By Doris Acheng Odit
Andrew Mwenda usually likes to court controversy, not to mention his uncanny ability to provoke the unbecoming of responses from individuals that are renowned for their candid calm and civility when it comes to engaging in intellectual and ideological debates.
So being an ardent tweep, (as we tweeter users like to refer to ourselves), I was, this Sunday, intrigued, and maybe to an extent a little bit entertained when Mwenda decided to engage a renowned economist Jeffery D. Sachs in a twitter-debate over the practicability of foreign aid to Africa, and the manner in which it is given.
The twitter-sphere debate turned a little bit heated, and perhaps crossed a few personal lines, but it was quite intriguing watching Mwenda take a go at a Professor of economics, a bestselling author and a senior UN advisor. It all seemed like a sort of online David and Goliath scenario, on a much more hilarious scale of course.
Foreign aid has two conflicting schools of thought. One school of thought that advocates for the traditional model of development aid vis-à-vis an aid model that is more focused on development investment as has of recent been the case with the Africa- Asia aid model.
The traditional development aid school of thought unlike the latter has been tried and tested for a number of decades in African countries, perhaps since independence and in a critical and realistic evaluation of its impact, a lot of criticisms emerge, the first being the question of what is the end game? Is it a perpetual cycle of aid that will continue indefinitely? Or is it aid that is meant to empower African countries to be more self-reliant?
Of course, critics have pointed to the crippling nature of development aid which has created a pool of indefinite resources that somehow manage to make their way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals and rarely trickle to the grassroots for which they are intended. And then there’s the issue of “teaching a man to fish rather than giving him fish.”
The culture of development aid has turned Africa into a crippled beggar, a cripple who becomes more and more debilitated as a consequence of the traditional form of aid in form of hand-outs that we have for all sorts of social and development programmes.
Development aid has created an addiction syndrome in African countries,-an addiction to hand-outs with the Western countries and aid agencies as enablers for this debilitating addiction. And after receiving aid for the past 50 years, approximately- the question that we all ask ourselves is, on a cross examination of the impact, has the aid created a sustainable environment for economic development? Has it created structures for economic empowerment of African countries? Or rather has it created and fostered or natured an unhealthy culture of dependency? The latter, unfortunately is true.
And of course, we cannot forget the strings attached to development aid to Africa, strings that often or on occasion conflict with our cultural and societal values.
On the other side of the spectrum is a new and emerging school of thought one that subscribes to the notion that aid is only sustainable and more effective when its focus is on investment initiatives or what some refer to as ‘development investment’.
For instance, hypothetically speaking supposing an “aid-giver” undertook a mega-investment in an agricultural produce processing firm-One would understandably ask, in what sense is that aid? I would call it a symbiotic relationship kind of aid. The investor or “aid-giver” by setting up an agricultural produce processing firm, creates a missing link in the agricultural value chain- He creates market for the farmers’ produce, he creates work for the produce transporters to the firm, he creates jobs for the workers at the firm, the country earns through taxation, assuming the products from the firm are of export quality, and for the export market, the country further benefits through foreign exchange earnings, and to seal the symbiotic nature of this relationship, the aid-giver/firm-owner earns through profits/ dividends from the firm. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved.
The West of course and aid agencies are choosing to maintain the status quo in what is aid to Africa- so we continue to receive hand-outs that are only enriching a few as they seldom make it further down through the pipeline as countless examples show. The Asian giants are adopting the new school of thought one that is more focused on partnerships rather than on a big-brother and superior-inferior relationship kind of aid that has been characteristic in the development aid model.
As Africa’s potential grows, and as our riches in natural resources increases not to mention an influx of skilled human capital born and bred within the continent emerges, perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift. We have the natural resources but not enough financial resources to exploit them, what we need are partners with the financial resources to back us, partners who are willing to abandon the big-brother ideology- and who believe in a win-win situation without strings attached rather than the economic gain of all parties involved. We have outgrown the hand-out stage, we have ample bargaining power, and it is high time we start acting like it.
The writer is an associate consultant with Trans African Management Consultants