For God's Sake, Please Stop
Kenyan economist James Shikwati is interviewed in Der Spiegel. And he says what many people think about the development assistance and international NGO racket but are quite afraid to say.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...
Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.
SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.
Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.
Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...
SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...
Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.
SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.
Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.
SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?
Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrial nations, there's a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn't do all that poorly either.
Read the whole thing. The first axiom to know about development aid is that it is about poor people in rich countries lining the pockets of rich people in poor countries. It is about taxes being funneled to corrupt elites in the Third world. The second thing to remember about development aid is that it is like an Alice in Wonderland looking-glass. On one side of the glass are the international aid bureaucrats. Mirroring them on the other side are their "official counterparts". Chiefs of aid missions deal with the Minister, those lower down deal with the Deputy Minister and so on. By the time you get to the field, you have locally hired NGO workers who deal with some town mayor or chief. All along this via dolorosa the corrupt elites will be taking their slice. Snip. Snip. Snip. The best international aid managers can find ways to cut the attrition, but they also understand that if they stop it completely the entire chain will simply freeze up. So they compromise and put the Minister's wife on salary, sponsor a scholarship for his children to the Sorbonne, write glowing letters of recommendation for the Deputy Minister's thuggish son who wants to attend the Charlie Chan Driving School in some European city where wine flows free and skirts are short.
Many people start off in the international aid bureaucracy idealistically. But by the 10th year of their careers, cynicism has typically eaten into their souls. One "technical expert" travelled the world making recommendations to any of the dozen ongoing projects of a certain type being funded at any one time. He had a pre-written report composed in Microsoft Word which he did for his first project. He simply did a search and replace change on his boilerplate report to suit each country, changing the name of the project and country on what was otherwise the identical report. He wasn't dishonest, at least not in his heart. "The Minister never reads the reports anyway," he said, "it's all window-dressing".
The two things First World countries can do to help the Third World are: a) lower trade barriers; b) keep Third World bureaucrats from relocating into the First World with their stolen loot. Many such officials buy investments or emigrate to the US, Australia or Europe with what they steal from their official coffers and from official aid. If all officials above the rank of Deputy Minister were told they had to voluntarily and legally undertake not to own any property in a First World country or emigrate to it, or possess any offshore account without publishing its details in an international newspaper of record, none but the honest would accept it. This requirement would force Third World government officials to share the fate of their people, rather like lashing a captain to the wheel of his ship.
The development aid world is a sad and cynical place. It is maintained, I think, as mode of bribery for Third World government officials and a mode of "outdoor relief" for university academics. But even there it fails. Third World bureaucrats know it has become so institutionalized that they will get their cut no matter what they do. The aid bureaucracy's reason for existence has become to simply pump out money. And pump it out it will, no matter how badly behaved the counterpart. Look at Gaza. Give me an al-Qaeda bagman with a sackful of money and he will beat the World Bank in terms of effective influence any time. Nor do I think the "development" world does academia much good, except insofar as it provides an incentive to mediocrity. Professor Shikwati is right. It ain't doing any good.