THE META CHALLENGE OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Benny Dembitzer's picture

About one and a half trillion dollars has gone into Aid to Africa in the last 50 years. (It is difficult to define aid; the US, for example, include supplies of arms to both Israel and Egypt, amounting to about $7 billion a year.)

Yet, there are some indisputable facts that point to failure on an epic scale. There are more people who live in absolute destitution, more people starving, more children being born stunted in mind and body (you do not recover from stunting at birth and suffer an early death). Those same countries are being encouraged to export more commodities to re-pay their debts. Commodity prices are determined not by African farmers but by multinational corporations, fashions in demand and diets, speculation by banks and hedge funds. But the people at the bottom of the chain – the smallholder, more often than not a woman - is the one that pays the price; more work for ever less rewards.

At the same time, more land is being used to grow those crops that will be exported, at the very time when more land is required to feed people. Agricultural land is a valuable asset, that is rapidly being degraded by poor farming practices, climate change, decrease in water availability, and the growth of cities and roads. In the next 30 years an additional billion people will be born in Africa. They require an additional half a million square kilometres of agricultural land to feed themselves. That will not emerge any day soon. The policies of the West and the rules of the international game impoverish the peoples of Africa. Governments of the poor world have to repay debts, open their markets to foreign multinationals, and are not allowed to process their own commodities.

Under the current system, more and more millions of people are condemned to die of starvation.

What has gone wrong?

Aid has become the plaything of the aid givers. There are probably more than 250,000 people involved in delivering aid across 30+ UN agencies, probably 5-6,000 international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across the world dispensing that aid. Aid helps aid policy makers, aid givers, aid administrators. They include the middle classes of the African nations who have found the NGO community a perfect vehicle for the employment of their children.

We are surprised that Jihadism – the extreme variation of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia across the entire Sahelian belt – and China are making enormous inroads into Africa. Neither helps the poorest.

It is time that we started to attack those who are helping themselves to the pot of aid.

It is time to support genuine African initiatives. They are difficult to find – because the intermediaries, the aid people do not have any interest in us reaching such people. But sub-Saharan farmers have survived for millennia in extremely challenging situations and it is not the rich outsiders, riding on the shoulder of the poor, who have the right solutions.

GRASSROOTS AFRICA is trying to do that. We work with local groups – not organisations – at the bottom of the pyramid. There are thousands of them. We want to discover more of them. It is difficult; language itself is a barrier, so are distances, modes of address, gender, religions. But we must help people develop, not support economic structures and mechanisms that do not work well in our own societies and we have no choices. We do not wish to employ foreigners in local projects, only local people with the right qualifications at prevailing local rates of pay

The first step is to prise the development debate from the hands of the economists. They determine money matters not development priorities. The World Bank is not about economic progress, it is about returns of loans made – made in foreign currencies and thus to be returned in foreign currency. We need people who understand societies, not economic returns.

The second step is to reach for real leaders in the communities who want us to help them. The myriad of small projects in which people in the UK and across the world are involved is a testament to the generosity of the ordinary person in Europe and the US and elsewhere. They are guided by the needs of local people not the needs of those who deliver the aid.

It is not a question of more money. It is a question of less money and clearer aims and directions.

Join us. The present ways of “aiding” is not producing aid – it is producing more poverty. There are other ways. We are trying to discover what they are. Join us.