Aid: more about aiding the West than ‘the rest’?

Two new books by former World Bank officials argue that aid to Africa is driven by gesture and narcissism rather than concern for the poor.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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In the wake of a host of new international initiatives to extend development aid to Africa – from Tony Blair’s Africa Commission to the G8’s extension of debt relief and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, not to mention all that pop-star campaigning – two provocatively titled books published last month fundamentally question the value of foreign aid. Both written by former World Bank officials, they give very different explanations for the failure of foreign aid to address Africa’s poverty.

Robert Calderisi’s The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working (Yale University Press) reflects the author’s disillusionment after spending 20 years representing the World Bank in Africa. Calderisi affects to spread the blame: accusing the population of Africa for having a passive, fatalistic culture; African political elites for not caring beyond their own enrichment; and international donors and policy officials for a misplaced ‘political correctness’ which prevents them from seeing (and speaking) the truth about Africa’s situation.

The former World Bank spokesperson for Africa (1997-2000) introduces his book as the first to tell the ‘inside story of African development over the last 30 years through the eyes of a senior international official’ (p5). While most aid professionals of his generation are still in the field, Calderisi took early retirement and then waited the obligatory two years to publish without the Bank’s approval. He clearly had a lot to get off his chest and the book is very much a personal story of his own experiences and frustrations. Refreshingly, this is not the usual development aid mea culpa; here the World Bank does little wrong beyond being badly misunderstood. The book attempts to address what Calderisi sees as a ‘colossal misunderstanding’ of the Bank’s work (p150).

Rather than being the expression of foreign domination, Calderisi wants to portray the World Bank as a light touch, loath to stick to its conditions; talking tough in public but happy to hand over billions of dollars if governments merely ‘were prepared to say the right words and sign the right documents’ (p19). He argues that the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 90s were blamed for Africa’s collapsing infrastructure and services, while the economic crisis was in reality fuelled by falling primary commodity prices and the lack of African agricultural productivity. Calderisi believes that the World Bank and IMF were made the fall guys because politically correct Western campaigners and political activists couldn’t allow that African governments themselves were largely responsible for the mismanagement of their own economies.

He suggests that some Africans know better, such as the local development workers in central Africa who asked him: ‘Isn’t it time this country was placed under a UN mandate?’ (p162) He also cites a meeting with the UN secretary general’s special representative for the Central African Republic (now president of Mali) who requested that he placed World Bank and IMF advisers in the offices of the president and the prime minister. Calderisi states that he denied the request because the level of World Bank interference would be impossible (p163). However, he devotes a chapter of his book to extolling the virtues of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, opened in October 2003, which drastically extended international interference in the management of African states. The Chadian government’s share of the oil revenues were deposited in an overseas account, with a ‘watchdog’ committee, including representatives of the international financial institutions and international NGOs, vetting the entirety of the government’s spending plans (p183).

Calderisi concludes that ‘past courtesies should be abandoned’ and ‘it is time for aid to become more openly political’, with more intrusive mechanisms of international conditionality on the basis of democracy, human rights and good governance (pp210-11). He also suggests that specific projects, such as support for primary school education and HIV/AIDS programmes should be directly administered by international officials to ensure that funding goes to those who need it most (pp213-4). His call for the rejection of ‘neutral’ aid for the more explicit ‘politics’ of Western regulation and conditionality clearly reflects the post-Cold War shift in relations between international financial institutions and African states.

However, the frustrated nature of Calderisi’s call for the World Bank to play hard ball, and to take greater direct responsibility for managing Africa’s economic crisis, suggests that despite the shifting power relations there is more to the World Bank’s reluctance to publicly take on the management of African governments than misplaced ‘political correctness’ or ‘imperial guilt’. Author and former World Bank economist William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good (Oxford University Press), indicates some of the reasons why aid for Africa is high on the international agenda while more intrusive interventions are not.

Easterly’s focus is on Western aid approaches to development and poverty reduction rather than on Africa itself. At the heart of the problem is the lack of Western responsibility or accountability for grand plans for Africa, of which the G8 plans, the UN Millennium Development Goals and Blair’s commission are only the latest in a long tradition. For Easterly, the tragedy of Africa has become the backdrop to the ‘inspirational dreams’ of the post-Cold War UN, the ‘beautiful goal’ of Blair, Gordon Brown and the Make Poverty History campaigners, and the ‘moral purpose’ of a Bush administration bogged down in Iraq (pp8-9).

But having a rhetorical goal is merely a statement of intent. The more ‘grand plans’ are developed to ‘save Africa’, the clearer it is for Easterly that these goals relate to a narcissistic and simplistic fantasy view of Africa rather than to Africa as a complex political reality.

In a direct counter to Calderisi’s thesis, Easterly argues that the failure of international aid to Africa can be understood without blaming African leaders or peoples. The statistics do not support aid effectiveness even if aid was only given to governments in good policy environments. International aid, as currently practised by the West, would fail to address poverty regardless of where the aid was given and regardless of how many ‘country performance indicators’ were taken into account or how cross-institutional collaboration was organised to ensure that the World Bank, IMF, UN, USAID, DFID and international NGOs were all following the same internationally coordinated agenda.

