I was in Dakar, Senegal, last week and visited Goree Island, the famous slave house and export port.
It is a difficult trip for anyone, in which you struggle to remain balanced. Over a period of nearly 350 years from 1486, about 26 million slaves were exported from Goree to the Americas and Caribbean. A staggering 6 million of them died on the journey.
One of the inconvenient facts is that most of these slaves were captured by African chiefs and other early human traffickers and sold. The price for a robust male slave was a rifle. A nubile female slave was worth a bottle of wine. And a child was sold for a mirror!
Back home today, the horror stories about mega corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister continue to unfold. This corruption (though this point is not often emphasised) succeeds partly through collusion by officials at the Treasury and Bank of Uganda.
This network of officials and political leaders involved in the OPM scandal and the endless others in Uganda over the last 25 years, are true heirs of African slave traders. While 500 years ago they sold children for mirrors and women for bottles of wine, today they steal money meant for medicine, schools, and vaccine for children, and spend it on mirrors, wine, women, cars and extravagant houses.
Some of the cynical donors play pretty much a similar role to that of the European slave traders. To appreciate this, let us look at aid history. Up to about 15 years ago, the bulk of the aid to countries like Uganda was not handled by our officials. The donors gave the aid, and if it was for a road, for example, they would get closely involved in appointing the contractor, and would manage the payments to the company. In Uganda, this period saw the most significant and speedy construction of roads mostly through European Union aid because they handled most of the money.
There were many criticisms of this approach; that it was “neo-colonial”; aid was poorly coordinated and resulted in duplication; and that it was unsustainable because Ugandans needed to develop capacity to manage the aid, and they would only do so by actually taking charge of the money.
More and more aid was, therefore, shifted and given as budget support—in other words, it was put into the government’s coffers and it apportioned and spent it as it deemed fit. The benefits of this approach, however, came along with greater corruption – now we had the goods, so we ate them.
So why isn’t there a push to return to the old approach where donors managed the aid directly? And why, despite the few token aid cuts and suspensions now and then, does the donor cash still flow into corrupt systems?
Well, after the economic and political reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s, it was clear that most African countries’ economies would continue to grow. As a result, their dependence on aid would reduce.
The story around aid would soon change, and donors would not be needed. And they would lose their influence and leverage, as a result.
Corruption changed all that. A corrupt regime like Uganda’s shackles the country with a bad image. It creates the picture of a badly governed society that needs the help of outsiders, or else the small powerless people in it would get no services.
The very fact that a government is corrupt, therefore, is a statement in favour of aid. However, even with corruption, economies can – and often do – grow. So, in the end, a corrupt country’s dependence on aid would still reduce or disappear all together.
However, a country might not need aid, but a demand for it can be created among its leaders and officials.
If the aid element in the national budget is the easiest to steal, and is also the most reliable supply of cash, then you can construct a network of influential officials and politicians with a vested interest in aid flow, because they need it to line their pockets.
Because the aid goes directly into their pockets, these officials will demand it more, than it was going to build an upcountry hospital that they and their families would never visit.
By the same token, donors can have more influence and control over these corrupt officials, and the policies they formulate, when they are stealing their money for themselves than if they were spending it honestly to build roads and schools.
I am partly playing Devil’s Advocate here, of course. However, as most of Africa improves economically, the clout of the donors will no longer come from their being providers for the needy. It will derive partly from their being able to blackmail corrupt bureaucrats, and feed greedy politicians. Perhaps that is why no one talks about “aid reform” these days.