It is the anonymous ‘they’. The enigmatic ‘they’ who are in charge. Who is ‘they’? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Not even ‘they’ themselves.
Joseph Heller, 1961
In tracing the political and economic fault line of this disaster-prone continent, the role of aid keeps reappearing. Donors and recipient governments in Africa have not set out with any single-minded plan. Rather, what is striking is how reactive and unco-ordinated policy has been. The cumulative effect of a series of ad-hoc decisions has come to be policy by default. Foreign aid is more important to the economies of Africa than it is almost anywhere else. In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, official annual aid per person amounted to about $18 a year in 1982; in the low income semi-arid countries, aid has, since the famine in the mid-1970s, reached more than $44 a head. In this latter group of countries per capita annual income is less than
$400, so by any standards aid is a major factor in economic life. Aid has steadily grown in real terms at 5 per cent a year. Aid finances 10 per cent of gross domestic investment in Africa as a whole but up to 80 per cent for the low-income semi-arid countries. In south Asia aid only amounts to $4.80 per person. Most of these states have more dynamic self-sustaining economies, able both to attract and generate capital. For them aid is only one among several sources of capital inflows. Not so in Africa.
The relative prominence of aid in Africa also comes about because at the same time that the outside world gives with one hand, it takes with the other. Commodity prices, payments for the products of the fields and mines of Africa on which national incomes are so dependent, have fallen. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania tells of how in 1972 it took 38 tonnes of Sisal to buy a 7-tonne truck; by 1982 it took 134 tonnes. The fall in the real value of copper from Zambia’s mines has been 60 per cent over the last ten years. With this massive shift in the terms of trade against Africa, aid becomes an even lonelier link to the international economy. What aid has clearly not done, however, is arrest economic decline. The Sahel states are now in the grip of a new drought and famine.
There is an aid culture in many African capitals. A small African capital can have more than a hundred visiting aid missions to deal with in a year, each adding to the demands of the local embassies for reams of statistical information about the country and projects. The most capable national officials become fully tied-up dealing with the donors. There are projects where the professional man-hours devoted to monitoring and reporting on behalf of the donor exceed those devoted to implementation.
Aid has, in many cases, been misdirected. But a litany of horror stories does not amount to a conclusive case against it. Sadly, there are people who are all too ready to dismiss aid altogether on the strength of some of its failures. If the structural reasons for these failures are understood and acted upon, aid’s real benefits could be unleashed more fully. Aid in Africa has been handicapped by its past. Rooted in colonial subsidies, intended to provide political leverage and distract attention from the simultaneous economic exploitation taking place, and tainted with a nineteenth-century sense of philanthropy towards ‘backward’ people, modem-day aid does not have an easy parentage to live down.
Donor governments should harbour no illusions. Far from aid being charity, donor countries are getting a bargain. Western countries give 0.35 per cent of their gross national product as official aid and the eastern bloc countries give 0.18 per cent according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates (which the Soviet Union challenges). But whatever the precise figure, the influence and economic opportunities that both West and East get from aid is cheap at the price.
The return is both political and economic. Alliances are made and cemented. Markets are created for the donor’s manufactured goods, and indeed some international agencies spend more on goods and services from a donor country than they get in contributions. This is particularly true in the case of a country like Britain which, because of old link s, can sell experts and goods to aid projects in former colonies. Both the British and French governments have preserved old connections by a judicious use of aid. The French underwrite the West African franc currency zone and continue to provide large numbers of French ‘experts’ and young ‘co-operants’, belonging to a semi volunteer peace corps. Frenchmen can volunteer for service abroad in exchange for doing military service at home. The British have been able to keep their presence alive in countries such as Sudan, Kenya and Zimbabwe by continuing to help with the development of sectors, such as cash crops, that they were involved in before Independence.
The Americans, like other donors, have used aid as a means of winning friends and loyalty. In 1985 the process of prizing Mozambique away from its close relationship with the Soviet Union continued with the offer of a bilateral aid programme. Extensive American aid to Somalia and Sudan, Ethiopia’s two neighbours, has been part of an effort to contain Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia itself, although it has received generous emergency food aid from the United States, has not received the long-term development support it needs to rehabilitate its agricultural sector. The Americans are not prepared to go beyond short-term humanitarian help where it conflicts sharply with their political interests. Kenya, on the other hand, as a pro-western country occupying an important strategic position has received a relative abundance of aid from the United States, Britain and multilateral donors like the World Bank.
The World Bank insists on open tendering for its contracts. But many governments, despite pressure from such bodies as the OECD, tie a large portion of their aid, which has enabled Western manufacturers to gain footholds in African markets. Hence the introduction of new types of machinery such as trucks and factory equipment for which spare parts may not be easily available. The machinery may be incompatible with what is already there or be’ poorly suited for use in Africa. Running costs, often high, will have to be met by the African government as aid has in the past rarely covered the recurrent costs. Foreign assistance has until recently usually been limited to the initial capital costs of projects.
The Comecon countries, that is the Soviet Union and its allies, give aid with even tighter strings. Because the Rouble is not an internationally convertible currency, their aid comes solely in goods and services. Tractors and technical experts are the two most visible forms. As with the West it brings an entree and influence far in excess of the modest outlays incurred. It appears to be deployed with a firm eye to Soviet political advantage in the region.
A great attraction of aid for all the donors is visibility. This is particularly the case in Africa where commercial flows of capital into the sub-Saharan countries are small and the general level of economic activity is low. Of the probable $5 to $6 billion net capital inflow into Africa in 1985 (about half what it was a couple of years earlier) the World Bank and the aid donors will provide the largest part. The heavy investment of the World Bank and others is vital in a continent where infrastructure is so sparse. However, projects such as highways have remained favourites, on occasions more because of their prestige than because of intrinsic merit. That African highways have a notoriously short life because of poor maintenance, has been frequently overlooked. In several West African countries, the World Bank has calculated most roads have had to be rebuilt 20-40 per cent more expensively than they should have been because of poor maintenance. As a first swipe at road-building mania the Bank itself says maintenance budgets should be increased by 25 per cent pretty much across the board. In Africa that money can only come from donors and must mean fewer new roads.
Aid does not come only in the form of money, but also in the form of experts. They have now been joined by an army of foreign relief workers involved in the famine programmes. While famine relief workers come relatively cheap, experts don’ t.
Cut-price younger helpers may not be better value. Africans, ranging from government officials to refugees, are often sceptical of young foreign workers. For the young foreigner it is a marvelous learning experience, an adventure of a lifetime and it is an important exercise in internationalism, but the benefits to Africa are less certain.
The experts are another matter. In return for their high fees they bring a professional competence. More and more of them have been pumped into African governments as the view takes hold in aid circles that what is missing is managerial strength. Obviously Africa could get better value out of its existing infrastructure if the latter was managed better. The continent is full of countries where the services do not run as efficiently as they should. Yet there are now more foreign experts in Africa than during the colonial period.
The inescapable conclusion of how so many good minds, both African and expatriate, could have applied themselves to such poor effect in making choices about development, is that aid must be democratized. Decisions must be opened up to those whose lives are to be affected. Development decided by collusion between technocrats and politicians in a distant city is, however careful the technical preparations, in many cases a recipe for ineffectiveness.
This lack of popular involvement in projects is mirrored by a similar reticence in the aid agencies’ relations with those who back them. The aid agencies are, in many cases, not accountable to any very clear constituency. Their supporters, be they governments or individuals, have difficulty establishing how well their money is used. Often they have to rely on the agencies’ own assessment of their performance. From United Nations agency to voluntary organizations these are anodyne, censored accounts which rarely hint at the catastrophes which may have occurred during a project’s life. Even the internal version is designed to protect the ‘face’ of colleague s rather than to get at the truth. International civil servants are a privileged lot. Their careers rise or fall depending on each other’s mutual esteem. They are rarely if ever exposed to the cold wind of wider public scrutiny. They are guilty for the best of motives of applying the ‘we know best’ approach to those who fund them as well as those they mean to help. This demeans the ability of even famine victims to help themselves and exaggerates what Western food can do to ameliorate a far deeper crisis than a crop failure. Development hype of this sort obscures the real nature and limitations of aid.
