Monday, May 28, 2012

Aid - the negative industry

The financial figures are trotted out so often they are becoming almost boring: seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies, 13 countries with a higher per capita GDP than China, a fast-emerging middle-class with higher household spending than India.

Unfortunately, such truths have been obscured by the Live Aid legacy. For all their fine intentions, the mega-concerts proved a disaster for Africa. The tone was set by the absence of African artists from the line-ups of bands playing at concerts designed to save their continent. The message was clear: it was western voices that counted.

Two decades ago there were thought to be 70 charities operating in Ethiopia; today, the figure is close to 5,000. In Kenya, there is a slum with an estimated one charity for every 32 people living there. After any major disaster, where once 40 groups operated, there will now be in excess of 1,000, causing chaos and confusion rather than helping the afflicted, as seen following the Haitian earthquake two years ago. Western politicians of all hues, desperate to look sensitive and caring, cravenly pandered to this aid lobby led by Bob and Bono, while journalists put on kid gloves when engaging with it, ignoring practices that would provoke outrage elsewhere. As a result, global aid spending soared from £50bn a year to £83bn over the first decade of this century.

 Today 595,000 people work in a fiercely-competitive industry.

A study last year found even among these aid workers only about one-third thought their projects worked. In private, many will admit to grave doubts. You could fill this entire newspaper with examples of how the flood of money washes down the drain: a report by two health economists, for example, found nearly two-thirds of health aid in Africa is diverted. The waste, the ineptitude, the tolerance of corruption, the support for repression, the furthering of inequality, the boosting of arms spending is utterly scandalous.

First, all those new colonialists riding around in their big white jeeps telling the locals what is good for them. "They don't consult with us," complained a minister in Somalia, latest recipient of massive British aid. "It's like a doctor trying to prescribe medicine for a patient you haven't seen yet." This distorts priorities of recipient nations. It leads to the creation of pointless bureaucracy – one study found a typical African country must churn out 10,000 aid reports each year. Additionally, while Western government attacks welfare dependency at home, it encourages it abroad with unquestioning support for politicians who have no need to bother responding to the needs of their own citizens.

Imagine how you would feel if armies of Africans came and told you how to run your schools and hospitals (while living in some of the smartest homes)? Or funded politicians who steal and murder? But this is the West's approach abroad: we know best, our voices count. This is how Britain ended up funding a regime that sent a hit squad to this country to kill people. And how it spent £1bn supporting education in just three east African countries but failed to check whether the teachers turned up or the children were learning; sadly, they were not.

Second, there is strong competition from all those charities for your money. They produce adverts and leaflets to tug your conscience, making it seem like the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse – war, poverty, starvation, disease – gallop constantly across Africa. "If you are not negative enough, you won't get the funding," confessed one charity boss. A study suggested the dominant image remains "malnutrition and pot-bellied young children desperate for help with flies on their faces". The result of all this poverty porn – especially combined with a similar and lazy media narrative – is that Westerners see the continent as one benighted and dangerous country, not a vibrant, inventive and increasingly-successful collection of 54 diverse nations. This constant negative imagery puts them off travelling or trading there.

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