The Failure of Aid: Why Donors Stumble

By Janek Kubik

The STOPKONY2012 campaign was inescapable. People previously indifferent to international poverty or human rights violations were suddenly in a frenzy, mass-tweeting and Facebooking their friends to send as little as $10 to help make sure the former Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony was brought to justice. According to the movement’s official website Kony2012.com, the STOPKONY campaign has so far received 3,590,150 pledges from over 204 countries. But do impoverished countries that receive such massive support actually make progress thanks to all this attention?

The goal for almost every aid program is simple: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," as the World Bank puts it. The problem, however, is that many aid relief programs fail to do this and in some instances can make the situation worse. Kenya, for example, is a country that has been receiving aid for roughly 50 years now from both foreign governments and NGOs but has little to show for it. In fact, some people in Kenya are now arguing that the aid they received has hindered their development. In the German magazine der Spiegel, Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati says, “Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape.”

Such statements puzzle some outside observers, who wonder how aid can harm a country that desperately needs it. The answer lies in the actions of the donors themselves. Among the reasons for donor aid ineffectiveness, lack of coordination between various aid organizations and other donor groups stands out. This does not only apply to NGOs or non-profit aid groups like Invisible Children (the organization that founded the STOPKONY campaign). It also applies to government-sponsored foreign aid programs such as USAID and international aid programs like the United Nations Development Program. Each receives and then donates huge sums of aid to the countries where the aid is needed, and it is their responsibility to make sure that the aid is effective.  But all too often, poor coordination impedes most efforts on the efficient delivery of aid.

Poor coordination isn’t just a problem between independent donors or foreign countries that administer aid but also between all involved actors: foreign donors, foreign countries, and host countries. The goal is to unify their efforts in order to make sure the aid works as intended; however, this rarely happens. It’s not as if these different aid groups don’t wish to harmonize their efforts, it’s just often very hard to do. As Allana Shaikh, former NGO worker and author of the blog “Blood and Milk” points out, “When the time comes for donors to coordinate, they can’t just make their plans together. Instead, they’re forced to take existing plans, and somehow make their plans fit together. There is very little room to modify or change what’s been developed. More often than not, donors do one of two things. They claim regions of a country, one per donor, or they just make a big list of who’s doing what and where, and call that list coordination. Everyone involved is making a good faith effort to do foreign aid better, but the institutional roadblocks are hard to overcome.”

Researchers Joshua Powell and Michael G. Findley say that right now, aid groups, donor countries, and host countries are like teammates on a children’s soccer team, all haplessly running after the ball. Every player just wants to kick the ball. They don’t really care which direction it goes or whether they score a goal or not, they just want the pride of knowing that they kicked it. It doesn’t matter to them whether their teammates score as long as they get to kick it themselves.,Winning is not their main priority. Many different groups that work in countries that need assistance do not feel the need to work together as long as each of them, individually, achieves their goals.

One aid group called One Million T-Shirts illustrates this problem. The idea for this group was simple: People donate shirts, and the organization sends them over to Africa. The problem? Africa doesn’t need t-shirts. Aid groups often don’t do the necessary research on the countries they wish to help and assume any aid is good aid. The cost of packaging and shipping is about the same cost of manufacturing the t-shirts in a factory in Africa anyways, and a million free t-shirts damages on the Africa’s textile industry.

Getting different organizations and agencies to work together to solve large structural problems, however, is much easier said than done. An article by Dr. Kwame Akonor entitled Foreign Aid to Africa: A Hollow Hope? states that the Western world has donated roughly $600 billion dollars worth of foreign aid to Africa since the 1960s, yet the EU and the World Bank say Africa will not meet its Millennium Development Goals until approximately 2015. Economist William Easterly wrote that he gets “a steady stream of emails from … recipient countries like Haiti and numerous African countries complaining that they see little evidence of the aid flows being directed their way.” Foreign aid is repeatedly failing to accomplish its intended missions.  

It’s not that this idea of coordination is new, and people just haven’t had the time to put it into practice yet. What is missing is an incentive—a tool that can be shared among all donors that will make them collectively eager to work together toward a common goal. Much like how a coach can inspire a gaggle of young soccer players to play their positions, a committee or even an international treaty can “coach” donor groups. Devising a treaty that mandates all involved actors to work together and share information in an open and transparent system would help achieve real coordination. Such a treaty could be exclusively country-based, and applicable only to where the aid is being administered. An example of this is the Tripartite Understandings, an agreement signed by the Palestine, Israel, and the international donors in the West Bank and Gaza to jointly coordinate the administering of aid. The agreements emphasize transparent dialogue as well as set up specific timetables and progress monitors that everyone agrees to follow. While such agreements lack enforcement mechanisms, they highlight the most pressing areas in need of aid, open up lines of communication between donor countries and aid groups, and promote the idea of shared responsibility.

Donor groups can no longer provide aid to countries without first discussing and working with the citizens of aid recipient countries. An initiative by citizens of Uganda called Uganda Speaks has recently been launched as a counterpoint to Invisible Children’s STOPKONY. The Ugandan campaign speaks to Ugandan citizens who explain how the Invisible Children’s movie, in Roseball Kagumire’s words, “oversimplifies the story of Uganda”, and “does not tell the story of the current challenges.” If aid groups like Invisible Children wish to truly make a difference, they need to work closely with groups like Uganda Speaks. Aid without teamwork is a cluster of schoolchildren chasing after the same ball. It’s no way to score goals.



Janek Kubik is an editorial assistant with World Policy Journal.


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