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FROM PASSION TO PREJUDICE-THE WORLD OF FOREIGN AID

By Awin Peter Atibill- Ghana (awinbill@gmail.com)

Introduction
There is an innate paradox in the global conversation about poverty alleviation that
eludes even the most astute scholars. Governments and agencies in the midst of the
world economic meltdown, are reviewing their policies. As usual Africa is at the
receiving end hoping that these reviews does not affect aid ration. Unfortunately CIDA
and the Canadian government have decided. Contrary to many people advocating for a
big push, featuring an increase in foreign aid through which billions of dollars could be
transferred to the poor people in Africa, CIDA might have decided to stop chasing
poverty in Africa.

Their decision not to support poverty alleviation programmes in Africa comes not without
consequences. Obviously the tens of thousands of women and children have lost their
main source of livelihood-CIDA. The not too obvious outcome is the responses of many
young but curious Africans who have taken keen interest in this new development. I am
not an aid practitioner, neither have I worked with the IMF or the World Bank, I am a
very curious young African who have directly observed poverty. I am concerned about
the future of our continent in the face of withdrawal their aid.

Over the past month I have been reading about aid and development in attempt to
understand why CIDA made these decisions. Interestingly my readings have gone to
reinforce my position on foreign aid. I have always believed that the history of aid in
Africa is a history of unintended consequences. The question now is; can foreign aid
alleviate poverty in Africa? This answer is definitely not a “yes or no”. It will require a
methodical review of the history of aid in Africa

Is it poverty or aid?
A discussion of whether aid is effective or not is best begun by reviewing the history of
efforts to make aid more effective. The aid industry has for decades tried one thing after
another to make aid work better, and the underlying belief that the right formula is within
reach is one of the things that has kept it going.

During the 1950s we believed in import substitution and industrial development. We in


Africa were made to believe that we could be helped to leapfrog history and become
Canada, USA and the rest (You don’t have a steel industry? Well, we’ll build one for
you). Then they rediscovered the importance of agriculture and have since tried
everything from training agricultural extension workers; to forming agricultural marketing
boards and cooperatives; to funding technical interventions in irrigation, seed
multiplication, soil improvement, and new crops.
In the 1970s the aid agencies rediscovered poverty itself and came to believe that
trickle down did not work and that they must therefore deal with the poor directly. They
switched back and forth between emphasizing rural poverty and concentrating on urban
poverty. When they were convinced they had to focus on rural development, they
started with integrated community development (where everything from primary care
health clinics to water well systems to rural roads to appropriate technology such as
backyard biogas and hand-operated grinding mills, was tried together). As the 1980s
and 1990s rolled on they realized how important institutions were and began investing
in institution building, legal reform, governance, and “democracy.”

Also in the 1980s they saw how critical women are to development and began to focus
more on Women In Development (WID), with legal rights programs, women’s health
(including birth control and breast feeding promotion), and “income-generating projects.”
As for the overarching paradigms that guided their work, by the 1970s they had begun
to give up on top-down approaches; bottom-up, grassroots approaches, emphasizing
participation, came into vogue. They still do much that is top-down, but it has been
refined as policy dialogue (echoing participatory approaches) while our grassroots work
now pays more attention to “social” issues including fostering, and building upon, “social
capital.” One of the big new ideas in the aid industry is “selectivity,” the notion that aid
should be allocated to countries that can do the most good with it because of sound
policies and institutions. (That such a self-evident notion comes along in the seventh
decade of the industry tells us something about its capacity for deep self-examination.)
At the field level, where most aid projects aimed at poverty reduction are undertaken,
one sees concretely how those guiding ideas are played out, and how it is possible to
keep believing that aid can be improved.

Why CIDA couldn’t finish the business?


The aid industry is not designed to deal with the fact that poverty is not just a material
condition-something that is complicated enough-but it is also a matter of the social,
cultural, and political position many poor people occupy in their societies. Poverty is of
course about not having enough money, but in many developing countries it is also
about which class, language group, tribe, gender, or shade of color you were born into.
Given the complexity of poverty and the accompanying interweaving of so many
variables, the phrases “poverty reduction” and “combating poverty” are somewhat
illusory. Poverty is neither a quantum nor a single “enemy” that can be beaten by
concerted effort. No engineered solution, especially one that seeks to get at poverty
directly (as most aid projects do) can make much of a dent. Engineering a direct
reduction of poverty is often like squeezing a balloon, push it in here and a bulge pops
out there.
Aid itself is the problem?
We all have consistently underestimated the role of Western aid in creating
dependence. A universal aspect of human nature seems to be that people (and
countries) get hooked on anything they perceive as “free” or close to free. Interestingly
Africa defies conventional logic: grinding poverty amidst immense natural resources. It
is not surprising that the record of Western aid to Africa is one of abysmal failure. More
than $500 billion in foreign aid-the equivalent of four Marshall Aid Plans—was pumped
into Africa between 1960 and 1997. Instead of increasing development, over one
hundreds of millions of people around the continent are still hungry, infirm, illiterate and
homeless. According to Prof. Sachs, out of every dollar of aid given to Africa, an
estimated 16% went to consultants from donor countries, 26% went into emergency aid
and relief operations, and 14% went into debt servicing. How much of the remaining
40% escaped corrupt officials to benefit the intended recipients is unknown. The
challenge is to make sure that aid reaches the poor. Otherwise the new epoch of global
compassion toward the poor will be a repetition of the experience of the last six
decades.

Poverty oooo……oh poverty


Many of us still think of poverty as a technical problem that can be solved using a
universal blueprint or Big Plan and huge dollars in financing. If it were that simple
poverty would be history. Efforts to alleviate poverty must recognize that poverty is a
complex labyrinth of social, institutional, political, historical, geographical and
technological factors. If aid has to work then we must test other approaches. Africans
learn to be responsible for their own actions. Points around which a consensus has
formed include the unsurprising finding that aid delivered into poor policy environments
will not spur growth, can be inimical to development, and has characterized the way
much, if not most, foreign aid has been disbursed.

The role of African youth


We the youth in Africa must have a role to play in this process of improving the policy
environment of our countries. Who are we?

The estimated 157 million young people living in sub-Saharan Africa today are by no
means a homogenous group. They come from varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds,
and they speak one or more of the estimated 800 languages spoken in the region. Many
have qualifications that compare favorably with or exceed those of their colleagues in
more developed parts of the world; however, many more fall far below global education
averages. Youth in sub-Saharan Africa are adopting new techniques of learning,
working and communicating with the outside world in their attempts to create
meaningful lives for themselves. They are navigating the communications highway and
exchanging text messages and electronic mail with colleagues, gradually overcoming
social and cultural factors that previously limited their access to information.
Nevertheless, poverty remains a major constraint to the achievement of the full potential
of youth in the region.

The question for all of us to answer is the way forward; what can we all do to ensure
that youth all round the world have equal playing field, that they have the opportunity to
participate in the development of their future. Youth in Africa are the future of Africa; they
are the “CIDA” we all look up to. It would be very kind of you to send me your ideas