Why western aid donors won’t crack down on corruption

Britain is haunted by memories of the exodus of Ugandan Asians in the Amin era. Some 30,000 Kenyan Asians have British passports and London wants them to stay put.

Anyone who believes that western aid donors are committed to cracking down on corruption should take a look at an aid meeting that took place in Nairobi last week.

The story begins in London in early February, when the man who represented the hopes of Kenyans for a graft-free society went into self-imposed exile. John Githongo had resigned from the toughest and most dangerous job in Kenyan politics – permanent secretary in charge of governance and ethics.

It seemed a watershed in his country’s sad record of 40 years of post-independence corruption, and an unprecedented opportunity for a decisive crackdown by the foreign donors who have invested billions of dollars into Kenya for a negligible return. Numerous efforts by donors to persuade or coerce past governments to end their venal ways had been made over nearly four decades. None worked.

This time, it seemed, it would be very different. Githongo, the former head of Transparency International Kenya, had spent two years in a job that placed him at the very heart of the beast. For the first time, the donors would have the chance to tap the insights of an insider, an informed and detached witness, with an unblemished reputation for probity. Surely the donors now had the country’s corrupt elite by the throat?

But as the weeks went by and nothing happened, it became clear that the opportunity was not to be seized. According to well-placed diplomatic and other sources, two months after Githongo resigned, the British Foreign Office has not made a single effort – apart from an initial exchange and a social lunch with a Whitehall Kenya expert – to engage with Githongo.

This failure is not an accident or oversight: it is the product of realpolitik. UK foreign policy may be informed by its ambassadors around the world, but strategy is devised in London. Kenyans should not be misled by the splendid “vomit” speeches delivered in Nairobi by Sir Edward Clay, the courageous and feisty British High Commissioner to Kenya.

The reality is that the men and women at the Foreign Office and at the UK aid agency, DFID, are the ones who make Kenya policy. And while those officials are ready to help Mr Githongo in many ways, they will not encourage or assist in the exposure of the contents of his metaphorical briefcase.

If you doubt this, look at Nairobi, where the aid agencies have just been meeting, taking part in a consultative group meeting. This traditional dance of the donors has its moves as carefully choreographed as an old-fashioned quadrille.

A speech of outrage about corruption from the donors is met by a persuasive response from the government, rebukes are balanced by cautious praise, and pre-arranged manoeuvres take place on a stage full of verbal props and rhetorical flourishes. They huff and they puff about the impact of corruption on the good work they claim to do. No fewer than 25 UN organisations were represented last week, and UNDP resident representative Paul Andre de la Porte extolled his agency as Kenya’s “lean but effective development partner”.

But the UN impact on Kenya has little to do with its programmes and everything to do with its huge presence in Nairobi. The Financial Times once calculated that in 1998 the combined direct and indirect benefits of the UN agencies to Kenya amounted to more than $350m, or 19 per cent of exports, second only to tea as a source of foreign exchange, and equivalent to 3 per cent of GNP.

In theory, that level of investment should give the UN huge leverage over Kenyan government actions. In fact, it makes the international community jumpy and neurotic at the thought of doing – or saying – anything that might disturb a mutually-convenient arrangement.

But the UNDP is a lightweight compared to the really big boys – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Their eve-of-conference pirouettes sent a clear message: whatever John Githongo may think about his government’s anti-corruption efforts, Kenya will not be cut adrift.

“The [pre-conference] talks have been very constructive . . . We do need to see action in a number of areas, but I think that the government is willing to act,” said IMF resident representative Jurgen Reitmaier.

So why do the donors duck away from this unique opportunity to tackle graft?

The truth is, they do not have the stomach for a fight. They do not believe it is ultimately in their interests to have a showdown with the barons of corruption. They do not want to upset what they see as a regional “island of stability” from which UN and other international relief agencies, including hundreds of foreign NGOs, operate. Weighing in the balance are the military agreements Kenya has signed with the US and the UK, which have assumed particular importance since Bush launched his War on Terror.

And finally, Britain does not want to do anything that might jeopardize its multi-million dollar investments in Kenya and, in particular, it is haunted by memories of the exodus of Ugandan Asians in the Amin era. Some 30,000 Kenyan Asians have British passports and London wants them to stay put.

So, far from cutting aid, Britain’s DFID is set to increase it, from £30m in 2003-04 to £50m in 2005-06.

Ask about the problems presented by corruption, and there’s a carefully rehearsed response. “It is possible to deliver benefits directly to poor Kenyans without releasing resources to be misused elsewhere,” says the local DFID head.

But if these policies actually worked, how can we explain the growing pauperisation of Kenya? In 1990, 48 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. By 2001 that figure had risen to 56 per cent, and economists are confident the level is even higher today. Every social indicator, whether life expectancy or access to basic services, is pointing in the direction of decline.

As the international aid agencies sound off in Nairobi, we can be sure of one thing. The donors’ ritual will follow its usual pattern – and nobody is about to ask John Githongo to join in the dance.

Michael Holman is the former Africa editor for the London Financial Times.

Michael Holman, Times Online (UK), April 18, 2005

Categories: Africa, Nigeria, Odious Debts

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