Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What is it about Aid that is not working?

The view over Malawi's southern Lakeshore, from Zomba on the left, all the way to Cape Maclear on the right.

Water, development, health, HIV/AIDS, education, environmental degradation, poverty, more and more people working in development feel that all of these issues are inextricably linked together. It sounds like a huge pile of work and energy to solve them all at once, and many groups and governments around the world have been trying to tackle just a few, but the trillions of dollars poured into Africa through "aid" and other philanthropy that has clearly not worked shows us that the current status quo needs rethinking.

For anyone who is interested in extreme models of development, a more interesting model than the Pacific island of Bouganville could not be found. In the fascinating and uplifting documentary the Coconut Revolution, the BRA (Bouganville Revolutionary Army) uses sticks and then captured weapons to drive the company Rio Tinto off of their island, after it poisoned rivers, stole their land, and dug a massive open-pit mine in the rainforest. Australia bankrolled and trained the Papua New Gineau Government to fight the BRA, and imposed a total sea blockade for more than five years.

What happened is nothing less than miraculous. The islanders turned to local skills, in medicine, power generation and agriculture, and for the first time since colonialisation, the islanders became self sufficient. Their diets and health improved, and more than 50 small hydroelectric power stations gave them electricity to light their homes. In isolation the islanders even made diesel fuel for their cars out of coconut oil, fuel which is cleaner, safer and more efficient than that which used to be shipped in by sea.

In Africa today, any suggestion that Africans may develop best if simply left alone is anathema. The idea fo leaving starving people to die of drought and disease is simply not an option, but in her book Dead Aid, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo suggests that although assistance in the most critical times may be rendered, by and large all foreign aid assistance to Africa should be rethought. She examines countries in Africa that turned down Aid, and compares them with those that have welcomed it. Across the board the results are surprising, in all countries that accepted it, "overreliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” for more aid."

In Malawi, there is an urgent need for everything. Trees are being cleared to make way for a growing population that still has an exploding birthrate in one of Africa's most populous countries. The trees are gone and flooding off the steep hillsides wipes out villages and fields, taking lives and livelihoods. Children forced to work to help increase crop yeilds receive no education, and have children themselves when they are still in their teens, succumbing to AIDS and Malaria by their mid 40s. But in Malawi things are also different, here there is a concerted and real effort by the government to try and address these issues, but good development models can be hard to come by.

At least half the country's economy is supported by foreign governments through direct foreign aid. Aid that has increased only to see virtually every socioeconomic indicator decrease at the same time. So the status quo is not working, and people like the Bouganvillers and Dambisa Moyo have other suggestions. Maybe it's time we listened to them?


  1. Correction -- The beautiful picture you took from Zomba mountain is probably that of lake Chilwa, which is located east of the mountains. Lake Malawi is much further to the north whose view from Zomba mtn is obstructed by Machinga mountain which lies between Zomba and Liwonde.

  2. Hi Vee
    Thanks for the note, but it is not of Lake Chilwa. It is in fact looking west from the eastern side of the Rift, towards lake Malawi, as one drives up the escarpment from Mangochi to Namwera. On the left is Mt. Zomba, with Mt Machinge in front of it (but smaller) on the right is Cape Maclear. This is a rare view, which is why I posted it, and I strongly suggest any visitor to the southern lakeshore make the trip up this side to appcreiate it.
    Warm Regards