This is the first (introductory) post of a three-part series taking a critical look at aid.
Imagine you’re a baker, and you’re baking a cake. The local cookbook isn’t finalised yet so you’re using a foreign one where measures and ingredients are different, meaning you have to improvise a little. While the cake is in the oven, a few others pass by and think the smell isn’t quite right. They open the oven door, pour in some more ingredients, or just poke around and see if the consistency is what they’re used to. This opening and closing of the oven door goes on until the cake is supposedly ready. You take it out, and what do you have? A malformed and badly tasting cake.
Now replace ‘baker’ with Africa, ‘cake’ with development, and the passers-by with foreign donors. And there you have my personal opinion of aid.
After independence, African states were largely left on their own to recover from the colonial encounter, or imposed with foreign-originated ideas of how development there should unfold (re: Structural Adjustment Programs). In the process of attempting to bake their development cake, donors have started commenting on all aspects of the process, giving value judgments based on their own views of what should go in to that cake. They are passersby in the sense that while the cake interests them for the moment, they will not stay to eat it, so the end results matters less and the process of getting there, gains more prominence. While some parts of the cake might end up tasting okay because of an extra tea spoon of advice, same cannot be said for the whole cake.
A few months ago, when Britain announced that they will withdraw their budget support from Malawi, the news was met with shock, horror on one side, and relief, jubilations on the other. Based on my above cake-metaphor, you may have already guessed that I belong to the latter camp.
Having studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – a university quite renowned for being critical against Western ideologies imposed on developing countries – I was already quite skeptical of aid before entering that world a year ago in September. Working in Tanzania was a real eye-opener for me. Sure, I had studied the mechanisms for and heard the criticisms of aid – conditionalities and the like – and it was interesting to now finally be able to apply and critically evaluate theories learnt in the classroom to the real-life situation. But the initial interest and excitement of working in the intriguing world of aid quite quickly took a turn to frustration. How can the aid industry be in such a mess? Why is aid delivery so ineffective? When will this improve? What are we actually doing here? The questions are many.
While humanitarian aid has its own mechanisms at play, my focus is on official development assistance (ODA), i.e. general budget support, projects and basket funds. ODA donors in Tanzania often pride themselves on having, for example, been instrumental in bringing improvements in education and health. Indeed, last year Tanzania even received the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) award for best performance in education, having extended primary schooling to nearly all children in that age. It’s great news, and local governments, i.e. those in charge, rather than the central government, put large chunks of their budget into education-related investments, such as building schools, classrooms, and toilet facilities.
But it doesn’t help if the school is built in an area where there are already enough schools, while another area is struggling with small spaces for 800 children. Or when teachers are collecting pay but don’t turn up to teach because of laziness or simply because they do not live in the area at all. Ironically, a day after the MDG award was announced, an Annual Learning Assessment Report was launched in Tanzania, by UWEZO, a local initiative that works to improve literacy and numeracy among East African children. The findings were deeply troubling – for example, half of the children finishing primary school (taught in Swahili) cannot read English, the language of tuition in secondary school. The Uwezo report summarises the findings by saying that “[t]he stark reality is that, despite the enormous advances in education made possible by investing trillions of shillings each year, the vast majority of children in Tanzania are not learning.” (UWEZO summary report can be found here).
Of course improvements in all areas don’t happen overnight, but the problem with education in Tanzania provides food for thought and a good basis for exploring the aid debate further. The next part will unravel and give a critical view of the aid world, as observed inside it and on the ground.
The second (explanatory) part of the series can be found here.