Several days ago, (Swiss Councilman) Christoph Blocher rekindled the debate on the purpose and effectiveness of development aid to Africa. One can imagine what the (right-wing) Swiss People’s Party (UDC)) thinks about the “black continent”. But it must be said that he did succeed in stirring up the waters. Whatever his intentions, his raising of this issue is not enough, except among those whose complacent compassion for the third world has disastrous consequences.

When aid turns out to be more a full-time necessity than temporary support to those in need, then it has failed in its objective, especially when it spirals into a vicious cycle of dependency. And that has been the picture so far. Many African countries are rubbing their hands with glee at the promise of aid rather than worrying about this policy of handouts?

Why has this institution that is international aid failed? One can call it failure when the number of people living below the poverty line is on the rise each year in Africa, At this rate, it looks like the UN’s Millennium development goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015 will be a century late.
There are the classic explanations of corruption, war, political instability and natural disasters which, although genuine, are more of a scapegoat for those unwilling to change. There is no use pretending.

Aid as a crutch

1. Africa is not the biggest recipient of aid - rather it’s a question of geopolitical donor agendas. The USA forks out more for Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Egypt for political reasons. Each Israeli citizen received 340 dollars in aid during the decade 1990 to 1999. A Cameroonian got 30, a Ugandan, 32 and a Somali, 29. The former colonial powers mainly pump in aid to maintain influence over their former ‘game reserves’.

2. Officially, the amount of international aid has gone from roughly 50 to 80 billion dollars in a few years. In fact, donor countries have decided to count expenditures targeted to asylum seekers along with debt relief which only benefits a certain number of countries.

3. Aid pays off for donor countries. In Switzerland, a budget of 1.2 billion francs has an impact of from 1.6 to 1.8 billion on the national economy, generating an estimated 13,000 to 19,000 jobs. According to another study by the British NGO Action Aid, published in 2004, international consultants pocket 20 billion dollars from the 50 billion aid budget. A lot of donor countries target aid at purchasing equipment for themselves thereby boosting their own economy. Some count military aid as development aid.

4. Sometimes the main difficulty is not the quantity but poor coordination. For example, the field of health care in Africa is rife with fierce competition among multilateral organisations (WHO, UNAIDS, The Global Fund to fight AIDS), bilateral aid (the USA has its own program), private foundations (Bill & Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, pharmaceutical companies) and NGOs. Some recipient countries complain of spending more time writing reports for each donor, hosting delegations and visiting projects rather than working.

5. Aid is often ineffective. The two landmark aid providers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank recognize the failure of their strategy. They have had a rethink but for the moment the accent is on fighting corruption. One could say they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Traditional strategies under attack

Today’s aid strategy as practiced today is under attack and rightly so. Africa certainly needs support - to alleviate its heavy debts, build infrastructure, produce commodities and services and open doors to markets. If aid does not achieve this objective it is useless to apply bandaid measures.
According to a recent World Bank report, a handful of African countries have experienced reasonable growth over the past few years.

This is thanks to trade in their raw materials brought on by increased demand, not development aid.