Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Aid: more about aiding the West than 'the rest'?

Two controversial new books are profiled in this article by Chandler. Both focus on the failure of Western aid to successfully address poverty in Africa, arguably the most important public policy issue in the world today. Both books are authored by former World Bank representatives and both draw on extensive personal experience: these then are not academic theorists but experienced and well-informed officials well able to offer an enlightened and informed perspective.

Both books reflect the frustration well-intentioned people feel when they commit themselves to change a situation, give of themselves their best effort and find that not only was it not enough, there's little sign they made a positive dent in the situation.

The first book by Robert Calderisi suggests that 'the World Bank and IMF were made the fall guys because politically correct Western campaigners and political activists couldn'’t allow that African governments themselves were largely responsible for the mismanagement of their own economies', and argues for a more extensive and overtly political intervention by the World Bank in the future as its solution.

The second book is authored by William Easterly and, in direct contrast, it suggests the problem rests with a profound lack of responsibility in the West for any of its development plans for Africa: programs are announced with great fanfare and propaganda but their goals are largely a rhetorical statement of intent. The ‘grand plans’ developed to ‘save Africa’ are more a reflection of a 'narcissistic and simplistic fantasy view of Africa rather than to Africa as a complex political reality'. Thus, 'while markets and democracy are potentially useful in addressing poverty and aiding development, they cannot be imposed from outside through aid conditionality'.

So one recently retired expert says the problem is not enough overt political intervention. The other says, don't bother, you can't get there from here with that approach.

What they do agree upon is that aid as currently practised is not about Africa for Africans. Africa is a great media backdrop for celebrities, pressure groups, experts without borders of all professions and the professional aid circus. It is also a source of funds for every despot and tyrant on the continent. Simply put, international aid provision today reflects neither genuine interest nor concern for Africa. And not much is going to change until we embrace a genuine political will to assist Africans to empower themselves without our direction, guidance nor values as the sub-text to our "aid". That is, we need to offer aid that benefits Africans but generates little or no political or social celebrity status for its authors. And lest anyone consider this a complete pipedream, I will characterize this as the Albert Schweitzer model for African aid.