Africa, Trump and the politics of aid

Positive upshot of cuts could be US engaging individual African states based on mutual interests, strategic aims

Africa, Trump and the politics of aid

Brendon J. Cannon

Uncertainty is about the only thing states and leaders can count on with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Yet if the attitudes and intentions of Trump and his cadre are unclear regarding NATO or China, they are less murky when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa. Though Trump rarely mentions the continent, the calculations of Trump and his cadre are increasingly clear.

He does not like Africa, looks at the continent as a bother and will cut foreign aid across the board. What does this mean for Africa and will a retreat of U.S. interest, primarily in the form of aid, necessarily be negative for Africa and Africans?

Journalists and analysts who have attempted to predict the contours of Africa’s relationship with Trump have sounded alarm bells at the prospect of Trump ignoring Africa at best or altering currently in-place U.S. policies at worst.

They point to a strong U.S. presence in Africa under two previous administrations, highlighting President Barack Obama’s Power Africa, Feed the Future and Global Health Initiative, as well as President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, both of which were reportedly widely-praised on the continent.

Journalists and others also point to the reliance of many sub-Saharan African governments on aid.

Ethiopia is a case in point. According to a 2013 Oakland Institute report, Ethiopia tops the worldwide list of countries receiving aid from the U.S., the U.K. and the World Bank, receiving $3.5 billion on average from international donors in recent years. This represents 50 to 60 percent of its national budget.

While some money is funneled into increased agricultural output or higher education, much of it ends up lining the pockets of Ethiopia’s elite.

Or, as is so often the case with aid, the fault lies with the major government aid organizations such as USAID or the U.K.’s Department for International Development, which shell out money without oversight or any sense of direction.

In one case, development aid provided £5.2 million in funds for an Ethiopian girl pop band in 2016. This would be laughable if the same “mistake” had not been made in 2014 when the "Ethiopian Spice Girls" received £4 million.

The case for continued U.S. or other country-driven aid funneled through a plethora of NGOs operating from New York, London, Oslo and Rome is even harder to stomach when the economy of a country like Ethiopia is on steroids.

Ethiopia regularly tops the list of growing economies not only in Africa, but in the whole world. Ethiopia’s leaders obviously know how to make money and grow a massive economy utilizing their own resources as well as attracting record amounts of foreign direct investment (FDI), like any other “normal” country.


Power to Africa?

Indeed, Ethiopia just completed Africa’s first light rail network in the capital Addis Ababa as well as a new rail line linking the capital with the port of Djibouti.

And what we see in Ethiopia mirrors FDI attraction, development and instances of robust governance, for example in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Rwanda, albeit it on a smaller scale.

Not only is the state able to function fully, develop key projects and attract record FDI when it wants to, it intrudes effectively into the lives of its citizens. For example, vigorous tax collection regimes in Kenya and other East African states -- though still falling short of targets -- efficiently collected record tax figures in 2016. 

What does all this mean?

First, when the Trump administration cuts aid to Africa it will not be the end of the world. As the cases of Ethiopia and Kenya demonstrate, Africa does not need so much aid.

Second, the U.S. does not provide that much aid, and certainly not in a manner that alleviates the continent’s ills. Yes, $12 billion in official development assistance in 2012, for example, is huge. But this represents less than one percent of the U.S. federal budget.

Additionally, and more importantly, where the money goes and how it is spent is critical to understanding why a cut in aid will not be the end of Africa.

Dambisa Moyo, an economist, has been arguing for years that aid to Africa is counterproductive. Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, agrees.

They argue, albeit from different data sets and standpoints, that foreign aid inhibits economic and political growth in Africa more than anything else. As Moyo noted: “For Africa to grow in a sustained way, foreign aid will have to be dramatically reduced over time, forcing countries to adopt more transparent strategies to finance development.”

Instead of assisting growth, aid from the U.S. and others fuels corruption, fosters dependence and undercuts the stated missions of governments and bureaucracies. This obstructs independence and entrepreneurship and leads to feelings of inferiority on account of substandard goods and services on offer.

Instead of an array of services such as health and education, most citizens of sub-Saharan African states suffer under regimes that offer poor services run by meddlesome bureaucrats and never-ending red tape. No wonder aid groups and consultancies constantly call for “capacity building” measures and training as a panacea.

Yet calls for capacity building and development ultimately undergird a rotten two-way street between donors and recipients.


The downside of aid

Africa’s array of corrupt tenders and contracts as well as endless rounds of capacity-building conferences and training sessions represent the sinkhole of all the aid money -- the money that was supposed to help the subsistence farmer in Niger or educate that child in Angola.

You only need to enter “capacity-building in Africa” in Google to see that this is big business inside and outside Africa.

Rather than alleviating poverty or assisting in sustained development, USAID funnels grants worth millions of dollars each year to U.S. NGOs or consultancies for capacity-building and development. These organizations specialize in snapping up contracts and finding willing partners -- government and non-government -- in Africa.

For the NGO or aid organizations to keep the funding stream flowing (and keep their jobs), they need to fund and occasionally develop a particular project in Mozambique, for example. For this, they require local partners and buy-in from the Mozambique government. Little oversight is required, reports are written and the funds for the project disappear. The project, if begun at all, often withers.

However, the bureaucrats at various ministries in Maputo received funds for their “oversight” and buy-in, the aid organization received its money and can point to a viable project -- at least on paper -- in Mozambique. In this upside down world where aid money goes to those with the least need (in-country elites and an army of expat aid “experts” and consultants), capacity to plunder and keep the gravy train running is all that matters -- substantial, dire problems remain unalleviated.

So what about all those major initiatives to help Africa under previous U.S. administrations?

With the possible exception of Bush’s PEPFAR, the others simply recycled much of the money by awarding contracts worth billions of dollars (think of Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq) to U.S. companies and NGOs for work that was either unnecessary or remains undone.

Take Obama’s Power Africa initiative. It is commonly asserted that Africa needs more power to meet rising demand and fuel economies. Yet this narrative largely rests on false assumptions and has proliferated through the constant demands of aid organizations and consultancies in the West -- as well as African governments -- intent on reaping profits from a new, multi-million dollar project that takes a “one size fits all” approach to a complex problem that is often region- or country-specific.

So what will the fallout be from Trump’s ignorance about and ignoring of Africa?

African elites, U.S. NGOs and USAID employees stand to suffer when Trump cuts aid. The average Kenyan or Zambian will feel little, the aid earmarked for him or her has never trickled down anyway.

The positive upshot of Trump’s cathartic cuts could be that the U.S. finally begins to engage individual African states politically and economically in the same way it engages other states -- based on mutual interests and strategic aims.

This will be a welcome change to the current engagement between much of the world and Africa, one driven by milquetoast aid initiatives or corruption-fuelling capacity-building programs that only line pockets and protect minority interests inside and outside Africa.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Mart 2017, 11:41