Development aid at a crossroad – some lessons learned

Development aid has had and will continue to play an important role in the global fight against poverty and inequality.

However, it needs to change. Some good results have been achieved, but not good as hoped for.

The prominent British researcher Paul Collier concludes that Africa south of Sahara would have been 25% poorer without development assistance. Other maintain that aid has undermined the ability of African governments to take enough responsibility for their own development.

Interestingly the most passionate advocates for increased aid to Africa are not Africans. This may be a reaction to the oversimplification in the donor community that more aid equals less poverty.

After more than 50 years of development assistance, some important lessons learned are:

1. Changes in a society largely comes from inside. Any nation, and in particular those who have a colonial history, will resist external pressure. With lack of involvement and support by those most affected by a donor initiated project, the project is almost bound to fail.

2. Without a good understanding of the politics, culture and power relations, the donors should not expect any effective impact.

3. The donors need to show respect for the recipients own decision-making process. Ability to relate and gain confidence is as important for effective aid as policy statements and money management. African countries want to be part of an international community that respect them and to not tell them how to run their country.

4. Africa has many realities. Every generalization is wrong. The opposite might also be true. To interfere and influence development in a foreign country requires knowledge and experience. Africa has never been short of advice or solution on paper from sources outside the continent. A recipient fatigue has developed.

5. Development assistance is a relatively small contribution to development. Goals and expectations on what could be achieved should therefore be modest.

6. Aid can speed up development that people have decided to carry out and has capacity to follow up. Money is not always the answer, but often it helps.

7. Donors and recipients need to reconsider where aid should intervene in development. Some countries in Africa should now be ready to take more responsibility for their own development and aid should gradually be reduced.

8. Donors should avoid building up their own state within the state with parallel structures. This might be efficient and give good short term results, but it is not development.

9. Donor support to a sector may tempt the recipient to switch their own money to consumption or to reduce their own commitment to raise taxes and collect revenues.

10. Donors should not be a key actor in another country’s policy making, but be allowed to propose ideas and solutions.

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Why rich under the soil and poor above?

Something has gone wrong when Africa with its huge potentials for agriculture has the world`s largest number of malnourished and hungry children.

Two thirds of Africans depend on farming for their livelihood. The sector’s potential is enormous. The World Bank has estimated that African agriculture and agribusiness could be worth $1 trillion in 2030.

However, agriculture is not attractive for African youth. To be a farmer is regarded as backbreaking, hard labor in the fields with meager benefits. They have seen their parents, poor with ragged clothing, using old-fashioned equipment, always short of fertilizers and other inputs to survive. Farming is for the elderly and poor in rural areas

The upcoming generation of young people, often with poor and irrelevant education, prefer to settle in urban areas in search of employment there.

However, agriculture still is and will continue to be the engine driving many African countries. Small-scale farmers are the backbone of African agriculture. Agriculture is not only important for growing food necessary to feed the growing population, but also to create employment and wealth and add more value to the continent`s natural resources before exporting..

If agriculture were to get the same political support and financial investment as the mining sector, agriculture would be capable of providing more jobs with decent income. Reforms have to be introduced to mechanize and produce the agriculture more efficiently.

Urban people are often fed by imported food, which undermines domestic agriculture. Africa imports $34 bn. of food annually, but could easily feed itself if agricultural productivity improved.

The need to reverse decades of policy neglect and to increase investment in African agriculture is widely recognized. Some critics, however, argue that large-scale investment can marginalize Africa’s small scale farmers and open up for increased land grabbing by international companies with little understanding of local land rights.

Foreign investment in agriculture is not necessarily ‘land grabbing’. The main reason why international land-rush to Africa is providing bad news for rural people has to do with the failure of governance and lack of control of the decision-making process. Large land deals are signed over the heads of local people, while greedy politicians are busy getting their share of the investment.

Job creation for young people is more about political leadership and political will than about shortage of funds. When Asian countries were poor as African countries today, they decided to change their economies, starting with smallholder agriculture.

Investing in agriculture could benefit food security at both global and national level.

But the enormous resources has to be managed by competent governments.

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Africa and development – is Africa ready to reform the donors?

Aid debate in most Western countries has a donor perspectives on development. The size of the aid budget is often more important than discussing the role aid should play in development in a foreign country. Visions and missions are discussed before programmes have been agreed upon with the recipients and implementation possibilities considered.

