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When Aid is No Way to Aid a Country

Posted By Theodore Dalrymple On March 15, 2010 @ 12:00 am In FrontPage | 6 Comments

The New York Times on March 10 quoted a United Nations report to the effect that aid given to Somalia was not reaching the people most in need of it, that is to say the malnourished and the starving.

I would not be telling you the truth if I said that, when I read the news, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Can there be anyone left in the world who thinks that aid will go only, or even mainly, to the people most in need of it? By comparison with such a belief, faith in Father Christmas is a model of rational expectation. At least the presents arrive, even if Father Christmas doesn’t.

I have been to Somalia only once, in the comparatively palmy days of the wily dictator, Siad Barre, who by then had jumped ship from the Soviet to the American (Ethiopia has jumped in precisely the opposite direction). Among my treasured possessions of no value to anyone but myself is a Soviet-era (and produced) phrase book, with such essential expressions as ‘Hand me the opera glasses, please, and ‘How many workers does your collective farm have?’ translated into Somali. As everyone knows, Somali was reduced to writing only very recently; the Soviet time reduced it further in no time to nonsense.

Even then, in those comparatively happy times (in how many countries in the world are the days of some loathsome dictator looked back upon with nostalgia, if not longing?), I should not have mistaken Somalia for a country in which the distribution of aid was likely to proceed smoothly in the direction of the needy. Far from it; and I also became rather sceptical there of the foreign distributors of aid.

I remember going into the headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Mogadishu to obtain information about the cholera epidemics then raging in some of the refugee camps. I was somewhat surprised to find two things: first, a complaint on the UNCHR staff notice-board that the portions in the staff canteen were too small, and second that the staff were de facto on strike because of the Somali government’s insistence on exchanging their salaries at the official exchange rate, which was only a fraction of the open market rate.

In effect, this little vignette captured not the paradox of aid (a policy that is persisted in cannot be regarded as paradoxical once its effects have been generally recognised), but the very essence of aid. In short, aid is no way to aid a country.

Another so call ‘paradox’ that is often referred to in the press is that of African countries that have remained generally impoverished despite the existence of vast natural resources. Nigeria and the Congo are two prominent cases that spring to mind. But the paradox is not a paradox, at least in the sense that it is something not explicable.

In most African countries, it is not the enterprise of the local people that had led to the extraction of mineral wealth, but rather that of foreigners, exploitative as they may often have been. Even though local people have supplied the manual labour necessary to the extraction, the wealth as a whole that accrues to African society as a whole comes as a free gift, more or less as aid does.

This is a disaster for the rounded development of a backward country, for it makes control of the government (which receives the bulk of the wealth accruing to African society from mineral extraction) the most important, and sometimes the only, path to personal or ethnic advancement. Ambition itself is wholly politicised, therefore, and  the humble task of producing things is left to the unambitious and perhaps the less able.

In countries such as Nigeria and the Congo, the mineral wealth is not sufficient by itself to enrich the population as a whole (unlike in Kuwait, for example, where everyone can be well-off doing nothing). However, the mineral wealth is more than sufficient to make those who control it very rich indeed. Wars are worth fighting in the Congo because control of the minerals is so lucrative, where the other possibilities are such commodities as coffee and bananas. In Nigeria, the oil revenues are immense by comparison with those of all other sectors of the economy: and Nigeria’s share of the oil revenues goes more or less straight to the government. If you mix in a little ethnic discord with government control of mineral revenues, the scene is set for prolonged, indeed endless and often bloody political struggles. Far from being a blessing, therefore, oil wealth has been a curse for Nigeria.

In countries less well-endowed with extractable wealth, foreign aid has played the part of oil in Nigeria. Oil constitutes at least 80 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings; in several African countries, foreign aid constitutes very nearly as much.

This results in the same perversions of the national economy, and the same obstacles to real development, as oil has done in Nigeria. The ambitious and able people want to join the government, and so life in general is deeply politicised; genuine economic life is paralysed, and becomes a desperate zero sum game.

When this happens, there is a built-in and deeply perverse incentive to continue to follow policies that impoverish, for a flourishing economy would obviate the supposed need for the foreign aid which is the source of the power, influence and wealth of the elite through whom it is funnelled. Here is one case in which poverty really is a source of wealth.

The most extreme instance of the above syndrome is civil war. It is therefore not in the least surprising that aid to Somalia is not reaching the neediest; it would be very surprising, indeed it would be absolutely astonishing, if it were. Neither is it surprising, however, that it should be reported as if it were surprising (unsurprising news not being news). For otherwise, the fact that aid does not reach the neediest would be a threat to our sense of power, our feelings of omnipotence. How could a few lousy uneducated Somalian gunmen be thwarting our infinite benevolence?


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