New Internationalist

Impact Of Angels

Issue 326

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Africa / AID

Impact of angels
The cup of kindness - but the profusion of Western aid workers has drawbacks. Photo by ERIC MILLER / PANOS
In an Africa plagued by conflict and poverty, international aid organizations
loom large in every quarter. But, asks Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, are they angels
of aid or bodyguards of a new colonialism?

In the last few years international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become part of the landscape of Africa. They are as present as the tropical climate of the west coast of Africa, the biting sun and dry soils of the Sahel region, the thousand hills of Rwanda and south-west Uganda. One can even say they are not just part of the landscape any more; they are the landscape itself, with their Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Pajeros and other assorted four-wheel drives equipped with radio phones and advertising their endless projects.

So pervasive is their presence that there is virtually not a single district in most parts of Africa that does not have some sort of contact with them. They come as private voluntary organizations, development agencies, religious groups and so on. What unites them is the fact that they are all controlled, financed and executively staffed by Europeans and North Americans. Wealth and direct or indirect backing from their governments put them above the local community groups and NGOs in their 'host' countries.

The continuous rise of the NGOs, their dominance and control over civil society in Africa cannot be divorced from the crisis of the post-colonial African state. Whereas in the immediate post-independence period the political economy of Africa was characterized by neo-colonialism (political sovereignty without economic independence) the current epoch is characterized by recolonization through the IMF, World Bank and Western NGOs.

Today if you want to know the economic fortunes or otherwise of an African country you are better off talking to the country representative of the IMF or World Bank who, to all intents and purposes, is the modern equivalent of a colonial governor. The difference is that unlike the governor who was sent by the colonial power (and therefore ultimately accountable to some public opinion in the parent country), these new governors are bureaucrats, accountable to nobody but their faceless superiors and peers in the Bretton Woods system. They come with a ready-made solution called structural adjustment which is supposed to be a cure-all. Governments that have run down their countries through systematic graft, kleptomania and state robbery have no choice but to do the bidding of their new masters.

However, the operation of structural-adjustment programmes has demonstrated that economics is not just a technical matter to be resolved by 'experts' and other eggheads sent in from Washington. Far from delivering their promised gains, liberalization, privatization and technocratic management have only increased the poverty of the people and further indebted the countries concerned. The more they have adjusted, the deeper they have sunk into the abyss of poverty, joblessness and socio-economic crisis.

Structural adjustment threw up new social contradictions as the already poor condition of the people worsened. Workers were up in arms, civil servants no longer had job security and rural farmers encouraged to produce more got even less money for their goods because of the slump in the global prices for commodities.

Soon it was discovered that while structural adjustment removed the state from all areas of the economy, cutting public expenditure on education, social welfare and health, there was a need to police the resulting crisis. So it was not a weak state that was needed but a very strong one - and an uncaringly wicked one at that. It is only such a state that can impose these draconian measures. So the police, paramilitary and intelligence services had to be strengthened to crush strikes, demonstrations and popular uprisings. The African state was thus restored to its colonial role as the bodyguard of imperialism.

Liberal and social democratic forces in the West began to have qualms about the social effects of adjustment. Their liberal consciences sought a palliative to relieve the pain without curing the disease.

The answer was a new-found religion: NGOism. The new catechists joined the right-wing chorus about the inefficient state and declared their newly discovered civil society (often inappropriately used to mean NGOs) to be the new angels. Refugees, civil wars and other calamities created an immediate need for this humanitarian industry. And African governments were glad to co-operate by handing over responsibility for education, water, health - whatever - to NGOs. A myth developed that because these organizations are based 'among the people' they are best placed to deliver services to the people. In the right-wing climate that followed the Thatcher and Reagan years, it all seemed to make sense. Government was bad and NGOs were good.

Hope is not what somebody else bestows on you. It is what you give to yourself

What this fails to recognize is that much of the influence of foreign NGOs in Africa derives from the power of their governments, embassies and companies. Some of the most powerful NGOs get the vast majority of their money from their own governments, whether for emergency operations or for development projects. In effect these NGOs are the civil arm of their governments' policies and the ideological cousins of the IMF and World Bank. One slaps us in the face and the other offers us handkerchiefs to wipe the tears.

