The blind leading the clueless

Development Policy04 Feb 2008George B.N. Ayittey

The Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be commended for its brutally frank and highly critical but professional assessment of Dutch Africa aid policy over the period 1998–2006. It reiterates what has already been known for decades: the failure of Dutch Africa foreign aid policy in Africa. Few success stories can be identified, and over €2 billion of Dutch taxpayers’ money may have gone down the drain.

The reasons for failure are many and well articulated in the IOB report: too many partner countries (47 out of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa), the multiplicity of objectives, overlapping bureaucracies, channelling of aid through multilateral agencies, aid modality shift from project support to general budget and to sector support; lack of coherence, conflicting priorities, ad hoc implementation, etc. As the IOB rightly concludes, there was ‘too much policy’ and ‘too few priorities.’ Under the mantra ‘everything was possible,’ an ‘elaborate mosaic’ of funded programmes, sectors and activities was produced. Total confusion reigned. Of course, the recipient African governments were even worse. As a result the entire aid programme amounted to the blind leading the clueless.

However, the IOB report suffers from two fundamental deficiencies. First, it does not address the flawed premises upon which Dutch Africa aid policy has been based. For example, a faulty premise in most Western aid programmes has been the notion that there exists in sub-Saharan Africa a ‘government’ that cares about its people, serves their interests or represents them that the Dutch government can enter into a ‘partnership’ with to alleviate poverty. This is laughable. Even more ludicrous is the fact that neither the Dutch government nor the recipient African country knows where the poor are.

An African economy can be broken up into three sectors: the modern, the informal and traditional (rural) sectors. The modern sector, often situated in the urban areas, is the seat of government and the abode of the elites. Much of the development resources and foreign aid were channelled into the modern sector in the frenzy to ‘industrialize’ Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, over 80% of development is concentrated around Abidjan. The informal and rural sectors, where the vast majority of Africans live, were neglected. This is the primary reason why Africa can’t feed itself. The mainstay of the rural sector is agriculture. Today, Africa spends about $20 billion a year to import food – a sum nearly equal to what Africa receives in foreign aid from all sources.

Worse, the allocation of vast amounts of resources to the modern sector yielded little fruit. That sector is now dysfunctional and collapsing. It has been the source of Africa’s incessant struggles for political power, which ultimately degenerate into political instability and civil wars, and which spill over onto the informal and rural sectors, claiming innocent victims. Nor can the modern sector be reformed. The World Bank has spent more than $25 billion trying to coax or cajole African governments to reform their abominable political and economic systems, but they are not interested, period.

Ask them to cut bloated state bureaucracies or government spending and they will set up a ‘Ministry of Less Government Spending.’ Ask them to establish better systems of governance and they will set up a ‘Ministry of Good Governance’ (Tanzania). Ask them to curb corruption and they will set up an ‘Anti-Corruption Commission’ with no teeth and then sack the Commissioner if he gets too close to the fat cats (Kenya). Ask them to establish democracy and they will empanel a coterie of fawning sycophants to write the electoral rules, toss opposition leaders into jail, hold fraudulent elections and return themselves to power (Ivory Coast, Rwanda). Ask them to place more reliance on the private sector and they will create a Ministry of Private Enterprise (Ghana). Ask them to privatize inefficient state-owned enterprises and they will sell them off at fire-sale prices to their cronies (Uganda).

Evaluate the term ‘development partner’ in this context. Evidently, Western donors have become ‘co-conspirators,’ aiding and abetting this fraudulent process of reform. The process has stalled through vexatious chicanery, strong-arm tactics, wilful deception, and vaunted acrobatics. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic, and fewer than eight are ‘economic success stories.’ Intellectual freedom remains in the Stalinist era: only eight African countries have a free and independent media. Without genuine reform, more African countries will implode. Africa is stuck in a veritable conundrum. The IOB can fine-tune policy recommendations all it wants, but it will be an exercise in futility as long as the premises are flawed.

Second, the IOB report contains no new bold recommendations. The entire Dutch Africa aid programme needs to be revamped. A new approach is urgently needed. For example, the objective ‘poverty-reduction’ needs to be replaced by ‘wealth creation.’ Poverty reduction carries the connotation that it is the responsibility of the ‘government’ to reduce poverty when the government itself may be cause of deepening poverty. Wealth creation introduces a whole new dynamic into the equation because governments do not create wealth; they only redistribute it.

I should mention that Canada found itself in exactly the same boat. Its foreign aid programmes have been an abysmal failure. I was invited to testify before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Senate of Canada in Ottawa on May 10, 2005. Conventional aid programmes are a government-to-government transfer that lacks accountability. After my testimony, a Canadian Member of Parliament (Hon. John McKay) introduced Bill C-293 called Development Assistance Accountability Act, which would require the Minister of External Affairs to give a full accounting to Parliament of how the Canadian aid budget was spent.

In its original form, the Bill was even more revolutionary. It envisaged setting up an advisory committee that would include not only Canadians but experts from recipient countries to advise the Minister. Included in the Bill was even a provision for people in the recipient countries to petition the Minister about the administration of Canadian aid in their countries. These two provisions, however, were stripped from the final bill. I also testified about this bill on June 13, 2007 – on whether it will do the job.

I will be more than willing to serve as a paid consultant to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help revamp Dutch Africa aid policy.