The Politics of Giving

Take a moment to think of a community that is familiar to you: where you grew up, where you live, urban, rural – it doesn’t really matter…

For the sake of simplicity assume that this community has 1,000 inhabitants. Call a meeting in the town square and inform 200 of them that they have a communicable disease that without daily treatment will kill them in five years, tell another 200 that over their lifetime they will be bitten by a small bug and die. Tell 100 of the women that they will loose a child before the age of five and another 10 that they themselves will die during the act of childbirth. Finally, inform them that less than half now have jobs and remind them that there is no longer such a thing as unemployment benefit.

Now turn your attention to the state provided infrastructure that surrounds these people. Rip up most of the roads and power lines. Reduce the hospitals to rubble, leave a one room clinic. Ship all the doctors to better paying foreign countries and leave yourself with one nurse and handful of outdated medical equipment. Get rid of all emergency services – ambulances, fire stations etc. You can keep the police station but get rid of 90% of their vehicles and 100% of their fuel.

What sounds like the opening scenes to a bad apocalypse movie is the reality faced by thousands of communities in Zambia and across Africa. It is into communities like these that organisations like mine arrive in shiny 4×4’s funded by foreign governments emblazoned with stickers to assure one and all that we are “here to help”.

The first fundamental questions donors and aid agencies must resolve is best to help? Should we support the community’s government to provide the services we take for granted back home or should we empower the community directly to support themselves? Let us be clear – there is no perfect answer and to bastardise Churchill, this is all about finding the least worse solution.

Supporting the government typically means interacting with at best a slow and inefficient bureaucracy (as all governments tend to be) with the added challenges of underpaid and undermotivated staff who are sometimes more interested in seeing how they can use their position to their advantage or simply how they can get a job alongside you in the shiny 4×4. Even if there is no outright corruption in play, there will always be the temptation for the ruling party to use aid as largesse for the regions/tribes/communities who back them over the communities who support the opposition.

Supporting the community can be equally challenging. First you will need to ask a band of volunteers to step forward. Perhaps a grandmother who is already looking after an extended family; A father who hasn’t had a paying job in years; A young mother whose husband has already died of disease she is now infected with. You will then need to inform them that you can’t pay them but that with some rudimentary training you are going to ask them substitute for all the technical services that no longer exist from maternity care, to home based care for the dying, to support for the village’s many orphans.

Grandmother and Dependents

A Grandmother and her many dependants - the cornerstone of modern African social welfare


Many communities do a heroic job of meeting these requests. Grandmothers caring for 10 of their own find time to care for 10 more, women infected with HIV travel through communities warning others, the list is endless and it is indeed mostly women who bear the brunt of the work. But you won’t be surprised to learn that there can equally be those in the community who see aid as a way to improve the their own lot. Equally you may be saddened but not surprised when I tell you that the huge number of shiny 4×4’s from different donors supporting different communities, each with their own specific focus do quite a poor job at coordinating their efforts (actually I think you would be shocked if I told you just how bad a job they do but perhaps that is best left for another blog).

Understandably, directly funding the communities causes lots of friction with the government who feel undermined by the actions of agencies and donors over whom they have little control. There had been a move away from this type of aid in recent years led by the UK. Under something called the Paris Declaration, rich countries essentially promised to put more directly within governments systems rather than trying to compete with them. However the ever presence of corruption scandals within governments strengthen the hand of those, such as the US, who believe in more direct support.

The sad truth is that there is no perfect way to spend your money, and be clear that it is your money. Even if you walk past every bucket shaker on the street this Christmas the majority of donor money comes directly from rich nation budgets (read your taxes). That said, it is still a tiny fraction of those budgets, even the biggest per capita givers (the Scandinavians and the Dutch) only just meet the global commitment to give 0.7% of GDP in aid.

There is a growing movement who are disillusioned with aid in all its current forms. They quite reasonably point out we have been trying these interventions for well over 30 years with precious little to show whilst countries like China have raised millions out of poverty using an altogether different approach and almost no aid. Some go so far as to say that we should cut all support now and rough out a difficult couple of years (more likely decades) before something better emerges on the ground.

Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to be that radical. I have seen too many of the communities like the one you imagined at the top of the page and understand the immense suffering we would trigger if we were just to walk away, but I am equally painfully aware that the current systems aren’t working. The delivery of aid remains riddled with inefficiencies, plagued by corruption and all too often fails to achieve what it is intended to do.

