Donors ‘deepen democracy’ by subsidising autocracy

Monday February 28 2011


In his 1992 book, The Black Man’s Burden, the eminent British historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, hailed the first years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule.

Wrote Davidson: “Fear retreated. The possibility of civil government instead of executive abuse began to emerge.”

As late as 2001, the British NGO Oxfam was still finding things to praise.

“There has been an impressive transformation of Uganda’s commercial, economic and social infrastructure,” a Country Profile reported, going on to note “the rehabilitation of the country’s public services, epitomised by the creation of an increasingly visible and credible local government.”

Hindsight shows how wishful those assessments were, as Museveni’s rule slid into an all-too-familiar pattern of clientelism, corruption and, despite rising government revenues, poor delivery of basic services and infrastructure.

His victory in the February 18 elections, if not fraudulent, was certainly sleazy, marred by abuse of state funds.

The fact is, Museveni’s brand of sleazy populism should make donors revisit the thorny problem of how to aid the development of a nation without necessarily empowering and entrenching its ruler.

Uganda was the first country in the world to benefit from debt relief under the IMF and World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries scheme.

During the 1990s, after initial resistance from Museveni, the government embarked on donor-backed structural adjustment programmes and has since won consistent donor praise for “strong macroeconomic management” and pro-market policies that are credited with creating steady and sustained economic growth.

That growth — although unevenly distributed, benefiting urban elites more than the rural masses — has sufficed to see a gradual decline in rural poverty. This has given Museveni an enduring rural support base.

From the late 1990s, various donors turned to general “budget support.”

This means giving money directly to governments, conditional not upon exactly how that money is used but, rather, on improved performance against health and poverty indicators.

This new aid “modality” is said to be more efficient than funding numerous projects.

It is said to increase “local ownership” of development planning, and to build government’s capacity for delivering. Donors remain confident that it works.

Yet the easing of budgetary pressures also makes it easier for governments to indulge in peccadilloes such as buying presidential jets, arming riot police to the teeth, and raiding state coffers to buy votes. Some continuing “project” aid tends in the same direction.

A British technical assistance project has reportedly achieved considerable success in increasing the flow of taxes to the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Fair enough; taxes are essential to “capable” government. But what if the extra cash is abused by the head of state?

Another form of project aid is assistance for post-war reconstruction in northern Uganda.

This has a compelling humanitarian justification, and donors have been generous, genuinely keen to see stability and hope brought to the region.

Yet substantial inflows of aid almost certainly helped Museveni harvest a hugely improved vote in the north.

Meanwhile, European donors have supported a multimillion dollar “deepening democracy” programme, while the US has put millions into fostering “democratic linkages.”

These projects aimed to “strengthen” the Electoral Commission, the role of parliament and civil society, and to provide civic education for voters and candidates.

But at this juncture Ugandan democracy doesn’t look very deep, leaving donors with the dubious argument that, without their input, it would be even worse.

The story here is not that international donors have bought or manipulated Uganda.

The crafty Museveni is nobody’s stooge, and the story is more that he has successfully manipulated the “international community.”