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Rebuilding Lives and Regenerating War torn Communities: Does Aid Work? – Part 1

Abdul R Thomas
Editor – The Sierra Leone Telegraph

20 May 2010

Just few weeks ago, the Civil Rights Champion - Desmond Tutu of South Africa, hosted and chaired a riveting debate on BBC television, bringing together some of Africa’s contemporary thinkers, to discuss the issue of Aid and whether Africa is better off without help from the West.

In his opening introduction, Desmond Tutu said; “My homeland of Africa is undergoing huge change and it has led me to ask questions about the kind of future facing African people this century. Although the majority of Aid is given in good faith and in cases of disaster emergencies – saves lives; many Africans are now asking whether international Aid has turned Africa into a giant welfare state.”

“So, does the Aid relationship between the West and Africa sustain the idea of Africans as powerless to change things themselves? Has the international community actually come to view Africa in desperate need as a natural state of affairs? And is foreign Aid propping up failing or corrupt government, by making them unaccountable to their people?” asked Desmond Tutu.

Most of the speakers in the debate agreed that Africa is not entirely a basket case. There are good examples of Southern African countries that are doing well. Before the start of the Global economic crisis three years ago, average economic growth rate in Africa was about 5%. This is significant, as most European countries were experiencing negative economic growth.

The panel accepted that no fewer than 37 African countries are now democracies. According to the OECD, for the first time foreign direct investment in Africa now exceeds Aid. This must be encouraging for countries that are recovering from wars, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Rwanda.

Rwanda is a case study of how desperate countries in Africa that have been blighted by civil war, are being resuscitated by international Aid. But there is a desperate need now, to seriously begin to wean themselves from Aid, and propel the process of tackling poverty through industrial and business development.

The President of Rwanda - Paul Kagame believes; “Aid that does not work to make itself obsolete, is a failure.” After the Rwandan genocide, international Aid provided 85% of the country’s revenue. This has been concertedly and significantly brought down to 50%.

Although the Rwandans need that 50% donor contribution, the government of Paul Kagame is actively working towards reducing it to 30%, by encouraging and promoting genuine and sustainable foreign direct investments. But local indigenous businesses are not being left behind or marginalised by the Rwandan government. They too are playing a significant part in the economic recovery.

The panellists taking part in the Tutu Africa Aid debate generally agreed that most African countries, especially those in the Sub-Sahara need international Aid. But they recognised that Aid cannot continue in perpetuity. Africa needs an Aid exit strategy. They called for reparation payment for development that will replace benevolent giving.

The good work done in Africa by international charitable organisations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, World Food Programme and many others, was acknowledged. But the need for Africans themselves to become ‘masters of their own destiny’ by taking over the work of the international NGOs is paramount, said the panel.

The panel suggested that although efforts are ongoing in some beneficiary countries to build the capacity of African run NGOs, this must be a key priority for the international donors, as part of a co-ordinated strategy in making Aid obsolete. Once the entrepreneurial capacity of African run NGOs has been developed, they can function independently as community businesses, with immense job and wealth creation potential.

It will be remiss of any debating panel discussing the issues surrounding Aid in Africa, not to mention the problems caused by poor terms of trade between Africa and the rest of the world; unfairly skewed international trade structures; tariffs, import protectionism, subsidies, dumping; and burdensome conditionalities imposed by the IMF and World Bank. The Tutu panellists were no exception.

Whilst they all agreed on the terrible impacts that external factors such as poor terms of trade are having on Africa’s chances of promoting sustainable economic growth and prosperity; it is those factors which African governments themselves can and must manage and control – but sadly are not - that the panel found to be ever so exasperating and frustrating.

These factors they believe must now form the agenda for debate by a new generation of Africans whose outlook, values and dreams are of an Africa that is not dependent upon the international community for its survival and well being.

They spoke of the readjustment of Africa’s power relationships with donor countries; the need for Africa to tackle Corruption from within and by itself without rewards from donors; to focus on rebuilding Africa’s weak and inefficient States; a recognition by Africans that Africans are poor but Africa is rich; for Africans to seriously address barriers to inter-African trade; to eradicate Africa’s culture of dependency on donors, which is stifling innovation and creativity.

Desmond Tutu asked the Panel; “People would say that decades of Aid have not got rid of poverty in Africa, nor the causes of poverty. Is it doing harm or doing good?” The Panel agreed that ‘Aid does good – especially emergency Aid.’ But they were equally scathing in discussing the unintended consequences of Aid.

They mentioned that; Aid prevents the adoption of policies that addresses poverty; Aid undermines economic sovereignty; undermines the policy state; and that Aid creates unhealthy power relationships that are prejudicial to the interests of Africa.