As we finish the first decade of our new millennium we find ourselves scraping the bottom of our natural resource barrel whilst the global population continues to grow exponentially. We urgently require some more effective ways of helping our fellow man help themselves. All suggestions gratefully accepted!

7 Responses to “The Politics of Giving”
  1. Petter says:

    Well written as always Berkeley, and I agree with many of your aid observations. But when it comes to “helping our fellow man help themselves” we most of all need to step out of the boundaries that AID constitute and start changing the policy fields that really matter: EU subsidies to their own farmers, Trade barriers and heavy taxation on goods from developing countries, Dumping of cheap goods produced in industrialized countries in developing countries’ markets – and the list goes on.

    The amount of tax payers’ money that goes into the areas I mention above are many times bigger than what we allocate to aid – and with greater, negative, impact on developing countries ability to rise up from poverty.

    So, even if it is relevant do discuss the best way to design aid, it doesn’t really matter if we don’t discuss the policy areas of greater importance to developing countries. To really make a difference in Zambia, I think we should rather start working with the not so exciting areas of EU policy called “The Common Agricultural Policy” than engaging in the aid sector…

    • berkeleysblog says:

      Petter – I couldn’t agree more, in fact I was saving a blog posting for this very subject before I finish.

    • berkeleysblog says:

      Petter – I couldn’t agree more, in fact I was saving a whole blog posting for this very subject before I finish.

    • David Vosburg says:

      Then you can go to work getting the US to stop ‘Monetization.’ This is when the US government buys excess grain from farmers and sends it to developing countries, sells it in the local market, and uses the proceeds to fund USAID programs. Supposedly there is a required analysis to determine whether there will be market disruptions if they sell the foodstuffs locally, but if you dump 10 million metric tons of soy oil in Zambia, do you seriously think another poor nation is not losing out?

  2. gusto says:

    hey didnt really mention that sometimes we get a lot more out of the deal from aid granted to governments than perhaps they get from us. In Uganda the US conditions for granting money for the fight against Aids were to spend a third on promoting absenance and providing US military personel with sanctuary from the ICC, never mind continuing to make sure they continue with exporting quotas of raw materials, feeding the container syndrome. Also, look into slow power movement, its getting huge and many dont donate any money at all to communities, just provide their time and expertise….. but liked the blog, feels like you are seeing what I said to you before you left, its a complicated business!

  3. janno says:

    Also completely agree Petter. I attended a development debate last week, and what I took with me was the comment that development aid is merely a ‘sidedish’. The whole debate about development aid not solving the world’s problems seems to, besides lacking realistic expectation considering the biggest donor only ‘grants’ 0.15% of its tax income, divert our attention from a much more important debate on world trading relations. The more substantive ‘main course’ consists of equal trading relations and reducing trade barriers. In essence, the problems developing countries are facing are not development issues but distribution issues. I look forward to the day western citizens realize the hypocrisy of giving aid with the one hand and blocking the small producer’s way to the world market with the other.

    The deeper problem of the unequal relationship between west and rest also undermines development efforts. In essence aid is the rich ‘giving’ the needy. Although there is some biblical sense to this, it lacks reciprocity. According to anthropologist Mauss a mere ‘gift’ leaves the receiver with a feel of guilt and automatically positions the giver in a superior role. For gifts to be successful there needs to be some kind of reciprocity. A superior-subordinate understanding seems to underlie all our dealings with developing countries, be it the earlier mentioned political conditions set of aid, the terms of trade, the dumping of food, the topdown approach of most development aid, or the sense of pity persuading a private donor to give a couple of bucks. In a weird way, the system of aid can be build upon keeping the poor subordinate and dependent of its superior, therefore perpetuating the cause of the very problem it aims to solve.

    In short, our main efforts need to focus on breaking down trading barriers and subsidies as this obstructs the development countries access to. At the side, development aid needs to build an equal relationship making the temporal receiver independent of aid.

    Only when we start viewing our African brother as our equal, he can genuinely become our neighbour, to be loved (and treated) like ourselves.

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  1. […] funding of ‘non-state actors’ to support (or sometimes bypass) a fragile state is a controversial aid policy we have discussed before that has boomed in the last two decades creating enormous organisations sometimes with budgets that […]

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