In Africa, the myth of the white hand reaching down to help lingers. It reinforces the exclusive approach to decision making. Education of their own home publics about the importance of aid has rightly become a major activity of the agencies. In countries such as Canada, Holland, Norway and Sweden it has led to broad public support for development work. But it focuses on the disadvantages Third World economies labour under in the international system and the moral case for relieving human suffering, rather than on the operational difficulties that aid agencies and the governments in developing countries encounter. Vague theories about obligations to help and the unfairness of the world economy become a substitute for hardnosed truths about the practical difficulties of development. There is no doubting the very real public dismay as the realities of running a relief operation in Ethiopia have gradually unfolded. From October 1984 when the public alarm was sounded until January 1985 – barring a few isolated items in the media – the view prevailed that the aid agencies and the Ethiopian government could, with enough trucks and food, reach all the hungry corners of the country.
The aid agencies knew that this was a deception. But except for those with a political commitment to the rebel movements in Eritrea and Tigre, it was not one that the agencies went out of their way to correct. This rosy version finally cracked under journalistic pressure. The image of the starving helpless Ethiopians needing nothing more than a bowl of Western food now had to be juxtaposed with that of men with guns who were not willing to put their war aside for the convenience of a famine relief operation.
Reporting real difficulties is seen by international aid agencies as an open invitation to criticism from member governments. The management of big agencies has become so politicized that staff seek to disguise the inner workings of the agency to protect its impartiality. But the price for such secrecy is ever-mounting internal levels of incompetence.
Standards of accountability vary a great deal. Most UN agencies report once a year to their governing bodies. The World Bank, however, has an executive board, whose directors, appointed by their countries, vet and approve each project. As a single World Bank programme can be bigger than the annual budget of a UN agency, obviously donors have a relatively greater interest in keeping an eye on the quality of projects.
The voluntary agencies are little better about taking those who finance them into their trust. Hence the lack of openness about the real conditions facing the relief operation in Ethiopia. Also, a fault of many aid programmes is the one-year budget. It holds up to donor publics the exciting prospect of quick change and shies away from the development reality that viable projects capable of producing durable results take years. Their effectiveness is further hampered by officials believing their best interests are served by spending that year’s allocation before the year is over, whatever the real needs in the field.
Yet governmental and voluntary agencies have kept their cards close to their chest for what they would consider the best of motives; not because they want to trick the public out of its money, but because they have convinced themselves that this is the best way of securing the support that their work deserves. There is an ironic symmetry with their frequent failure to consult those they mean to help in the Third World. They leave their own supporters in the dark on the ground that confessing the difficulties would only cost them the patience and ultimately the backing of those supporters.
The agencies must break the habit of secrecy fast if aid is to become the open bridge it should be with people at both ends: giving and receiving help and drawing mutual benefit from the relationship. Aid must be opened up. Only with full disclosure to donors and full consultation with recipients is the performance of aid likely to improve.
Aid failures are often excused on the basis that to have an extra hospital building, even if it is badly utilized, is better than nothing for the recipient country. Maybe one day things will look up and the government will be able to afford to run the hospital, so goes the complacent thinking. There is always more aid money from somewhere to try again when a project fails; maybe it will work next time. Yet the large hospital in a country which does not have even functioning village-level services, the processing factory for whose products there is no market, or the dam which rapidly silts up will almost certainly involve the African government in expensive running costs before hopes are exhausted and the installation is closed. A cumulative record of failures makes fresh assistance harder and harder to get. And in the meantime, essential needs go unmet.
