The Aid Albatross

by Ernest Armah

“To the Excellencies and officials of Europe: We suffer enormously in Africa. Help us. We have problems in Africa. We lack rights as children. We have war and illness. We lack food…We want to study, and we ask you to help us to study so we can be like you, in Africa”

Message found on the bodies of Guinean teenagers Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, stowaways who died attempting to reach Europe in the landing gear of an airliner

(quoted from Moyo’s Dead Aid)

I chanced upon Moyo’s “Dead Aid”, written in 2009, at a time when I was having a discussion with a fellow intern with respect to why aid has not helped Africans that much. Though we had different views on the matter, our voices were congruent on the substance of aid; that in itself, it is not counter-development.

Historically, in cases where the real objectives of aid met effective actions (not intentions), it had a phenomenal outcome. It was through aid that a post 2nd-World-War Europe was reconstructed. Between 1948 and 1952, Britain, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, France, and Italy were brought up from their crumbling knees with over US$13 billion through the Marshall plan. Today, one of the beneficiaries, Germany is a reluctant hegemon, as the Economist puts it.”From the football pitch to politics to the economy, Germany has become Europe’s most powerful country…Germany now appears to have the continent’s strongest as a well as its biggest economy. It accounts for a fifth of the European Union’s output and a quarter of its exports. From Volkswagen to SAP, Germany’s big companies are world-reknowned”(the Economist’s special report (June 15th-21st) on Germany).

The success of Germany is what rolls all the issues into one big question – why has aid not worked in Africa? By the end of the 1970s, the African continent had around US$36 billion in foreign assistance. What results did we get from this money? According to Transparency International, “Mobutu is estimated to have looted Zaire to the tune of US$5 billion; roughly the same amount was stolen from Nigeria by President Sani Abacha and placed in Swiss private banks”. Leaders of this sort became our “Germany” story. Another recent example would suffice.

The Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria had splashed US$474 million on health initiatives throughout Nigeria in the preceding six years. But a value-for-grant audit carried out by the fund earlier in 2011 found that three out its six Nigerian partners had misapplied or misappropriated US$7 million in grants. One of the three, the National Agency for the Control of AIDS, is a government body (Africa In Fact Report 2013).

The thing in Africa is that aid hardly achieves its intended purposes. Moyo laments that “Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world”. I disagree with her point but share her sentiment. So should Africa be weaned of aid? She answered that with a question, ‘What if one by one, African countries receive a phone call…telling them that in exactly five years the aid taps would be shut off – permanently?’

In her book, Moyo cited China as one of the reference points for African countries to learn from. She even stated a cart-before-the-wheel situation in Africa – democracy before economic development. “In a perfect world, what poor countries at the lowest rungs of economic development need is not a multi-party democracy, but in fact a decisive benevolent dictator to push through the reforms required to the economy moving”. I would have shared her opinion, which I consider emotionally draconian in this context, had she said a firm and fair leader backed by a strong institution. I say this because African leaders over the years have been unpredictable. Past African dictators have only been decisive at silencing opposition and benevolent to their sycophants and truth-twisters.

Deeply I do share her ultimate concern – African governments can find ways to address the issues they have allowed aid to do for them. For how long would the fate of rural dwellers, deprived children, HIV/AIDS persons be decided at Washington DC and 10 Downing street?