Development Aid – Help or Hindrance?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Celebrities have made foreign aid cool. With their themed wristbands, tireless campaigning and regular trips to Africa, people such as Bono are among the world’s most prominent activists.

?Washington, D.C. – Scripps Howard Foundation Wire – infoZine – The face of development aid has changed since Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961. More and more famous people are signing up to “make poverty history” and save Africa from war, corruption and HIV/AIDS, and they are asking the U.S. and governments across the globe to give more to the cause.

Some celebrities have been accused of using Africa’s problems to further their careers. Madonna was criticized for not following the correct procedures in her adoption of David Banda from Malawi.

Others have been commended for their efforts. Bill and Melinda Gates shared Time magazine’s person of the year title with Bono in 2005. Bono is the face of the One campaign to make poverty history and helped organize the Live 8 concerts to raise awareness and public pressure. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed $750 million to improve access to child immunization and vaccines.

The U.S. gives less than half of one percent of the federal budget in aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Some say this is too little. Others say the money given in foreign aid might do more harm than good. For one thing, government-to-government aid is intended to do more than help recipient countries. It also promotes the interests of donor nations.

Steven Radelet, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, stated in a July 2006 working paper, “There is little question that foreign policy and political relationships are the most important determinants of aid flows.” The paper, “A Primer on Foreign Aid,” explores the impact and objectives of aid as well as debates about aid reform.

Michael Swigert, associate director for policy and communications at Africa Action, an advocacy organization, said one of the problems with foreign aid is that it comes with strings attached. To qualify, he said, countries have to meet conditions, which can interfere with the ability to solve the problems for which the aid was intended. Restrictions on spending, for example, could make it difficult to hire enough qualified health care workers.

Some say the U.S. government should not be giving away taxpayers’ money without their consent. A May 2006 piece in Republican Rep. Ron Paul’s Texas Straight Talk column condemns foreign aid, saying, “If someone picks your pocket and donates the money to a good cause, it does not negate the original act of theft.”

Robert Calderisi, author of “The Trouble With Africa: Why foreign aid isn’t working” and a former loan officer for the World Bank, disagrees. “Charity certainly begins at home,” he said,” but the original idea behind foreign aid still holds true. If other people’s incomes rise, markets for rich-country goods, and now services, will continue to expand as well.”

In an article “Turning on the Lights: A short history of foreign aid in Africa,” Calderisi cites an example of a development aid failure. In 1976 the World Bank approved a $200 million loan for a paper and pulp factory in Tanzania, later adding another $20 million. The project failed, the article states, because the Tanzanians could not manage the advanced technology or the huge investment on their own, and technical assistance would have made the project too expensive. Tanzania ended up with an enormous debt and nothing to show for it.

The article also discusses the problem of corruption and the misuse of funds by government and aid officials. “Aid officials grow accustomed to flying business class and holding seminars on poverty in luxury hotels,” the article states, “at the same time, they complain about government extravagance.”

The solution to corruption and other governance problems in African countries, Swigert said, is the presence of a strong civil society that holds leaders accountable.

Molly McNab, vice president of programming for Africa Aid, said these problems are simply too large for some nongovernmental organizations to tackle. NGOs such as Africa Aid are made up entirely of volunteers, funded largely by private donations and often work closely with communities and local NGOs in African countries.

Calderisi said private individuals can help best through humanitarian organizations such as CARE and Doctors Without Borders.

“Not all of this money will be used efficiently,” Calderisi warned, “and there will be trial and error. But, at the receiving end … it will encourage private initiative and effort.”

Until recently, Africa Aid ran a program providing school lunches for children in the Buduburam Liberian Refugee camp in Ghana, which is being closed.

“We hired several of the mothers of the children to help cook and run the program,” McNab said.

Africa Aid also started a micro-loan initiative, providing loans to help Africans start their own businesses. “There’s also a savings component to it,” said McNab, adding that part of the loan repayment is saved and given back to loan recipients who have achieved some financial independence.

Swigert advises those who want to make a real difference to “get educated.” He said people should learn in depth about a country or issue that interests them and “try to get information on that topic, not just from Western sources or U.S. sources.”

Africa’s problems are interconnected, McNab said, therefore “our solutions should also be interconnected and integrated.”

“Aid should be seen as a supplement to local efforts rather than a driving force, because as soon as it becomes dominant it has damaging effects,” Calderisi said.

“You have to have a genuine two-way dialogue,” Swigert said.

McNab said a great deal of planning and research goes into Africa Aid’s programs. “We make sure that we know exactly what the community needs.”

There have been other successes. “If you look at HIV/AIDS, there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of people on anti-retrovirals in Africa,” Swigert said. The government of Botswana, for example, provides the drugs for free.

Some success, however, “does not mean that foreign aid is effective everywhere,” Calderisi said. “On the contrary, the lessons of experience suggest that we should focus it on countries, governments and communities that are using their own resources well.”

Asked whether aid increases dependency on the West, McNab said, “I think it can, but it doesn’t have to.”

She said there are enough people in African communities who want to improve their quality of life, and the programs can provide a catalyst for change. The organization might provide the initial funding, McNab said, but “We want to make sure that it’s people empowering themselves through our programs.”

It is unrealistic to suggest leaving Africa’s problems off of the international agenda because “Africa is engaged already through the global trading system,” Swigert said, and the continent is affected by global events. He added that to make aid more effective donor nations should switch from loans to grants and cancel 100 percent of Africa’s debt.

“You need to break that cycle,” he said, of money given in aid circling back into debt repayments.

The trend in celebrity activism is becoming a large factor in developmental aid.

While famous faces can help create awareness, Swigert said, it is a challenge to avoid enforcing established stereotypes of the African continent. “There’s a danger of promoting that sort of paternalistic culture,” he said.

What is really needed, said Swigert, is the support of the public. Awareness helps, but “in and of itself, that’s not going to solve the problem,” he said.

Source: Kansas City infoZine News (link opens in a new window)