More important still, a lot of aid, although concessional is not in grant form. In other words, although it is cheaper than money borrowed commercially, it still has to be repaid. Repayment periods are longer and interest rates better than those available from commercial banks. In the case of the World Bank its lending to Africa is divided between soft-loan funds from its International Development Association, which has only a nominal service charge and a grace period of ten to fifty years for repayment of the loan, and the so called IBRD (the Bank proper) lending at advantageous rates from funds the Bank itself has raised on the money markets. Other funds come from its sister, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) which lends to the private sector, and now there is also money from the Bank’s special one-off three-year $1 billion fund for sub Saharan Africa. The EEC, the bilateral donors, the Arab funds and the African Development Bank and others, all have their own aid-mix of grant, concessional finance and export credits. In the end, Africa has to pay. At the end of 1982 its public debt was more than $48 billion.
Also hovering over the African economic scene is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the basis of IMF credits outstanding at the end of 1983, Africans will have to find the IMF $3.5 billion during 1985-87. No doubt further credits will be called for to help them meet these obligations, although the IMF does not reschedule its own loans, which, since the demise of the Trust Fund, are on hard terms. But these are not economies being helped through a sticky patch, which is the recognized purpose of IMF adjustment programmes. Indeed, the IMF programmes in Africa have not only proved unpopular: most have broken down since they have been inappropriate to the needs of long-term adjustment. Membership of the global economy has proved expensive for Africa. Latin American debt has caught the headlines because the sheer volume seemed to threaten the western banking structure. Sudan’s debt of $9 billion may seem a trifle compared to Brazil’s of about $100 billion. And because Sudan has not been a ‘good risk’ for quite a while, the debt it has run up has principally been with other governments, and multilateral agencies rather than commercial banks. Given to help, it is now a millstone severely limiting Sudan ‘s capacity to raise fresh finance at a time when its economy has been reduced to a shambles by, amongst other things, the drought. The debt burden is eight or nine times its normal annual export earnings. The Central African Republic, Madagascar, Somalia and Zaire face almost similar levels of indebtedness.
Like a number of African countries, Sudan’s debts may seem small to outsiders, but relative to their capacity to pay, they are overwhelming. Between 1973 and 1982, sub Saharan Africa’s debt increased five-fold. In the two years 1980-82, following oil price increases and a slump in world trade, Africa borrowed heavily to maintain its level of imports. It is now paying the price. Debt-service payments are expected to increase from $4.1 billion in 1981 and $9.9 billion in 1984 to $11.6 billion a year from now till 1987. This puts the few billion dollars of extra aid generated by the drought into context. The international community is taking back with one hand what it is giving with the other. When a country can no longer afford to meet the payments, on its official debt, a rescheduling takes place through the mechanism of the so-called Paris club. Of the thirty-one reschedulings that had taken place by the end of 1984, twenty-three were of the debt of thirteen sub-Saharan African countries.
While debts mount, the flow of new capital into Africa is thought to have dropped sharply to about half what it was a couple of years ago. This makes it more than ever dependent on aid as the major source of funds, the financial lifeline. But, given that aid has helped pile up the mountains of debt, is it worth it?
Obviously there are those, on both left and right, who would argue not. There is a curious coincidence of view between those on the left who consider aid neo-colonialism by another name and those on the right who think it is merely a prop for corrupt elites. However, the availability of relatively low interest capital is a crucial force for development, but for it to serve this function, foreign aid must be harnessed to genuinely dynamic forces for change within the society it seeks to assist. In particular, the neglect of the rural sector needs to be reversed.
Africa’s priority, even before the famine, should have been food self-sufficiency. This is clearly recognized in the Lagos Plan of Action adopted by African leaders. This is not to say that every African country should grow enough food grains to feed itself. It is improbable that countries like Botswana or Somalia could, with available levels of agricultural technology, achieve food self-sufficiency. Nevertheless both have adequate economic potential to buy grain from neighbours which can produce surpluses. What is essential is regional food self-sufficiency. Somalia has a livestock sector, which has been poorly cared for both by the government and donors, but if managed properly, it would finance food grain imports from the region.
We have examined an agricultural strategy for Africa at greater length in the last chapter. Here, our concern is with the approach and the role of aid.
