News & Comment

26 June 2005

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Welcome to the aid business!

Welcome to the aid business!

Behind the politicians and pop stars on display at the Gleneagles summit of the Group of Eight (G8) on 6-8 July, look out for another contingent of professionals: non-government organisations (NGOs). The aid agencies will be there in strength, promoting their solutions for Africa’s ills, rallying their troops and rattling collection-boxes. And the boxes will have to be big to contain billions of dollars in new aid money if the British hosts, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, get their well-intentioned way.

Who monitors the NGOs?

There is a final, troubling concern. The growth in civil society has been one of the most encouraging developments in Africa in recent years. Two developments have been the catalyst: deregulation of the state-controlled TV and radio sector, and the privatisation of the telecommunication sector. The result is that more information is available to African citizens, and an explosion in mobile-phone ownership is transforming the practice and possibilities of communication (Ghana is a particularly interesting example).

Foreign NGOs’ stance towards this trend is problematic. Many are uneasy about the privatisation trend, fearing the impact on water and energy supplies especially. There is also a sense that they are locked in an ideological cast of mind, fighting battles on African soil that have long been lost in the countries where they are based.

All this makes the case for an independent inquiry to answer some critical questions: how successfully has the NGO movement performed in meeting its stated objectives? Does NGO aid work for the benefit of the African (and other) people it aims to help, and if so, how well?

And if it does not, should the people who will be rattling their collection-boxes in Gleneagles share part of the blame for Africa’s development disasters?

The aid business is booming. As Africa’s crisis has deepened and its problems have multiplied, so the number of foreign NGOs has risen. There were a few hundred in the 1960s. There are thought to be well over 25,000 today, their staff swelling the continent’s army of outsiders. They don’t come cheap. An estimated $4bn is spent annually on recruiting some 100,000 expatriates.

The result is that there are more foreigners working on development issues in Africa than there were in the 1950-1970s era of independence. They are helping to run everything from ministries to mines, working as behind-the-scenes policy-makers or performing heroics on the frontline in the battle against poverty.

This in itself need not be cause for concern, were it not for another fact: as foreigners go in to take up short-term contracts, skilled Africans are leaving, in their droves, to work abroad – some 70,000 a year.

Some of these revealing nuggets about the condition of Africa come from the 460-page report of the Commission for Africa set up by Tony Blair, published in March 2005. Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa is near-comprehensive in its coverage of Africa’s problems, and often innovative in its suggestions of how to resolve them, but there is one thing it does not do: ask whether this growing foreign presence – and the NGOs in particular – may be not just a symptom of Africa’s crisis, but part of the cause.

Why are there so many NGOs? How do they coordinate? Where do they get their money? What proportion of their funds comes from official aid agencies, who increasingly use the NGOs as a conduit? How effectively do the NGOs spend these funds? Are they adept at spinning the aid story at home, but lacking in professionalism in the field? In short, do the NGOs have power and influence without responsibility?

No one can feel anything but admiration for emergency humanitarian missions, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The NGO role, however, is different. It usually goes well beyond assistance to people in dire distress. NGOs have become players in the medium-to-long-term development of the country or region where they are based.

A Kenyan case-study

Few countries better illustrate the need for an independent assessment of the impact of NGOs in Africa than Kenya, once seen as one of the continent’s rare success stories.

Stand on any Nairobi street corner and count the passing four-wheel drive vehicles of the voluntary aid agencies. Their door panels proclaim their involvement in just about every social, economic and environmental issue under the sun, from the evils of female circumcision to solar energy.

Behind this myriad of NGOs stands a major patron: the United Nations. No less than twenty-five UN organisations are represented in Kenya, led by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), extolled by its resident representative as Kenya’s “lean but effective development partner”. Alongside the UN, in terms of influence rather than cash, is Britain’s department for international development (DfID), which administers the country’s official aid programmes.

It might seem a formidable combination. Yet Kenya is a development failure. More than four decades after independence in December 1963, the social indicators are pointing the wrong way. Life expectancy is falling, and the number of Kenyans subsisting on less than a dollar a day is rising. Nearly two-thirds of the population are in deep poverty.

Yet neither the NGOs nor the official agencies are prepared to admit a share of the blame for this failure – one which contributed to the resignation and exile of Kenya’s leading anti-corruption official, John Githongo, in February 2005.

Indeed, far from rocking the boat, many NGOs have become little more than an arm of official donor policy. Where governance is poor, says the Blair commission, “aid may best be paid into specific aid projects run by aid agencies or NGOs”. But there is no mention of the case for cutting aid altogether, to a country where corruption is endemic.

Is it really possible “to deliver benefits directly to poor Kenyans without releasing the resources to be misused elsewhere”, as DfID Nairobi claims? Or is this, as critics claim, a demonstration of naiveté?

The policy of aid via proxy goes some of the way towards explaining the growth of NGOs. It also fills the gap left by the reduction of foreign diplomatic missions in Africa over the past decade. But this process also entails a collapse of the institutional memory that was once a notable feature of, for example, Britain’s foreign office (which now plays a secondary role to DfID in overseeing the country’s aid policy).

Who now recalls the lost battles in Zambia in the 1970s, when NGOs struggled to create islands of sustainable development? They were overwhelmed by the failure of central government policies which left a rampant black market in currency and endemic corruption, of the kind echoed in countries like Nigeria.

In their enthusiasm to help, and their unawareness of such past experience, NGOs can do harm, say their critics. Their means – importing food to distribute to the interior, for instance – can often undermine their core objective. Aiding the running of a country’s railways for example, assists in the atrophy of the muscles of whoever is nominally in charge, whether the state or the private sector.

It has been calculated that the combined direct and indirect benefit of the UN agencies in Kenya amounts to more than $350m, or 19% of exports, second only to tea as a source of foreign exchange and equivalent to 3% of GNP. Add NGO spending and there is a level of investment that could give a UN-led initiative a powerful weapon to use when demanding the clean-up of one of Africa’s most corrupt governments.

Instead, the scale of these figures makes the international community nervous at the very thought of doing anything that might disturb a mutually convenient arrangement. Its agencies do not want to upset what they see as a reliable and comfortable regional base. They also do not want to jeopardise military agreements involving the United States and Kenya, which have assumed particular importance since the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998, now seen as precursors of the post-9/11 “war on terror”.

Britain in particular is anxious to protect its multi-billon dollar investments in Kenya, and has no wish to be forced to welcome the 30,000 British passport holders (mainly Asian) who live in the country. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that political expediency plays some part in Britain’s decision to increase aid, rather than cut it (as the evidence might suggest) – from £30 million in 2003-4 to £50 million in 2005-6.

Meanwhile the NGO relationship with the international media has become unhealthy. It is a tough world out there, competing for donor dollars. A mention (and thus promotion) in the media can be worth a million dollars if it reaches the heart of the donating public. So NGOs battle for space in the columns of the newspapers, for a minute on radio, and a few seconds on TV.

The media, serving a 24-hour audience, wants quick judgment and instant analysis; the NGO that cannot provide them risks losing the all-important media puff. Before they know it, the NGOs have become enmeshed in a complex network in which expediency and humanity are intertwined, and find themselves complicit in the really big decisions being taken in Whitehall and Washington.