Aid at the donor’s command

Development Policy14 Oct 2011Stephen Yeboah

Ensuring effective development in backward economies is urgent.

Aid contributes to the fight against poverty and hunger in developing countries. It is also increasingly argued that aid is hurting developing countries especially those in Africa. In recent decades, Africa has witnessed more aid than any other continent. According to the 2011 ONE Data Report, total development assistance for sub-Saharan Africa reached $39.7 billion in 2010, representing an increase of $13.5 billion over 2004 levels.

It is hard to understand the paradox of aid. It is incredibly disappointing that the region that receives the most aid is today the poorest continent in the world, particularly considering the valuable natural resources at its disposal. Even with increased foreign aid, it is overwhelmingly evident that about 51 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than 1.25 dollars per day.

The disparity between aid and effective development has therefore generated unprecedented debate regarding whether or not Africa really needs aid to combat the ever-increasing poverty, hunger and economic backwardness. The Rome Declaration (2003), Paris Declaration (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008), meant to rethink the architecture of aid, have been necessary but have barely made an impact. The declarations and commitments constitute talks without action. Of tthe thirteen measurable targets set by the Paris Declaration, only one had been realized as revealed by the 2011 Monitoring Survey of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is sobering and worrying indeed.

This is a stark reminder that aid is not effective. Aid makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. It is widening the gap between rural and urban settings. Development and progress is at a standstill if not dwindling.

The causes of aid ineffectiveness are not hard to guess. The world does not need a miracle to make sure that aid alleviates poverty. It is about getting priorities right, cooperation and real commitment to global development. Aid commitments are falling short apart from aid being used as a tool to threaten developing economies. The potential global recession has seen aid threatened with cuts too. Britain has made moves to cut its aid. The donors choose when and what to give out. Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for Africa – at the first-ever African Investment Summit organized by the London Stock Exchange (LSE) on Tuesday October 11 in London – warned that the temptation to cut aid to Africa would be a great mistake. The warning may already have been ignored. David Cameron has threatened to cut aid intended for Ghana and Uganda this year in response to their treatment of homosexuals. Britain has already done it to Malawi. The UK government has cut aid by $30 million to Malawi after two homosexuals were sentenced to 14 months hard labor for having an engagement ceremony.

Is aid obligatory or merely a country’s wish? Britain can decide the amount and the timing of its hand-outs to needy economies. The ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ syndrome should no longer play a role here. However, developing economies should own what they receive! Uncertain aid unsettles the priorities of developing economies. Shouldn’t aid commitments be made certain to inform development agendas of less developed economies? Threats to cut down or withdraw aid only vindicate aid ineffectiveness and unfulfilled commitments. Accra Agenda for Action’s (AAA’s) ownership of programmes of aid is just a mirage. Donors still decide. Aid with strings attached dictates what to do or otherwise.

Busan should clearly define commitments to aid. Commitments should be made to go beyond the rhetoric. Commitment not backed by actions has the tendency to put development at risk. Over 13 million people are in danger from life-threatening hunger in the horn of Africa, increased child and maternal mortality is gradually putting Africa on the brink of extinction and hopelessness, and civil war is apportioning enough time for tensions and killings.

Africa dare not depend on aid. Commitments are the sole wishes of donors. They decide what and when to give. If aid follows this pathway, then aid will be needless for ‘needy’ economies.

It is not surprising when aid does not meet its aspirations. It is because donors clamour for secrecy. They support opaque deals. According to Publish What You Fund, a number of donors seem to be ”attempting to dilute or undermine” commitments to aid transparency “by removing all references to the International Aid Transparency Initiative” and implementation deadlines during the “Working Party on Aid Effectiveness” meeting in Paris this week. When Africa loses nearly $150 billion a year through pervasive corruption, it stands to reason that transparency is a precondition for real aid. How much is invested in poverty and hunger reduction programmes? Only donors and governments of developing countries are aware of what goes out and what comes in. Citizens have been turned spectators — watching just for the fun of it while they are bear the brunt of poor utilization of those funds.

If aid is for democracy, then citizens reserve the right to know. The right to information is what democracy demands. The ‘Arab Spring’ revolution was the result of frustration with increasing secrecy and a demand for openness. Light should be shed on what governments are doing with the few stipends at their disposal to improve the lots of the poor.

I put this question to leaders that would be gathering during the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan — Is the aid regime teaching Africa to fish? Or is aid driving Africa to fish in water without fish or dead fish? This trend puts the progress of developing economies at risk.

In all, achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 should set the motion for a new transparent architecture of aid that makes poverty and inequality a priority. This should inform Busan.

Busan should set new standards and mandates for aid effectiveness that go beyond mere talk. Less of that, Africa should think inwardly for a development miracle. Ensuring effective development in backward economies especially those in Africa is urgent. Tomorrow may be too late.