Africa is poor. If we send it more money it will be less poor. It seems perfectly logical, doesn't it? But it isn't. Along with its many benefits, government aid to Africa has often meant more poverty, worse basic services and damage to already precarious democratic institutions. Calls for more aid are drowning out pressure for action that would really make a difference for Africa's poor. Rather than doubling aid to Africa, it is time to reduce aid dependency. This book will show you why.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

It starts with a council estate

This article was first published in the Guardian newspaper on 27 Feb 2009

A group of foreigners turn up in a community. They are a different colour, dress differently and speak a funny language. They step off the bus and are ushered into a communal building, a school perhaps, where some local residents (elected, selected, or just pushy) explain the problems they are facing. The foreigners listen attentively, taking notes, sometimes shocked by what they hear. Afterwards, the leader of the visiting group stands up, expresses his solidarity, and promises to work with the community to help it make progress.

A typical scene in many African countries as development "experts" arrive to help plan interventions with local communities. This kind of consultation will have taken place many times in Katine. But what if this wasn't Katine? What if it wasn't Africa at all? Imagine that the community being visited is in London, or Manchester, or a poor rural area in the UK, and the visitors are from Katine, bringing their expertise, their culture, their solutions to share with people in this country.

"Development" work has changed a lot over the years. We don't call it "charity" work much any more, because we don't want to further the idea that we are giving hand-outs to the poor in a paternalistic manner. Whereas once we arrived with grand ideas to help the "undeveloped", now we don't think we know all the answers – we listen, and do our best to respond. At Christian Aid, where I work, we are proud of our partnership approach, supporting local communities and organisations to change their own lives and contexts by providing them with money, expertise and political accompaniment.

But for all the shifts in our understanding of what development means, there is one paradigm that stubbornly persists. It is still about how we in the west can help the poor in other countries. What can we give you? What can we teach you? What can we campaign on that will make the world better for you? At your service. But are we right to be so confident of what we have to offer?

I know a lot of Africans, Latin Americans and Asians who are appalled at how we live in this country and who genuinely pity us for our way of life. And they don't just pity the poor. They pity the affluent, the wealthy, society as a whole. They cannot fathom how we put our parents into old peoples' homes to sit in circles watching telly. They are sad that mental health is now as big a concern in our hospitals as physical injury. They find the number of abortions carried out each year abhorrent, to name just three examples.

And I know many westerners whose thinking has been transformed by their experiences in other countries and who believe passionately that we in the west need to learn from other parts of the world, including very poor communities, where life is approached differently. I read an article a few years ago written by a married couple who had spent 20 years working with marginalised communities in rural India before they returned to work in Glasgow. They said: "We thought we knew what poverty was, and then we came to Easterhouse."

In the Katine project, through the website, we have learned of the serious problems locals face: in education, health, gender differences, water quality and simply making a decent living. What would our experts from Katine discover on their visit to a poor British community? They might visit the parents of a young boy, the most recent victim of knife crime. They might be invited to a group for pregnant teenagers. Go around the corner to the school where smoking kids are shouting at teachers. Up the road, past the crack house, is the job centre where there are no jobs for people with no skills. A caricature, maybe, but not so far from the reality of life for many people living in Britain today. Having created a society so ill at ease with itself, so disappointing, it might seem surprising, almost arrogant, that we still choose to go abroad to try to help other people.

But it isn't arrogant or wrong. We are right to want to help people, wherever they are in the world, especially if we have played a part in their poverty (through unfair trade rules, natural resource exploitation, insistence on crippling debt repayments and so on). We have many ideas, and we have lots of money. And despite the problems in our society, we have succeeded in just as many areas as we have failed, and we are right to want to share our successes with other countries, whether in science, political freedom, culture, economic management or social policies. But we do get it wrong when we think that we have the answers. And we are arrogant when we think we have nothing to learn from the communities, like Katine, that in our generosity we want to support.

Wouldn't it be interesting for the Guardian and Amref to break open this last great mistaken paradigm of development - the one-way street paradigm - that of us helping them, and develop a system to foster communal learning across borders? What would it be that we might learn from the people in Katine? What insights might they be able to offer not only the poor communities in Britain, but the affluent as well? How might it work practically? What would catch the attention of Ugandan journalists invited to live in a London suburb, or a sink estate? Not an HIV epidemic, for sure. Nor the extreme poverty still experienced by billions of people in Africa, India and around the world and which must continue to be the main focus of our attention. But poverty nonetheless. Physical, material, mental and spiritual. Isn't it time we opened ourselves up to the kind of scrutiny we so confidently undertake in other countries?

