Does donor Aid in Africa really work?

In 2011 we found ourselves stuck in the midst of quite an interesting debate amongst various emerging scholars in a development studies seminar. Participants were mainly from Europe, Asia and Africa. The topical debate of this seminar was centered around NGOs and civil society building in the Netherlands. It was at the heart of our series of debates that we found ourselves arguing about “Aid effectiveness vis-a-vis Aid ineffectiveness”. Some were of the view that NGOs were the ‘magic bullet’ of our time.  Yet others held the opinion that, the NGO community was slowly heralding towards its natural death. Challenged by this academic debate and drawing from experience from other African countries such as Zimbabwe and Ghana, the authors of this article are of the view that NGOs play a crucial role and should be viewed as the alternative to development especially in Africa and Asia.

 We are quite in favour of African countries negotiating for the best deals they can get from donor funders by playing off different donors against each other. The conditionalities that some donors attach to aid is onerous and sometimes unjust. The big question then is does aid become effective when it is without conditionalities? In the West, good governance and democracy prevails which is contrary to what pertains in the South. Aid from the West therefore comes with a lot of conditionalities attached. It is against this background that we seek to set the record straight by putting the aid effectiveness discourse into perspective, using the Zimbabwean and Ghanaian models as illustrative examples.

Most NGOs in Zimbabwe that are focused on helping women out of poverty or empowering them financially are often open to criticisms. These criticisms are always based on the fact that despite preaching the rhetoric of women’s emancipation and empowerment little progress has been recorded on the ground. Most NGOs have used the ‘empowerment’ and participation as trump cards in getting donor support. But the question that arises is which type of empowerment or whose participation? The pertinent question that ought to be asked is whether NGO terminologies surrounding “democracy, rights, empowerment, poverty reduction and livelihood building” make a difference in both Zimbabwe and Ghana or elsewhere? It is our considered analysis that NGOs have played a very instrumental role as “messiahs” since the era of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) in most African countries, although some of their conduct and effectiveness leaves a lot to be desired.

Everyone is ultimately interested in this game of aid and it should not be seen as a win-win situation. In fact aid becomes effective if there is a just and fair conditionality attached to it such as giving micro credit loans to women if only they send their children to school etc. Indeed, we should turn our focus too here on African leaders to give a fair view and opinion on aid (in) effectiveness. There are instances of bigger investments in Africa that have not led to greater development but to grander corruption.  African governments or leaders should be encouraged to be transparent in their dealings. Likewise those institutions tasked with the responsibility of seeing to it that the aid money wherever it comes from becomes effective and does not lead to a big waste.

In Ghana, most of the donor funded projects goes into the health sector, water and sanitation and lastly the agricultural sector. These projects supported by donor funding has by and large led to increased development in these sectors of the economy. The success story of most of these projects in Ghana for example is the presence of sound monitoring and evaluation tool kits in place.

Analyzing the role of most NGOs in Zimbabwe especially those engaged in food aid/humanitarian assistance one will agree with me that it is quite difficult if not impossible to measure the results of what they intended to do namely poverty eradication. We really have a difficult and profound problem at hand if we are to view NGOs as actors that can bring economic growth in the economies of developing countries. As much as there is an unending debate on the rise of aid agencies, much of our analysis revolves around the effectiveness of aid. What then should be done to sustain donor funding in Africa, Asia and Latin America for example in the era of the global economic crises?.

To conclude the food for thought for this piece remains therefore that as long as poverty exist the relevance of donor support to NGOs would be more significant than before. With the compassion fatigue and the weakening of solidarity ties with the poor and the oppressed by the Northen NGOs, many local (Zimbabwean NGOs) have collapsed with others ending their operations. The question that still begs for an answer is if whether development aid really helps in reducing poverty either in Zimbabwe, Ghana or in Africa as a whole. The simple answer is nobody really knows.

Co-authored by Gift Mwonzora (Zimbabwe) & Severin Dery (Ghana).



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