Charitable ignorance: The reality of aid

Friday June 18 2010

Ugandan female circumciser Prisca Korein: To succeed, donor efforts to discourage  female genital mutilation  and similar  traditions must be thoroughly informed  about local realities. Photo/FILE

Ugandan female circumciser Prisca Korein: To succeed, donor efforts to discourage female genital mutilation and similar traditions must be thoroughly informed about local realities. Photo/FILE 

By SAMANTHA SPOONER

In 2007, the International Finance Corporation discovered that only half of its aid-funded projects in Africa succeeded.

When we consider that in 2009 the net bilateral Overseas Development Aid (ODA) to Africa was $27 billion (Sh2 trillion ) and that pledges stood at $130 billion (Sh10.4 trillion ) in 2010, you realise just how much money can be wasted.

Last week the British Government told the UN, World Bank and other international bodies who are recipients of its aid that they must have a proven impact on the ground or face cuts.

The critics of the aid industry have focused heavily on aid accountability on both the part of the donors and the beneficiaries, and on concerns over whether aid breeds poverty and is therefore not conducive to long-term sustainable growth.

While these analyses are both valid and widely recognised there is another insight into the potential inefficiency of the aid business which sheds light on an anthropological, more localised critique: Sometimes aid attempts to solve problems which are either created or misunderstood.

There has been a great push on the part of donors to have buzz-words such as ‘participatory’, ‘empowerment’ or ‘indigenous knowledge’ included in funding proposals.

The reason for this is the assumption that involving people in projects ensures effective results because it only seems right that those affected by aid should be involved in the decision-making process.

The problem is, doing community or local level research is never straight forward and the process can become affected by many factors which inhibit the ability to establish an objective truth.

The terms ‘empowerment’ and ‘participation’, for one, can be alluringly deceptive. There are situations where these words are included in proposals but actually don’t challenge the top-down status quo established by the aid agency.

Also, at times ‘empowerment’ and ‘participation’ can even be used to conceal a means to achieve cost-effectiveness, such as using the local communities as free labourers. The result of this is aid initiatives which continue to be dictated by people who may not have a full understanding of the situation at hand.

An example of this is the Lake Turkana fish processing plant in Kenya which was designed to provide jobs to the Turkana people through fishing and fish processing.

The project cost the Norwegian government $22 million (Sh1.8 billion) and is now just a white elephant. One of the reasons for the failure is that the Turkana are nomadic pastoralists without a history of fishing.

‘Empowerment’ and ‘participation’ in situations such as this have simply become a selective process in which the ability to participate is determined by the willingness to succumb to external interests.

When true participation is not employed, a simple assumption on the part of those initiating the project can bring about its demise. Entire agricultural programs in Africa are known to have been affected by Western sexual role stereotypes. This is because the typical farmer in Africa is a woman but the training and projects were aimed at the men.

Aid can also be misinformed by research when the people engaged in the ‘participatory’ pr