Easterly’s point is that while markets and democracy are potentially useful in addressing poverty and aiding development, they cannot be imposed from outside through aid conditionality. Just as the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and 90s had little success, so the focus on democratisation and ‘good governance’ today will be equally ineffective despite wars of ‘liberation’ and regime change or the installation of ‘postmodern’ trusteeships. For example, his critique of the idea that external development aid can transform societies or power relations within them is an insightful one. When the World Bank’s ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper’ calls for civil society engagement and the participation of poor ‘stakeholders’, he argues that it is impossible for bureaucrats to redistribute power in a society. For Easterly, there is a fundamental contradiction in the use of participation, empowerment and ‘local ownership’ as part of externally-imposed conditions (pp126-9; 171-4).

International development aid is often either condemned as a product of national self-interest or the needs of global capital, or is supported as a symbol of how much the West ‘cares’ about Africa. Easterly provocatively suggests that international aid provision today reflects neither genuine interest or concern for Africa. Rather, what drives international aid is the gap between the policymakers (of the West) and those who live with the consequences (the Rest). Aid as a utopian vision provides moral sustenance to those who dispense it and makes it easy to blame the recipients if it fails. This is a consequence of the bureaucratic division between donor and receiver (pp145-81). Not only is there a formal lack of information, feedback and accountability – making aid provision famously prone to the law of unintended consequences – but the initial starting strategies and methods of delivery make international aid little more than a gesture or statement on the part of the provider.

Nowhere is the gesture-like character of international aid provision clearer than in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which seek to coordinate the work of rich-country governments and international aid agencies around a number of ambitious targets. The ambitious and broad nature of the target goals and the collective approach, for Easterly, guarantee the lack of responsibility of any agency for any outcome (p151; 179). The view that all development goals are inter-related – for example, human rights, democracy, peace, environmental sustainability and good governance (promoted in the work of Amartya Sen and mainstream thinking in current international development and security policy) (1) – has facilitated the view that it is impossible to link inputs with outcomes in the development sphere. The grander the goals, then the more complex they are and the less open any policy or policy-actor is to being accountable for their actions.

Easterly argues that international development aid fails because it is, of necessity, entirely a bureaucratic mechanism, with no checks and balances of democratic accountability. Its measures are quantitative and self-referencing – how much money was disbursed, or how many conferences or meetings were held, or how many reports were written. Even when the targets relate to the outside world, for example, how many roads were built or schools or hospitals, the quantitative approach neglects the upkeep, maintenance and human resources necessary to give these figures real meaning. International development targets can change, with new objectives, priorities and measures of success, but the bureaucratic mechanisms ensure that the negative outcome is repeated.

Easterly further suggests that aid for Africa is not just entirely unaccountable, but that the ability of governments and international agencies to engage in a sphere where they do not have to bear policy responsibility is highly attractive to institutions lacking a clear sense of purpose or mission. Making fantasy claims with respect to Africa is a retreat from political responsibility where politicians and policymakers never have to engage in the real world of trade-offs and policy priorities. Every concern can be ‘number one’, whether it is the environment, women’s rights or ‘ending poverty’ (p164).

In this respect, Easterly backs up Calderisi’s claims that the IMF and the World Bank’s structural adjustment conditionality was pursued more in rhetoric than in reality, with regular ‘bail out’ packages and new loans despite the lack of success of the economic prescriptions advocated (pp198-208). These were then converted into debt forgiveness in the Highly Indebted Poor Country programmes of the late 1990s and the G8 debt cancellations in 2005. The shift to external conditionality for development aid in the late 1970s and 80s seems in retrospect to have been a statement of purpose on behalf of the international financial institutions rather than a sign of their willingness to impose a harsh financial agenda on Africa.

Despite the differences in approach and conclusions both authors highlight a central theme: the denial of Western responsibility and accountability for their development aid policies in Africa. For Calderisi, this stems from Western imperial guilt and modern-day political correctness; for Easterly, from the bureaucratic mechanisms of international aid practices. While Calderisi argues for more of the same policies but with stricter conditionality and enforcement, Easterly suggests aid agencies scale back to specific and ‘doable’ tasks that they can be held to account for.

However, Easterly’s own account suggests that development aid for Africa has more to do with attempts by Western states and international institutions to project a set of values and political purpose than with traditional self-interest, economic development or aiding the poor. If this is the case, then the self-referential drive behind the grand plans to ‘save Africa’ suggest that a lack of success in meeting the stated aims is unlikely to lead to a change in policy approach.

The Trouble With Africa by Robert Calderisi is published by Yale University Press (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly is published by Oxford University Press (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

David Chandler is professor of international relations, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

He is speaking on a panel discussion: Empire of Regulation or Lawless World? at the Battle of Ideas festival, Saturday 28 October 2006

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(1) See, for the classic analysis, Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1999).

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Topics Politics


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