That more aid equals less poverty is still a simplification common in many sectors of the aid community. The opposite could also be a reality in some countries in the South.

Time has come for donors to remind themselves that the long-term goal for aid is for countries in the South to take greater responsibility for their own development. A success for a donor should be when they have to close down because the recipients are able to solve their own problems.

This will be a very hard step to take by many in the aid community.

But aid at its best could still contribute towards important development goals. To provide basic services to people who need them is a legitimate goal in its own right. There are still more than 500 million people in Africa living in permanent poverty.They are not likely to benefit from any other money flow than aid.

There is extensive evidence to show that aid does reach intended beneficiaries and provides them with key services. Norad’s annual result report gives many examples of success stories that both Norway and recipients have reasons to be proud of.

However, there are also examples of quick and well-meant funding that has been counterproductive. “Needs” of a country or a sector have sometimes led to lack of efforts by those who should be in the driving seat. Sectors are taken over are enthusiastic and well-financed donors. Donors have built up their own state within a state with parallel structures and created their own decision-making systems. The government has abdicated and donors have delivered services.

Donors have often had their finger in the pie, making some countries in the South skeptical of aid from Western countries. Opposition is particularly strong against foreigners who tell them how they should do their job. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe has managed to achieve for us a baffling popularity in many parts of Africa by playing on national pride, the right to make their own decisions in their own country and not to be bullied by a former colonial power.

Many feel that they are better able to choose which donors to work with. Soon, maybe, the offer of assistance will exceed demand. Not so much because of the content of the assistance program, but the way it is presented and planned. Lack of respect for countries’ own decision-making processes is still a major weakness in the aid community.

In countries with growing economies and vast natural resources, the donor role will change. It will be an ongoing challenge and find a balance between what countries in the South request for and believe foreign players can contribute with, and the donor organizations’ impact agenda.

Aid can never be more than a small tool in the efforts to combat poverty. Lack of sobriety and realism have been goodies for the critics of the aid. They point out, often with good reason, that there is a large gap between what the aid organizations say they will do and what is actually achieved.

The most realistic believe that aid at its best can only support the positive trends that are already there and only modestly change the politics and power relations, although that is what we most want to do.

The role of Norwegian aid in the years to come, in addition to humanitarian help to countries in crisis, should primarily concentrate on knowledge transfer, innovation, development of programmes of quality in health and education, exchange of experiences from the role of civil society, exploitation of natural resources, taxes, trade and economic development.

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Africa – how long wil it suffer from poor political leadership

Some years ago Afro-optimism was stronger than pessimism. Now the trend is about to change. Many countries in Africa seem to keep going around in circles instead of moving forwards.

There are, however, exceptions like Botswana, Namibia, Rwanda and Ethiopia. New leadership in Tanzania and Nigeria also gives some hope.

But Africa is still characterized by countries rich in natural resources and poor people. The elite doesn’t seem to care much about poverty. Patronage is stronger than democracy.

There are few outstanding political leaders in Africa today, but plenty of good leaders in other areas of society.

Ghanaian economist George Ayittey talks (see his TED talk here) about the old generation of “hippo leaders” who cling to power and protect their territory fiercely when they perceive they are being attacked. They do whatever to avoid being forced to leave their watering hole and then retire to the shadow.

Ayittey further refer to the typical African development scenario as bad drivers (leaders), bad vehicle (state craft), bad roads (infrastructure) and angry passengers fed up with lack of progress.

The difficult question to answer is: Why do so many promising, newly elected president fail to implement their visions once in power?

It seems that powerful forces in society that encompass the presidency have succeeded in defeating many reform initiatives. As soon as elected, the president is trapped by an elite that greatly benefit from the system of patriamonalism and status quo. And the new president gradually takes the role of a traditional chief who looks after his subordinates more as savior than as a political leader with long-term development goals.

Some presidents are paralyzed by external pressure. He therefore starts to allocate privileges among the powerful elites to secure support when re-election is on the agenda.

It shall be interesting to follow the future route of the new Tanzanian president John Magufuli. He has created big expectations by his anti-corruption and anti-luxury stand. Public officers will no more be allowed to drive limousines when going to the village and there will be no more flying first class to meetings in Europe. And the pilot of the presidential plane is said to be under-employed…. However, on the negative side is his skepticism to freedom of the press.

But it will be interesting to follow his ability to manoeuvre in a patriamonial system and see if he has the strength and ability to implement his political platform.

