A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

A Failure of Purpose

Guardian Unlimited

January 3, 2006

By Jeevan Vasagar

It was kind of the foreigners to dig the borehole, but the Sudanese villagers were a little bemused by it. They had been drinking water from the river since time began, and they would keep on doing it. As one of the elders explained to me, the river water might be murky but it had a nice flavour, while this transparent stuff from the borehole just tasted of nothing.

It was not the first time I was to encounter such a collision between the well-meaning work of a western aid agency and a stubborn African tradition. In that village, a timeless landscape of mud huts standing amid thickets of long grass, it seemed that aid was an addiction. Unsatisfied with the borehole, the village elders were asking the aid agency to build them a community hall with a TV set, and were dumbfounded to be told this was not the point of the aid project.

Aid work in Africa often seems to be a story of misunderstandings and disappointments. What exactly are the NGOs trying to achieve? If the purpose of aid work is to diminish poverty, the past decade looks like a dramatic failure. Aid agencies have mushroomed here; the number of international NGO branches on the continent rose by 31% to 39,729 between 1993 and 2003, according to a study by the London School of Economics. In the meantime, average income per head has failed to grow and the continent's already marginal share of world trade has shrunk even further. The wisest aid agencies recognise their limitations. In the town of Arua in western Uganda, the medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres runs an HIV/Aids clinic that draws thousands of patients, including some from neighbouring Sudan and Congo.

The reason they come is because there is either no healthcare where they live, or there are only government-run clinics with dire shortages of well-trained staff. The aid agency does a good job, but MSF's field coordinator confessed to me that what they did was "peanuts". He recognised that in the long term, only the Ugandan government could solve its people's health problems. Reliance on aid can be dangerous. Ultimately, it threatens to sever the political contract between the government and those it governs.

In many parts of Africa, the presence of the state is weak. In the refugee camps that dot the borders of conflict-ridden countries, it is the international charities and the UN that sport the trappings of the state: the flags, the shiny cars, and the offices. The risk of this approach is that African governments may never take responsibility for their own citizens. Some aid agencies believe the answer to this dilemma is to step back from the business of digging boreholes and running clinics and go into "advocacy" instead.

Hence the term "non-governmental organisation" or NGO, which has replaced the more traditional description "charity" in the jargon of aid work.

The term is conveniently empty of meaning. The Scout Movement, the Ku Klux Klan and the Roman Catholic church could all be described as "non-governmental organisations". This lack of meaning allows charities to get away from the business of providing aid and turn themselves into pressure groups. In principle, "advocacy" means encouraging Africans to be active citizens, holding their governments to account and demanding the education, healthcare and other services that they need. In practice, it frequently means ideologically driven attacks on aspects of government policy. Water privatisation is a case in point. The British charity ActionAid led a vociferous campaign against privatisation of the water supply in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's commercial capital, arguing that western donors were promoting a privatisation scheme that would increase prices and therefore harm the poor. But ActionAid's own report on the project admitted that the public sector had failed spectacularly, with 60% of the water supply being lost through leaks and only 98,000 households connected in a city of 2.5 million people.

As far as western NGOs are concerned, advocacy often seems to mean preferring state solutions over the private sector. In the process, Africa ends up as an ideological football, kicked between the economic liberalism of donors such as the World Bank and the socialism of the NGOs.

The decline of Africa over the past generation has frequently been compared with the ascent of East Asia. A common comparison is Ghana and Malaysia, both resource-rich former British colonies which became independent in the same year, 1957. Ghana remains among the poorest countries in the world, with 45% of the population living in extreme poverty - earning less than a dollar a day - while Malaysia is a rapidly developing nation where extreme poverty has been eradicated. Analysts suggest the key answer is better governance. Malaysia has enjoyed political stability since independence while Ghana has been plagued by coups. Ending poverty appears to have little to do with overseas aid or the activities of NGOs. It has to do with pragmatic governments that create a business-friendly environment and place a heavy emphasis on education. By contrast, Africa has suffered from rulers who are parasites on their people, where the elites loot resources to line their own pockets and create an environment where investors fear to tread. Dependence on aid will only prolong the lives of these parasite states. Like the Sudanese villagers and the borehole, Africans have to want change, and they must be ready to act for themselves.

It may be that the only worthwhile NGOs are the indigenous ones, like Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement, which engages in a concrete activity - planting trees - and gives Africans a sense of self-reliance.

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