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Major questions raised about aid

Living in London offers thousands of opportunities. Every evening there is some intersting event, a launch, a lecture or a discussion group. Of course, typically, we hardly ever go to them and slink home after a long day. Tonight however, I cycled over to SOAS (School of African and Oriental Studies) – it takes about 5 minutes – to attend a Zed Books launch. Theodore Trefon has written Congo Masquerade about development in the DRC. he is asking why what should be one of the richest countries in Africa but with some of the poorest people and why international supports has failed to make a difference. I had a vested interest in this. Theodore and I are doing a Royal Society of Medicine debate early next year about whether aid works. So I wanted to see him in action.

He spares no-one in his criticism of the failure to make material change in the lives of the people of DRC. Joseph Kabila’s government is not genuinely driving change and reform. The current election campaign is devoid of policy, with personalities the only difference. While Kabila is likely to win again, his change of the Constitution to a one-round election may well mean that the result gets contested. Inadequate salaries and lack of careers for officials means they grab what they can, when they can. Judicial systems are kept weak. A strong civil society is, everyone agrees, essential for a functioning state. But, as always, there is ambiguity about whether to allow genuine vibrant civil society.

Similarly, aid donors are not spared. International bodies have put large amounts of money into DRC’s systems and have huge amounts of control over its development but have failed to drive change. Whether it was the Belgian government’s brutal exploitation of the Congo, previous administrations or the current one, Theodore set out a comprehensive critique of the situation.

NGOs are also questioned. While Theodore agreed that Save the Children or any other organisation making a direct difference to some people’s, replacing the state helps to undermine its role and weaken its ability to ever deliver. In addition, as I have blogged previously and as we covered in our recent report, the salaries NGOs pay encourages the braindrain away from ministries and public services.

This perspective is pretty depressing but of course true. Christian Mukosa of Amnesty International gave a response, where he challenged some of the points whilst agreeing with the gloomy picture. He pointed out the lack of genuine participation in in development, including donor-funded aid projects. Both agreed that grassroots movements for change are possible and need to be backed and that the natural resources of DRC need to benefit the whole population, not the elite.

The book does not make confortable reading for those of us who believe in the possibility of development. Having worked for a long time to encourage more aid from rich countries to be given to poor countries, I have to believe it can be used well. But it should never be a charitable donotion, it should be seen as a global tax that rich countries owe to poor countries (acknowledging the source of rich countries’ wealth never goes amiss). But the way it should be used is never simple and the law of unintended consequences always kicks in. While I agree with a lot of the criticisms, for our debate next year, we will need to develop different positions at least for the sake of argument. However, I will alwaus want to argue that, if NGOs reform themselves and support social movements, if aid effectiveness principles are genuinely followed, if legal systems (and trade unions) are stremgthened, development using aid is possible.

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