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Consensus and conflicts in civil society

Experience from Africa (and the rest of the world) has given many examples of a Civil society not necessarily good in itself. In some cases civil society has contributed towards destruction of societies and played a negative role in conflicts and peace building.

Foreign support to civil society in fragile state has often failed. Sometimes the donors have not understood the internal conflict of a country. Lack of knowledge, little insight in local culture and power structures have proved to be obstacles to good results.  

Donors are often attracted to groups within the country who share their values and views on development, but who have limited support and no outreach in their own country. In many countries in Africa this kind of artificial civil society is mushrooming as a response to donor funding. Donors should seriously rethink their ideology and be more willing to trade ideology for pragmatism.

In many fragile states civil society is polarized, reflecting existing conflicts within society. Civil society has sometimes contributed to the history of conflicts. In such a context it may be more important to support cooperation and reconciliation in order to facilitate trust among key fractions within society.

A civil society organisation should avoid playing a role similar to that of a political party.

 

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Africa – for how long a rich continent with poor people?

There are many sweeping statement about development in Africa. The outside world has difficulties in understanding what is happening. Little is written or communicated about development in Africa, except when a crisis occur or an old dictator makes some outlandish statements.

The way Africa often is presented is a continent sunk in poverty with dictatorial, greedy leaders, swelling population, unemployment, corruption, meager health facilities and poor education.

But recently more attention has been given to the new prosperous Africa with economic growth, enterprising youth and with a new generation of leaders ready to utilize the continents enormous resources not only to the benefit of the few.

Africa is the continent with enormous potentials. It has the largest reserves of untapped mineral resources in the world. Its fertile soil could easily feed the whole continent. Its huge rivers could supply Africa with energy. The upcoming generation has learned that where mineral resources are managed by competent governments and revenues used well, wealth has been created. Elsewhere it has fed wars and created poverty.

But unfortunately, the impressive economic growth has not been translated into jobs for young people. Terrorist movements and criminal gangs therefore easily take advantage of the widening level of inequality and opportunity.

The ruling elite has been clever in directing discontent against a rival ethnic group rather than against those in power. Status quo for the leadership has also been maintained because they have succeeded in making the poor people believe that their survival depends on the charity of their leaders and therefore they should vote for them. Patronage seems to be stronger than democracy.

But Africa optimism is increasing. Ali Mazuri has written about “bottom up” nation building, rooted in culture and energized from within. Other point to the successes of Ethiopia and Rwanda and their policy of strong leadership combined with local mobilization.

While we wait for a new generation of African leaders to emerge and replace “the old hippos”, the leadership of Khama, Masire and Mogae in Botswana could serve as an inspiration.

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New civil society drivers in Africa?

Much has been written about the importance of civil society in Africa. However, the debate seems to have been dominated by non-Africans. Even when I came across an interesting article on “Civil society in Africa in a non-Western context”, the author was British.

For many years formal African civil society organisations, both the agenda setting and the financing have been the domain of  external actors. Often indigenous NGOs have been established and financed to implement policies of international civil society organisations.

I think this now is about to change. In the future indigenous organisations should approach foreign organisations for cooperation, not the other way around.

Confronting, or constructive criticism?

African governments have welcomed foreign NGOs when the main focus has been service delivery. They are now, however, increasingly skeptical to external political/human rights involvement. There is no doubt that the shrinking space for many NGOs in Africa is often caused by the use of external funding to influence domestic-decision making. It is easy to be fatigued by advice and influence from outside.

Movements more than organisations

International NGOs are often surprisingly disconnected from newly established indigenous associations  and movements now gaining influence in Africa. The new wave of new associations seems to be based on the importance of maintaining local legacy. They are open for cooperation with foreign NGOs, but not to be dominated by them. They would fail in their mission if they were to concentrate on designing log-frames and writing reports to donors. But they should be open for ideas from outside.

Trends and pitfalls

Civil society is not necessarily good in itself. In some cases civil society has contributed to destruction of societies and played a negative role in conflicts and peacebuilding. But in most countries civil society play an important “checks and balances” role. Often civil society is in a better position to scrutinize government performance than opposition political parties. Therefore an increasing number of African NGOs have an important watchdog function constantly challenging those in power.

But the biggest pitfall for all civil society organizations is to end up as described by a prominent African civil society leader:

“I am so tired of rhetoric about development, women and the poor. Too many good speeches while ordinary people continue to suffer”

(General Secretary of World YMCA, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda)

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