Is development aid the solution to Africa's problems?
Portrayals of Africa as ‘The Dark Continent’ thankfully seem to have dwindled: the continent’s next challenge is to shrug off the shackles of development funding. Far from easing countries out of poverty, the billions being poured into Africa’s economies are helping to entrench the continent in economic dependency and sustaining unhelpful colonial myths about backwardness and the gold-paved streets of Europe.
At long last, the point has been reached where lazy stereotypes about Africa are rare and polemic enough to become newsworthy making the publication of that infamous TIME magazine cover seem like a thankfully distant relic. In the place of these all-damning declarations are innocuous slogans: eradicate poverty, development for all etc. which promote the admirable (though oxymoronic) idea of inclusive economic development. Instead of just throwing Africa a bone, the development sector has rebranded itself, appearing to favour co-operative, harambee style approaches to poverty reduction. However, despite the u-turn in marketing, most development money still comes from the same funding sources as before, way back in the dark days of Live Aid, which means that despite the shiny new appearance, a little digging below the surface will reveal that not very much has changed.
The massive tied lending that took place in the last decades of the 20th century obliged borrowing states to cut back on public services and make room for privatisation. Through this process of slashing and scrimping, states were obliged to hand over the responsibility for public services to private institutions and NGOs. Fast-forward 40 years and the continent is now in the bizarre situation whereby private institutions and NGOs exist to patch up the wounds caused by their own very prolificness.
Slogans like ‘Eradicate Poverty’ (UNICEF) or ‘A World Without Poverty’ (VSO) encourage focus on problems within the countries they work and, perhaps not surprisingly, rarely look outwards (or in the mirror) at the transnational network of governments and IMF-like institutions and corporations which fund not only these institutions’ work but also fund the system of privatisation which prevents sustainable development and state accountability in African nations: the system is quackery on a gargantuan scale.
The repatriation of profits by corporate companies, trade biases created by trade agreements, economic sanctions, the dollar monopoly and patent rights are all shining examples of how the solid of free-market capitalism are carefully directed away from African countries and state organs. If Africa is to develop, it must become more confident in setting its own standards or else suffer humiliating and absurd scenarios such as that which afflicted Kenyas flower farmers in 2014: dependence of exporters (strengthened by the country’s readiness to embrace free-market big players) meant that a hike in EU export tariffs caused the crop of pyrethrum and roses to sell for a higher price in Kenya than on supermarket shelves in Dusseldorf and Birmingham.
In the tail-chasing effort to climb a few positions on the failed states index (a measure of vulnerability to conflict and perceptions of corruption), African states end up following in the footsteps of aid donors: speaking the same languages, trading in the same institutions and attending the same lavish diplomatic conferences to muse over the puzzle of problems across the continent. By fawning to the providers of aid and services, Africa risks internalising the myth that it is uncivilised and incapable of solving its own problems. The evidence of this epidemic can be seen daily in the count of young (mostly) men and women who risk life and limb to escape poverty for the mythical glitter of Europe, in deadly sojourns across the Mediterranean.
As history has shown, there is no country that has ever developed on solely foreign aid. In fact, there seems to be a strong negativecorrelation between aid receipt and development, as expressed by Dambisa Moyo in her book ‘Dead Aid’. Even now regardless of all the campaigns or the money spent to promote development the problem of African states being underdeveloped still persist. For instance, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the countries that host some of the highest numbers of NGOs with an aim to promote development, yet the levels of development are still low.
This surely should send a message that development is not about the numbers but more about governance and the ability to self-determination. A responsibility that most African states have lost to the IMF and the World Bank. A particularly example is Malawi in 2002. Despite denials from the IMF, Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, accused it of forcing Malawi to sell its grain reserves just before a major drought in order for the country to pay its debts. As soon as the drought hit Malawi was back at begging the IMF and The World bank for money.
Africa must take on the task of developing itself. No miracle is coming from heaven to give the continent the development it wants. Global institutional money will deepen the trenches of poverty and instability: instead, Africa has to start creating its own heaven here on earth.
Richard Mubatazi's interests include Transitional justice, mediation and conflict resolution in Africa. He has a BA Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster and an MA Conflict Security and Development, King's College London.