Putting the rural sector first in aid plans requires a conscious effort of outreach by development agencies. Under Robert McNamara, the World Bank took important steps towards poverty-orientated rural development. It was part of a new emphasis on developing the human capital of a country as well as its conventional economic assets. But as a development bank working within political economies as it finds them and with only a small presence on the ground in most African countries, there are limits to the Bank’s achievements. It is not well placed to bring about the revolution in attitudes which a restructuring of aid towards the small farmer requires. It is also much too big to have enough time for the poor and the painstaking attention to their local economy which is required if help is to be effective. As the biggest source of development finance it is vital, though, that it should follow where others lead.
The countryside must be brought back in. This requires a much more radical restructuring of aid than, say, just an extension of present rural development programmes. Too often, these are merely token efforts. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that the rural development loans them selves tend to end up benefiting the richer elements in the countryside. Chiefs and larger landowners will have an easy time securing the lion’s share for themselves when the government has little heart for treating the loans as an attack on rural poverty.
The arrangements for implementing aid should shift decisively from the large programmes to smaller and more manageable projects which can be taken over locally. Modern writing about Africa shows an innate pro-government bias (in an institutional rather than a political sense). Church and mosque groups and secular agencies already provide a huge proportion of the inadequate services at village level throughout much of Africa. Government often just does not· reach to the village level.
In India voluntary agencies also play a crucial role at the village level, enjoying an uneasy relationship with town based government that has tacitly acknowledged that it is itself often less effective at delivering rural services. Although the start-up of these groups was often helped by foreign agencies, they are now Indian. A similar model should be sought for Africa. So, although there might bean initial expansion in the number of outside agency staff working at the village level, it would be temporary and should be more than off-set in cost by sending home many of the urban-based expatriate advisers.
Until now, given the scarcity of their resources, governments were flying in the face of their own political interests if they gave their major attention to the rural sector. Now with endemic crisis in the countryside, and the prospect of mounting food shortages, disaster will close in on the towns. Already, large numbers of urban poor have suffered. In cities such as Omdurman in Sudan and Nouakchott in Mauritania, there have been major influxes of dispossessed rural people. With city life threatened by the disaster in the countryside, the time is ripe for those in power to change their priorities and put the rural sector first.
As well as supporting non-governmental initiatives at the local level, they must put their own trained people back in the villages. African civil services have a congenital urban drift. Not surprisingly life is better in the cities; those serving outside too often do not get paid regularly, and they are frequently not given the resources to make an impact on the problems facing them. Their tour of duty considered exile from a desk in the national or provincial Ministry. Few, if any, governments have learned how to build a rural-based administration that effectively delivers services.
But rural communities themselves must draw their own lesson from the failure of government and international aid. They must recover an economic integrity that the market eco no my, however imperfectly it may operate in the countryside, has taken from them. Western Hercules planes and Soviet helicopters ferrying in supplies in Ethiopia have not changed the basic historical lesson of outside relief: it is often too little, too late.
Communities must, as they tradition ally did, face up to the realities of the fragility of agriculture in Africa. There should be village-level grain reserves as a community organized insurance against crop failure. And even if governments embrace the price rises for food crops being urged on them by the World Bank and others do not, peasants would be wise to resist selling all they have got. They need their own food insurance; they cannot count on the government. Already official statistics about food shortage have under-estimated the extent of the individual reserves farmers have kept in underground stores.
Communities should make more systematic provision against a bad harvest. Obviously, they cannot do enough to withstand several years of crop failure, but enough could be done to see them through one-year failures or until governments and the international community have gone through the slow business of mobilizing themselves to help. The crisis has shown the need for reform in the approach of governments and aid agencies. It has also shown their limits. Communities must aim for self reliance, because in important ways they are on their own. And an aid and governmental community, which learnt the lesson of the famine, would recognize that it should stop trying to hand down development and concentrate on supporting initiatives from communities themselves. In the next chapter, we look at the turbulence which now affects rural Africa and how this complicates its relations with those who govern it.