Sunday, May 27, 2012

Development aid: Donor and Beneficiary Fatigue By Abimbola Lagunju

Development aid has become part and parcel of the political and economic geography in many developing countries and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Broadly interpreted, development aid means, a package (mostly financial) that is directed towards development of a nation or a group of people. The premise of international development aid from the point of view of a donor country is that the beneficiaries are either incapable of developing themselves or they do not have the resources to do so or they are unwilling to develop. 

The donor then offers to provide financial, technical, material and human resource assistance to the beneficiaries to develop them according to a template chosen by the donor. This template is not always understood at the beginning by the beneficiaries or those who represent them. When finally understood and this is often too late, the beneficiaries accept their fate, hoping that their gods would come to their aid to save them from whatever agreement they have signed or in the normal case scenario, they will let the developers do whatever they want, while they either watch from a safe distance or just tag along, hoping that it will all end soon and then they can go back to their normal lives.

In the course of the dynamics of the relationship between the donors and their beneficiaries, the initial enthusiasm that greeted the agreement between the developers and their beneficiaries soon fizzles out and frustration sets in on both sides. The term “donor fatigue” was invented by donors and development aid agencies to convey their frustration at the slow pace of change or no change at all in their beneficiary countries and communities, despite their “huge” investments. They do not see the changes they have planned for, and many times, their development plans based on a template from icy climates or air-conditioned conference rooms either gets blown away in the dusty winds of the Sahel or melts without trace in the humid heat of the West African coast.

The beneficiary side also harbors its own disenchantment of development aid. This disenchantment may be rooted in the culture of the peoples of West Africa. When someone decides of his own volition to give to the poor, he does not hang around the poor to tell him what to do with the money. He hopes that his donation will make an impact on the life of the person and does not expect his reward here on earth. If however, the person decides to monitor how his money is spent, he does not relocate himself to the house of his beneficiary and occupy his house and mind with his own vision of life. This is unimaginable in the African way of life. There is a Yoruba saying which says, “When you give a ram with a rope around its neck to someone, you should let go the rope too”. If however, it happens that the benefactor relocates to his beneficiary’s house to monitor the use of his money, the beneficiary will most likely comply zombie-like with the exigencies of his benefactor or will become refractory to assistance. The benefactor is then accused of having a hidden agenda – maybe there is something in his beneficiary’s house that he wants to appropriate. Worse still, if after relocating and occupying the beneficiary’s house, all the promises turn out to be hot air. Altruism of assistance then becomes questionable and a culture of benefactor distrust begins to emerge.

As far as international development aid is concerned in sub-Sahara Africa today, there is a growing distrustful middle class, a cynical political class and a disillusioned rural and urban-ghetto populace. Development aid donors and practitioners are seen as having a hidden agenda and are accused of self-satisfying and self- aggrandizing pseudo-samaritanism. They are seen as the primary beneficiaries of their development aid.

Sometimes, in order to forcefully change the dynamics of the deteriorating relationship, the donors threaten to wield the big stick – the withdrawal of their aid.  The placid, indifferent and bored attitude of their beneficiaries to this threat and in some cases, an outright encouragement of the benefactors by the beneficiaries to wield the big stick and go away with their aid confounds the developers. The benefactors quietly withdraw their threat and stay put. Donors have again coined a phrase and an acronym for this situation – Africa Wins Again or AWA.  In order to alleviate their fatigue burden and justify their continued “reluctant” support of “recalcitrant” beneficiaries, long term or any term impacts are nudged aside and replaced with in-depth “inputs and outputs analysis”, “process emphasis” and “lessons learnt” digressionism.

Rural beneficiary communities in particular, have become disillusioned with little or no impact on the quality of their lives, despite the lofty declarations of donors and aid agencies over the years. These communities equate aid practitioners’ samaritanic declarations to mere intentions for which they have learnt to understand and accept their inability to hold the practitioners accountable. They now tend to compare the “developers” with their irresponsible politicians. They suffer chronic fatigue from unfulfilled promises. They know they are called the “field” in which they are surrogate players. They have learnt to develop thick skin to “participatory approach” and to all other fanciful phrases entreaties. And when they give their reluctant consent to “participate” in an aid project, they have learnt to also have their own hidden agenda.

Better access to information on the politics and economics of development aid has also changed the views of educated people and opinion leaders in beneficiary countries on the short, medium or long term benefits of aid. When entreated or coerced into “collaboration” with a new aid project, the middle class, which is often represented by a fatigued public service functionary in this dynamics sees a déjà-vu experience with no results. He suffers chronic fatigue from multiple seminars, workshops and conferences.  To alleviate the fatigue, he seeks to get a share of the “aid cake” in financial remunerations for services that are his normal primary duties.

The political class sees development aid as a useful thorn in the flesh. They prefer to have the money but not the development template. They imagine unknown hidden agenda in development aid. But they have their own hidden agenda too, and very often this agenda is linked to how to repatriate the aid money back to the country of origin, but into a bank account bearing their own names. They abhor reminders by the developers of the letter of their agreement. They also become fatigued and refractory.

Both donors/agencies and their beneficiaries have reasons for fatigue. No group has the right to claim more fatigue than the other.  If Development Aid as it is practiced today has not delivered the desired results on both sides, then something new has to be put in its place. Maybe it is time to give transparent and equitable trade a chance. But the big question will always remain: will both sides ever be able to overcome their historical mutual distrust?

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