African agency vs the aid industry

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
5 July 2005

The welcome focus on Africa in western media and political discussion before the G8 summit has clarified the continent’s problems: corruption, dependency, tradition, and bad leadership.

That is: corruption, dependency, tradition and bad leadership within the northern-dominated aid industry that dominates discourse about Africa. The increasing aid flows to Africa that this industry advocates will, at least, “make northern-NGO poverty history”. Who else, after all, will implement all the new projects that will come?

This conflict of interest, in which those arguing most loudly for increased aid flows are the aid’s biggest beneficiaries is inherently corrupt and corrupting. We disallow it in other areas of public life; so we should when it comes to the aid industry.

The aid industry is helplessly dependent upon seeing an Africa that is incapable, lacking in agency, in permanent need of external direction. If all the flies photographed around those emaciated babies had demanded royalties for their appearances in northern media, Africa would have the richest flies in the world.

The aid industry emerged out of earlier missionary and colonial interventions in Africa, and has been unable to break with this paternalist, overbearing tradition. The damage done over the years to young people of African heritage by the portrayal of Africa might justify a class action lawsuit to enforce real accountability. It has prevented Africans from moving forward under their own steam.

Discord over Live8

In the northern hemisphere Live8 has been celebrated as the biggest concert in history – an impressive feat – but most people in Africa found it irrelevant. Until Africans in Africa are the architects and planners of such efforts this perversity will remain.

The really corrosive damage of Live8-type initiatives is twofold. First, they demoralise and disempower Africans – in Africa and the diaspora – because they render Africans’ own agency invisible. Second, they undermine local, African-led initiatives and help destroy trust and relationships between African organisations – the very stuff of any movement that will author the next stage of Africa’s liberation.

Few people watching Live8 could have known – for who told them? – that the Johannesburg concert and, crucially, Nelson Mandela’s appearance on stage there happened as a direct result of the efforts of an African-led coalition of organisations assembled in March 2005. It had originally planned a concert for 7 July, the first full day of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Sadly, the coalition’s co-option into Live8 has left a legacy of bitterness, distrust, damaged relations, and a small amount of (good) publicity. It will take months of conflict resolution to heal divisions and get the movement back on track.

The African coalition now has to assess whether the modicum of publicity was worth the aggro. Firoze Manji of Fahamu, a coalition member, is adamant that it wasn’t. “We would have gained more political capital if we had refused to go with Live8”, says Manji. “We would have made the important point that this is about Africa, by Africans, on their own terms”.

The coalition’s exchange (in Firoze Manji’s words) of “short-term fame for long-term pain” is identical to the trap that African leaders themselves often fall into. Because they lack self-confident belief in what they can achieve on their own, they follow a lead from the north. But the north has interests and instincts that differ markedly from Africans’. When the two clash, those with more power win out.

Diasporas work for Africa

This is where the African diaspora is pivotal. We belong to both north and south, and could play a much more strategic role in shifting the balance of power towards Africa. What we need is more AID – accountability in development. Before they make poverty history, Africans in Africa will have to make aid that is ineffectual, insulting, undermining and demeaning history.

In Britain, that means an independent regulator of international development. At present, the department for international development (DfID), and to a lesser extent other funders such as Comic Relief, are the de facto regulators. Northern NGOs, especially those increasingly dependent upon government funding, dance to the pipers’ tunes. This is hardly transparent or satisfactory. We need an independent regulator to assess the real impact of development efforts, to examine how NGOs use images, to look into employment practices within the sector. This will also enable us to acknowledge those northern NGOs that eschew bad practices and have a respectable track record of working in solidarity with Africans.

But for Africans to consume our energies in attempting to fix the northern aid industry, which will never reform itself and always remain marginal to the lives of ordinary Africans, would be futile. Rather, the focus should be on change in Africa by increasing money flows there from Africans themselves. That means remittances: the money that actually reaches households and communities in parts of Africa with significant stocks of migrants and diaspora communities.

Four reforms would help. First, reducing the transaction costs of remittances – but in a way that listens to Africans’ own experience. So far, reduction strategies have had the perverse effect of undermining the very African money transfer companies that provide the cheapest and most accessible services. Listening to Africans at the heart of the business – as money senders, receivers and providers – would throw up a range of alternative approaches.

Second, as African diaspora groups have argued, governments like Britain’s could apply tax relief to remittances; this would dramatically increase the flow of money into Africa at a stroke.

The benefits of remittances are not just to the receiving households and communities; they help to stimulate local economies. However, far more can be done to increase the positive impact that remittances can have by focusing on supporting local enterprises that will provide the much-needed jobs, hope and dignity that Africans in Africa say they crave.

Third, if Britain and other northern countries care about African development, they should allow more unskilled migrants from Africa to work there. Much of the money they earn will find its way as remittances back to Africa, with the beneficial effects mentioned above.

Fourth, legitimate governments in Africa will find acceptable ways to make use of these remittance flows to advance the interests of their people. Until then, the money will bypass governments and rightly so.

Meanwhile, what others can do is respectfully support Africans in Africa as they determine and shape their own fate. We must keep the baby of international solidarity and throw out the dirty bathwater of paternalism and hypocrisy. When outsiders take the lead in driving the agenda on the grounds that enlightened ends justify murky means, then we know it’s more about them than it is about Africa and Africans. Let’s make all that history.

Further Links:




Development Gateway

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