In concluding what most viewers would have regarded as not only an enlightening television debate as to where Africa is in the wider scheme of Global human development, one is left wondering whether it is now time to throw the baby (international Aid) away with the bath water.

In his conclusion, Desmond Tutu left viewers with this final thought: “While we can acknowledge and be grateful for the good work being done by many NGOs and charities, built on the best intentions of those who give to Aid, in the hope of helping their fellow human beings in Africa, perhaps it is now time for us to look at what isn’t working and to redefine what kind of relationship Africa needs with the West.”

For most Sierra Leoneans, the question is where we start in this big debate, drawing on from the concluding remarks of Desmond Tutu?

In 2001 the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone was officially declared over, exposing a massive trail of human suffering and destruction. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost; thousands of innocent people left amputated; hundreds of thousands of property destroyed.

According to mental health experts, over a million people could still be classed as walking wounded – physically and mentally. The economic and social life of most brought to a halt for almost ten years.

For communities that found themselves in the centre of intense armed bombardment, life is slowly beginning to return to some semblance of normality. But the pain and trauma lingers on. Help in rebuilding their shattered lives and dreams, and regenerating their communities remain elusive, as thousands continue to live as refugees in their own country.

Successive governments of Sierra Leone with the help of the international community – the UN, the World Bank, the European Commission, and various countries acting unilaterally and multi-laterally, have worked hard to re-build the nation state, wrecked by civil war. Emergency Aid has been good for Sierra Leone.

More than 60% of the country’s revenue is accounted for by international donor Aid, which pays for education, health, the administration of justice, law and order, the provision of clean water, governance, and economic reforms.

But as the people of Sierra Leone come to terms with the current economic hardship, while they contemplate their future, the question as to the effectiveness of international Aid must be on the nation’s agenda for debate.

Despite the successes of international Aid in Serra Leone, few will dispute the fact that poverty is increasing. The gap between the rich – who are very rich indeed, and those languishing at the bottom of the human development index, is widening. Something has to change.

After spending Billions of Dollars donated by the international community for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and promote economic growth, the signs and symbols of progress are too few and far too spatially concentrated.

It appears the country is stuck or frozen in time and space, with plenty of promises and talk of foreign direct investment that will arrive to kick start economic growth. $300 Million of international Aid to Sierra Leone a year can go a long way in stimulating economic growth, but, with some degree of creative and innovative thinking.

The promise of industrial renaissance powered by the newly commissioned Bumbuna is faltering, as the project is crippling with technical problems that ought to have been foreseen at the planning stage.

The country has been plunged into darkness once again, as households and businesses dust off their old noisy power generators. Electricity in many areas of the capital is sporadic and intermittent.

Most communities have not seen clean and safe drinking water running through their community standpipes for many months, despite Millions of Pounds funding by the British government’s DFID. Simply throwing money at a problem in order to plaster the cracks does not solve the problem.

Urban sprawl continues unabated. Images of luxurious mansions built in the midst of densely populated shanty communities continue to grace the skyline of the capital Freetown. It seems no one is taking responsibility for spatial planning and building regulations. International Aid cannot be blamed for the abdication of governance.

Civil society groups are complaining of an apartheid system of education, where the best schools are reserved for the haves; while the ill-equipped and under funded schools barely provide a healthy learning environment for the have-nots. Thousands of teachers are still waiting to receive their full pay for the months of March and April, as the Ministry of Education tries to joggle its budgetary deficit.

International Aid is now paying for the provision of free health care for lactating mothers, pregnant women and young children, costing over $100 Million. But the hospitals and doctors are finding it very difficult to cope with demand. Yet again, these are teething problems that ought to have been foreseen at the planning stage, with some measure of innovative thinking and creativity.

The agenda for the rebuilding of lives after the war and the regeneration of shattered communities is left in the hands of the international donor agencies, driven by the fortitude of people living in those communities. When Germany was destroyed by the war, the Americans put in place ‘the Marshall Plan’.

In Sierra Leone there is the ‘Agenda for Change’, which many in Sierra Leone and in the international community regard as woefully misdirected and disjointed. The strategies and programmes driven by the international community do not seem to connect seamlessly to the government’s Agenda for Change.

As the World Food Programme (WFP) yesterday launched its ‘Cash for Work Programme' aimed at assisting Iraqis to get back on their feet, questions are being asked by Africans as to whether poor African countries recovering from war, like Iraq, could have benefitted from a similar programme, instead of food Aid.

The Sierra Leone Telegraph will in its next editorial put the spotlight on the World Food Programme’s Food for Work Programme in Sierra Leone. Could Sierra Leoneans have benefitted from similar ‘Cash for Work Programme’ instead of Food for Work?

Does ‘Food for Work’ reinforce Desmond Tutu’s notion of international Aid, changing Africa into a basket case and perpetuating a dependency culture?

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