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The black hole of aid for aid’s sake

Nick Gordon
National Post
July 10, 2002

The truth is that aid in the developing world is handled by thousands of micro-consultancies . . . which exist for one reason alone. They are there to maintain the Great Aid Lie.

Spot the Consultant is a favourite game of mine when I am working in Africa. It’s easy to play, mildly entertaining, and passes an idle evening alone in a bar in an end-of-the-line, ramshackle city.

Here are a few clues: consultants, who are largely white and drawn from the European Union and North America, always go round in twos and threes. You’ll find them at posh restaurants in Third World capitals, where the cost of the รก la carte menu is equal to a month’s wages for the locals. You’ll see them hunched over their table devouring lavish meals while complaining about the way the wine is kept; you’ll know them for sure by listening to their conversation, constructed around a relentless series of rants: about the people they work with, the organization that has dispatched them to this grim place, the inadequacies of their per diem, the shortcomings of the hotel, and the indignity of having to fly economy.

The set-up will be no different at the Barcelona AIDS conference, where Dr. Banu Khan, head of the Botswana AIDS Co-ordinating Agency, said his country faced extinction without further international help. One wonders how many suffering Africans might have been looked after if the money spent on the lavish conference had instead gone straight to them.

I have been a consultant in most parts of Africa and worked out what it is consultants actually do. To put it crudely, they come as part of the aid package. They are cogs in the great billion-dollar aid machine and their remit is to ensure aid is spent wisely and that governments do not rip off the money that comes their way.

In Zambia recently, my task was to see if an independent newspaper was viable: Could it be commercially successful? Was it managed well, and was its journalism truly objective? I was funded by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an organization based in London with close links to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and both Houses of Parliament.

The paper, the Monitor, was well-managed and honestly run. A tough editor and a team of conscientious hacks produced a mordantly hard-hitting weekly that was not scared to take on a corrupt and venal government. The Monitor was just the sort of paper Zambia needed, delivering a weekly, well-aimed kick in the bloated establishment’s testicles. Nor was the Monitor cowed by authority: president, cabinet ministers, party bosses were all exposed.

The Monitor, though, would never succeed commercially. Hemorrhaging costs and low ad revenues meant the paper would not make it. The press that contract-printed the paper was like the other presses in Zambia – a wreck. The paper needed its own press. But there was no economic sense in spending US$250,000 on a press and printing just 10,000 copies a week.

Then I learned that the World Bank was spending more than US$500-million on restructuring Zambian education: schools were going to be built and teachers trained. Of this sum, US$20.1-million had already been spent on the provision of text books and teaching materials. The World Bank Education Desk Officer, Clement Siamatowe, told me the initial loan amounted to US$40-million, with another US$60-million set aside for the three years up to 2004.

Mr. Siamatowe told me to go to the Ministry of Education, which handled the tranches of aid as they were released by the World Bank. Where did they get their text books from? “Mauritius, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the Seychelles, Singapore, Mexico, Europe, America.”

Do they print any books in Zambia? The official shook his head. “There is no press capable of doing it here.”

So US$20.1-million of World Bank money, of aid, had already gone, via the ministry, out of the country. As we talked, a minion brought in a fax. The official shook his head. “See here,” he said, waving the paper at me, “this is from Mauritius, a printer there. He says there will be a six-month delay in us getting these books.”

Would he like the books to be printed locally? “Of course,” he said, “provided they were competitively priced.”

I went away smiling and found a press capable of printing text books and a newspaper. The Monitor could be saved and would live to fight another set of corrupt politicans, and the millions of dollars that were earmarked for printing text books would circulate within Zambia.

But that was wishful thinking on my part. I wrote my report, submitted it in March 2001, followed it up with a visit to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy offices in London, and heard absolutely nothing. “We’re into small projects,” the WFD said. “This is too big for us.”

So, 15 months later, millions of dollars are still leaking out of Zambia, the delivery of text books is haphazard, the Monitor is just about limping along and, I suspect, no one in any relevant agency has even bothered to read the report.

This is one isolated case floating on a Sargasso Sea of consultancies that in itself is dependent upon an ocean of Western dollars. But the truth is that aid in the developing world is handled by thousands of micro-consultancies – like mine – which exist for one reason alone. They are there to maintain the Great Aid Lie, an expensive exercise in sophistry. Aid is doled out not for the sake of those it is aimed at, but for the sake of aid itself.

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