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Anthology critiques politics of aid and the ‘development

Thursday March 5 2009

  A schoolgirl drinks water from a burst pipe in Kibera slums oblivious to the danger in her surroundings. Instead of poverty in the slum reducing following the efforts of numerous NGOs, it has deepened. Inset is the book cover.  Photos/JOAN PERERUAN

A schoolgirl drinks water from a burst pipe in Kibera slums oblivious to the danger in her surroundings. Instead of poverty in the slum reducing following the efforts of numerous NGOs, it has deepened. Inset is the cover of the book - Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits. Photos/JOAN PERERUAN 

Title:Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits – An Anthology Edited by: Rasna WarahPublisher: AuthorHouse UK (2008)
(Available at Bookstop and Bookpoint, Nairobi, or
Reviewer: Greg Rosenberg

Many of our non-governmental organisations are not in fact NGOs, both because they have no popular base and the actuality that they rely on the domestic and foreign governments, rather than the people, for their material sustenance.”

Nelson Mandela made this observation during his report to the 1997 national conference of the ANC, and went on to question the reliability of such formations in the process of South Africa’s social transformation.

Few have summed up the problem of having many organisations purporting to “help” Africa with such authority.

Wealthiest governments

Now, a valuable new anthology compiled by Kenyan writer/editor Rasna Warah provides a hands-on critique of what she cuttingly refers to as “the development industry”.


And an industry it is. The wealthiest governments are estimated to have donated $568 billion to African countries since the 1960s, yet poverty on the continent has only deepened.

Moreover, most of this aid is subject to strict conditions that promote donor interests, often accompanied by patronising attitudes expressed by those who have come to “help” the benighted poor.

This eclectic mix of previously published items provides a valuable African perspective. The book is usefully divided into thematic sections that help tell the story of the results (or otherwise) of development, of its practitioners, and of the politics of aid.

Most of the 15 writers whose work appears here are African, and a number of them write from direct experience in NGOs or the United Nations bureaucracy. The lion’s share of the book deals with what may be the world capital of the development industry: Kenya.

Ms Warah’s introductory essay ties together the central problems with the concept that Africa will be saved from itself by foreign goodwill and deep pockets.

Such criticisms are hardly popular because, as she notes, “since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, the notion of development has become a sacred cow within the international community, one that cannot and must not be questioned”.

She highlights the vivid example of Nairobi’s Kibera, reportedly Africa’s largest slum, which has in recent years become a “must-see tourist site in Kenya”, visited by the likes of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown.

One travel agency even offers a “Kibera Slums Tour” alongside honeymoon packages and luxury safaris. A brochure invites participants to “share your moment with ... deserving mothers and children of the slum”. Ms Warah observes that many of Kibera’s estimated 600,000-plus residents do not appreciate being treated like animals in a zoo.
More important

Ms Warah, who used to work in the development industry, points out that like many bureaucracies, the structure often becomes more important than the work itself. Moreover, if results mattered, many donor agencies and NGOs would have closed shop years ago.

The reader has plenty to choose from here, including Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s searing satire of the development set in Kenya, where “tens of thousands of 4x4s are tearing the country apart looking for a project to love”.

Journalist Victoria Schlesinger’s “Journey to Nowhere” asks a number of probing questions about celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project, which aims to create a “scalable model for fighting poverty”. While Ms Schlesinger is polite to a fault, the reader is left with a clear sense that something is very wrong with this initiative.

Investment banker Maina Mwangi usefully asks what would have happened in China “if the Chinese had to listen to the World Bank, IMF and the rest of the aid alphabet soup ... What is harder to find is an example of a country that has ever grown out of a dependence on aid and stood on its own feet.”

Firoze Manji, a former director of Amnesty International’s Africa programme, argues that “far from helping to overturn the social relations that reproduced injustice and impoverishment, the main focus of development was to discover and implement solutions that would enable the victims to cope with, or find ‘sustainable’ solutions for living with impoverishment.”

African governments, many of which are part and parcel of the donor aid machine, do not escape criticism.

Readers may notice that the title, while evocative, is not developed in the book; nor is the relationship of donor funding to foreign economic interest in Africa explored. But overall, this book is a valuable addition to the debate on Africa’s past, present and future – and well worth a read.

Greg Rosenberg is a journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa