Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why aid and Africa don't mix

When people look at the history of international aid into Africa, they look at the dollars spent and wonder why it didn't create a fair amount of wealth for the investment. This has led many in the business of aid to revise their strategies and make aid more targeted and more transparent. There are a small few however, that say that most foreign aid should be stopped. The reasons they give for stopping most aid vary from hurting local markets and supporting bad governments.

One of those voices has a commentary today at CNN. Robert Calderisi has worked at senior positions at the World Bank, and from that experience has written the book "The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working." Tomorrow, CNN will post an opposing view.

The World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, recently asked the grand old man of Singapore's success, Lee Kuan Yew, to help the bank make greater progress in Africa. He declined. "The trouble with African presidents," he said, "is they believe the work is done when they've stopped talking."

That, in a nutshell, has been the problem of Africa. Very few African governments have been on the same wavelength as Western providers of aid.

Aid, by itself, has never developed anything, but where it has been allied to good public policy, sound economic management, and a strong determination to battle poverty, it has made an enormous difference in countries like India, Indonesia, and even China.

Those examples illustrate another lesson of aid. Where it works, it represents only a very small share of the total resources devoted to improving roads, schools, heath services, and other things essential for raising incomes.

Aid must not overwhelm or displace local efforts; instead, it must settle with being the junior partner.

Because of Africa's needs, and the stubborn nature of its poverty, the continent has attracted far too much aid and far too much interfering by outsiders.

From the start, Western governments tried hard to work with public agencies, but fairly soon ran up against the obvious limitations of capacity and seriousness of African states.

Early solutions were to pour in "technical assistance," i.e. foreign advisers who stayed on for years, or to try "enclave" or turn-key projects that would be independent of government action.

More recently, Western agencies have worked with non-government organizations or the private sector. Or, making a virtue of necessity, they have poured large amounts of their assistance directly into government budgets, citing the need for "simplicity" and respect for local "sovereignty."

Through all of this, the development challenge was always on somebody else's shoulders and governments have been eager receivers, rather than clear-headed managers of Western generosity.

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