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 13:11

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Use the economic crisis to reduce aid dependence

This article was first posted on on 14 Feb 2009

In the economic turmoil currently affecting the industrialised world, the arguments I set out in my book, The Trouble With Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa, become even more pertinent. As donor governments look for ways to cut expenditure on non-priority activities, some campaigners will shift away from a call to double aid to Africa, towards trying to ensure that aid at least does not begin to tail off. But to continue to focus our attention on aid would be to ignore the mistakes of the past, and to miss the opportunities presented by the present context.

In the book I argue that campaigning for more aid should be a low priority for those concerned about poverty reduction, human rights and democracy in Africa. The optimism that aid is making a big difference to the lives of poor Africans is not shared by most analysts on the African continent. In a literature review carried out for the Overseas Development Institute, Moses Isooba of Uganda’s Community Development Resource Network found that, ‘A majority of civil society actors in Africa see aid as a fundamental cause of Africa’s deepening poverty.’ Rather than accepting the simplistic notion that more aid equals less poverty, we need to look at the evidence. All of it. In contrast to aid optimists and aid pessimists, who selectively use evidence either to support or dismiss aid, this “aid realism” recognizes that the impacts of aid are complex.

I break down aid’s impacts into four categories. Direct impacts are the easiest to measure and are the ones we hear about most in the media – how many people have been vaccinated, how many schools have been built, and so on. These impacts are very often positive. Receiving large amounts of aid also has macroeconomic consequences because large inflows of foreign money affect prices and incentives. But the two most important impacts, and potentially the most harmful, are aid conditions and aid dependency. The new global context offers new possibilities to make progress on these two vital issues which Africa campaigners must seize before the window of opportunity closes.

The policy conditions attached to aid have arguably had greater consequences in the lives of Africans than the direct impacts of the way the money has actually been spent. Within two decades the whole economic direction of a continent has changed, largely as a consequence of aid, and while some people have gained, many more have suffered as a result. But now the credibility of donor countries to insist that recipients adopt certain economic policies has been severely undermined. The failure of these donors properly to regulate the financial markets is the main cause of the current global meltdown. Meanwhile western governments have elaborated huge spending plans not only to nationalise banks, but also to protect key industries from collapse – policy options effectively denied to African countries facing far greater crises in the last few decades, at the insistence of these same governments. One of the key calls I make in the book is that the arrogance with which a specific set of liberal economic policies are being foisted on Africa must stop, and that the coming decade must be a decade of policy freedom, in which African governments are allowed to govern as they see fit. Reduced confidence in the West’s economic model brings this objective a few steps closer – campaigners should turn up the heat.

It is generally agreed that shortcomings in the accountability and effectiveness of African governments in recent decades have been a major part of the problem of low or negative growth and insignificant poverty reduction. What is less discussed, but is becoming increasingly clear, is that dependency on aid from foreign donors has undermined the development of the basic institutions needed to govern and the vital link of accountability between state and citizen. According to Siapha Kamara of the Social Enterprise Development (SEND) Foundation of West Africa, ‘the more African governments are dependent on international aid the less ordinary citizens such as farmers, workers, teachers or nurses have a meaningful say in politics and economic policies.’

The overhaul of the global financial system now being called for by the world’s leading governments provides a unique opportunity to undo some of the measures that until now have prevented Africa from maximising its development resources. One key aspect that is coming under increasing scrutiny is the complex global web of tax havens that serves no serious purpose for rich nations or poor, but is responsible for allowing dodgy deals, theft and crime to abound. Africa loses far more every year through capital flight to tax havens than it receives in aid. Plugging this leak, cracking down on corruption (including the demand side), and building better financial systems which, among other things, could make more credit available to small and medium sized businesses, would open the way to reducing dependence on aid. Such possibilities have also become more likely since the crisis began.

In many countries aid has done more harm than good. Rather than seek more of it, most African governments should set out plans to reduce the amount they receive over the next decade or so. Even when it is playing a positive role, which it certainly can sometimes, aid is far less important than a whole range of other measures rich governments need to take to support development in Africa. Campaigners should spend their limited time and resources on more important issues that would make a substantial and sustainable difference to Africa – I make suggestions for what these should be in my book.

African countries have reduced poverty when they have implemented the right policies, and when foreign governments have taken supportive measures. Aid has been at best marginal to this effort, and at worst has frequently undermined it. In 2009 the opportunity exists for African governments to make strides towards policy freedom and aid independence. It will not be easy, but the course should be set.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 13:03

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