Development Aid: A continuation of colonialism by other means

Sasha Alyson
By Sasha Alyson

Sasha Alyson is a former US publisher who for 16 years has done literacy and education work in Laos. He tweets at @TrojanAid, and writes about the aid industry on www.karmacolonialism.org

Posted on Friday, 3 June 2022 11:03

Greater use of cash transfers would have more impact than development aid. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/Illustration/File Photo
Greater use of cash transfers would have more impact than development aid. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/Illustration/File Photo

The title is a variation on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum about war. Do you consider it obvious, or absurd, or somewhere in between?

I’m talking here of development aid. There’s no doubt that charitable aid can temporarily relieve suffering. But development is what the UN’s Development Goals, USAID (the US Agency for International Development) and many others claim to offer. Do they?

If you look at specific projects, your conclusion will depend on who cherry-picks the anecdotes. By looking more broadly at several facets of aid, the big picture becomes clear. It does serve the donors’ interests, does not help the countries develop, and does undermine societies that get it. It is a continuation of colonialism by other means.

No exit strategy

If you see me in the kitchen mixing some cake batter, and a week later I’m still mixing batter but there’s no cake, do you believe I’m seriously trying to make a cake? No, I just like mixing cake batter. If you want a cake, you’d better bake it yourself.

We should not be surprised that the aid industry keeps itself busy, year after year, without ever getting closer to what should be its goal – a world without aid. Industries and institutions seek not merely to perpetuate themselves, but to grow. The aid industry has no intention of ever packing up and going home. On the contrary: the UN announced eight development goals and 18 targets in 2000. In 2015, that grew to 17 goals and 169 targets.

The lack of rebuttal

Others have documented the harm done by aid. They are ignored when possible. When that’s impossible, aid supporters snap “We save lives!” – ignoring the distinction between short-term, feel-good charity and true development.

In his book The Great Escape, Nobel laureate Angus Deaton explains at length why “I have come to believe that most external aid is doing more harm than good.”

The Great Escape received attention from three New York Times writers. None offered a true rebuttal to Deaton’s argument. David Leonhardt praised most of the book but of this chapter said simply that Deaton “is definitely not a fan of foreign aid,” then moved on.

Another replied that “the World Bank counts nearly 12,000 projects under way in 172 countries. It’s hard to believe that all are nearly as flawed or misguided as Professor Deaton suggests.” This evades the question entirely. Deaton never says all of them are flawed; only that overall, aid is harmful. Columnist Nicholas Kristof lamely attempted to refute Deaton with an anecdote.

Here is groupthink on display: they all work at the same place and think the same thing, but they have no reply to someone who offers a thoughtful, fact-based, contrary opinion. So they won’t seriously try, they just muddy the water.

Opposition from the supposed beneficiaries

Except from those getting a share of the money, few people in aid-dependent countries believe it helps. Charles Lwanga-Ntale of Uganda’s Development Research and Training describes “almost unanimous pessimism among African civil society and academia about the unworkable nature of aid, given the way in which it is structured and delivered.”

But to claim success, the UN had to hide failure. To show progress reducing hunger, the UN measured from a 1990 baseline, which allowed it to include China’s dramatic poverty reductions of the 1990s.

UNICEF has had eight directors in its 75 years of existence. Every one of them has been a white American. Would this be the case if the US and the UN truly wanted UNICEF to understand and prioritise the needs of the countries where it does most of its work?

No accountability

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000-2015 were an opportunity for an objective evaluation of a wide-reaching development programme. That didn’t happen. The UN itself wrote up a report, declared unprecedented success, and quickly adopted new, expanded goals.

But to claim success, the UN had to hide failure. To show progress reducing hunger, the UN measured from a 1990 baseline, which allowed it to include China’s dramatic poverty reductions of the 1990s. But these predated the MDGs, and China wasn’t following the UN agenda anyway. Then, in the 2000s the UN repeatedly changed its 1990 baseline data, which made the results look better. The UN goals had their greatest impact in Africa, which ended the MDG period with more hungry people than when it started.

The UN claimed success for its education goal because more children than ever were enrolled in school. But alarming numbers finished primary school unable to read their own name. The UN didn’t mention this and didn’t even attempt to measure it.

Colonial powers never wanted a truly independent Africa

Following World War II, the colonial powers made a show of welcoming independence for their African colonies. Behind the scenes, they fumed and schemed. Belgium, with U.S. support, assassinated the Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, after he talked of actual economic independence.  Guinea declared independence in 1958; exiting French forces sabotaged its infrastructure, then Paris flooded Guinea with counterfeit currency so as to collapse the economy.

Perhaps attitudes have taken a 180-degree turn? Maybe. But anyone proposing this optimistic theory needs to offer solid evidence. But the evidence shows that aid has just become a new way to prop up docile governments.

Under-use of cash transfers

In 1991 Nobel laureate Amartya Sen proposed a better way to help: Instead of sending food, or building a school, or setting up a job training programme, just give people the cash and let them decide what they need most. This is called a cash transfer, and many governments in low- and middle-income countries use these programmes to reduce poverty. Mexico started Oportunidades in 2002; Brazil has Bolsa Família.

Hundreds of studies have reached a clear consensus: cash transfers work. Despite many pilot projects that report success, UN agencies and INGOs keep returning to their old top-down approach. Their salaries, perks, and power all depend on controlling the funds themselves.

Colonialism is ultimately about control. The aid industry is not about to give that up.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options