the result? Yet another disaster. The German government, for example, ignored the warning signs and threw money at Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and inadvertently (?) helped finance his war. Now this is a man who has the deaths of a million people on his conscience ~ if he had one ~ people that his army killed and are still killing in the neighbouring country of Congo. If the Germans really wanted to fight poverty, they would completely halt development aid and give Africa the opportunity and the assistance it needs to ensure its own survival. Africa is like a spoilt child who immediately cries for its nanny when something goes wrong, because that's what we've taught it to do. What Africa really needs is help to stand on its own two feet. We should be giving that hand up, not another hand out.

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