The first problem with NGOs is that they have become sacred cows that cannot be touched. Anyone who wishes to criticize Western NGOs is likely to meet accusations of ingratitude, churlishness, inhuman cynicism or lack of sympathy for the victims of disasters. How dare you talk ill of these selfless missionaries who have come to help you? This sacredness has encouraged arrogance and strengthened their feeling of superiority and we-know-best attitudes. No doubt many are involved in the charity business out of moral and political commitment. But it is also true that there are many who are doing it only for career purposes. Our misery is their job. If you are a disaster manager, what will you do if there are no more disasters?

This is particularly true at a time when more and more NGO money is going into emergency operations rather than long-term development work. There is even a danger that emergencies will be converted into permanent situations. A typical case was that of post-genocide Rwandese refugees in former Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. The Ngara refugee settlement became the second-biggest city in Tanzania after Dar-es-Salaam. Yet it was not under the control of the Government. It was controlled by NGOs. A trip there would have shocked any liberal conscience. Flags of different NGOs were hoisted in different compartments, with the obvious suggestion to rival organizations: 'Keep off my refugees and I'll keep off yours.' Many of these NGOs did not wish the camps to be closed because their jobs and influence would go too. The pressure to make the camps habitable was turning them into permanent cities with amenities that the refugees were never going to get if they went back to their hills in Rwanda. Yet if you suggest to the NGOs that long-term development work in Rwanda itself will actually persuade refugees to go home, they plead that it is not their mandate.

A second major problem arising from the mushrooming of NGO work in Africa is the internal brain drain. The external brain drain from Africa is a dismal phenomenon which has been exacerbated by the economic crisis. Thousands of Africans with university degrees or professional qualifications end up in dreary jobs in Europe or America, from cleaning the streets to working anti-social hours that would be refused by the natives. Meanwhile NGO employees, almost all of them white, head back in the opposite direction. One might ask, if the NGOs genuinely wish to help, why could they not send African skills back to Africa with the same fantastic salaries and perks as the European experts?

But the internal brain drain is a less recognized problem. The few skilled people left behind in Africa are tempted away from public institutions by the NGOs who can afford to pay ten times what governments can afford. Furthermore, the same NGOs that drain this local expertise away get consultancies to train and build up 'local capacity'. Go to any university in Africa and you will find that the professors who are doing well are those with access to the foreign NGO community as consultants and researchers. In effect they spend more time chasing or performing these jobs than they do teaching their students.

The pervasive presence of NGOs is even changing the social geography of African cities due to the high-spending lifestyles of the 'expats'. Wherever there is a big expatriate community there is invariably sex tourism. One cannot blame prostitution on expatriates but there is a particular twist that the dollar power has imposed on the exchange. A lot of African women and men now hope to do better for themselves by hooking an expatriate partner. They can pay much more and if you are lucky they may even take you back to the West!

The economic power of NGOs is precipitating a cultural crisis that is now very acute. It is not just that the colonial mentality is back in the shape of white expatriates being treated as 'bosses' (and many of them are literally bosses to numerous domestic servants). But for African countries that already suffer the debilitating effect of inferiority complexes brought about by slavery and colonialism, these new relations cannot do much for our collective morale, esteem and confidence.

As if this is not bad enough it has now become fashionable to hear Western journalists, humanitarian 'experts' or even some Africans advocating a return to some kind of colonialism (probably under UN mandate) as a remedy for Africa. Actually colonialism never really left Africa. Like the deadly aids virus, it merely mutated.

The choice facing Africa is not between chaos and recolonization, as propounded by so many, but between Pan-Africanism and recolonization. The African Unity agenda remains the only basis upon which Africans can reclaim their dignity and become equal partners with the rest of humanity. It is not that Africa does not need help but at the moment it is too weak to determine where this help should be and how it should be used.

Hope is not what somebody else bestows on you. It is what you give to yourself. Only a union of African states can create the enabling environment for Africa's hope to be realized.

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is the General Secretary of the Pan-African Movement,
based in Kampala, Uganda. This is an abridged version of a longer piece.

Both photos: ERIC MILLER / PANOS

Apocalypse now: mass scenes of misery like this one from Kasese refugee camp, former Zaire, in 1997, mean ever more aid agencies descend.

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