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The unholy alliance in Somalia: Media, donors and aid agencies

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Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File

Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File 

By Rasna Warah

Posted  Sunday, August 7   2011 at  13:23

The other fact that is conveniently overlooked is that a large proportion of the funds raised is used to cover aid agencies’ administrative and logistical costs. Staff has to be hired, four-wheel-drive cars have to be bought, offices have to be set up, highly paid international experts earning hefty per diems have to be flown in or consulted. All this costs money, lots and lots of money. D.T. Krueger, a former employee of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, estimates that as much as three-quarters of funding received by a UN agency is used purely on itself. Much of the aid also ends up back in the donor country in the form of salaries for experts who are nationals of the donor country, and in the form of inputs for development projects that are purchased in the same donor country.

Despite all these glaring inefficiencies and failures, the aid industry continues unabated; in fact, it is going from strength to strength. Statistics indicate that the number of aid agencies and NGOs have mushroomed since the end of the Cold War – in Kenya alone, for instance, there are more than 6,000 registered international and local NGOs that contribute more than $1 billion to the Kenyan economy.

In my assessment, there is a strong relationship between the number of donors and aid agencies in a country and its level of poverty – the more donors and aid agencies there are, the less likely that country is to significantly reduce poverty levels.

And here is why. Aid to governments often has the net effect of suppressing local economies and initiatives. In Somalia, for instance, Maren noted that food production was suppressed by food aid, as farmers had no incentive to grow their own food. Aid also makes governments less accountable to their own people. When the work of government is taken over by aid agencies and NGOs, and when government budgets are heavily subsidised — or entirely funded — by foreign donors, governments become less accountable to their own citizens, and more accountable to the donors. It also makes it easy for governments to blame lack of donor funding for their failures to carry out development programmes. This leads to a vicious blame game, where the victim is always the ordinary citizen.

Donor aid also reduces countries’ sovereignty. Aid is the most effective (and cost-effective) way in which foreign donor countries control other countries without being labelled as colonialists. It leads to bizarre situations where a donor country — and even more alarmingly, an international aid agency — sets government policy for a poor country, while presidents, ministers and permanent secretaries look on helplessly. Donors have a keen vested interest, therefore, in keeping the aid industry well-oiled. They cannot do this without the help of their foot soldiers, the aid agencies — who also rely on donor funding — and journalists who surrender all claims to neutrality and objectivity by becoming mouthpieces of these same aid agencies.

However, neither the donors nor the aid agencies could play their part without the complicity of African governments, which have unquestioningly taken on the roles of victim and beggar.

Rasna Warah is a columnist with the Daily Nation.

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