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Aid Monstrosities

Development (Aid)

new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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[image, unknown] DEVELOP
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Aid monstrosities
At least Africa benefits from the money and expertise the rich world ploughs back in aid.
Or does it? Robert Woods hosts a tour of the Great Development Follies of our time.

Lake Victoria: probably the greatest monstrosity of all.
Illustration: Richard Willson

The first development projects in modern Africa were, let's face it, over-ambitious. Take the Great Groundnut Scheme. Around 50 million dollars were spent in the late-colonial 1950s on a grandiose scheme - conceived in London, executed in Tanzania - to grow groundnuts. The expert expatriate agriculturalists destroyed vast areas of grazing land before they realized that intensively mechanized groundnuts would not grow. Still the experts' hearts were in the right place, weren't they?

They started as they meant to continue. In the 1960s modernization was the watchword; hence the great Yugoslav mango-canning scheme in Ghana. Canning mangoes is not necessarily wrong. Indeed the Yugoslavs were very enthusiastic about it. They built their canning-plant big. Very big. So big that it never ran quite to capacity. Or even anything near. Which is not surprising since its capacity was greater than the entire world trade in mangoes. Oh dear!

Try something simpler next time: milk in the Sudan. There is lots of milk in the Sudan, so they decided to bottle it. Good idea. Except the Sudanese don't drink bottled milk. They like it fresh from the cow. The Soviet bottling plant has not produced a bottle of milk in 24 years.

The Soviets have no monopoly on this kind of generosity. The Americans spent two million dollars on grain-storage silos in Senegal during the 1960s. The silos have remained empty ever since because they were built in places where Senegalese peasants never go. But they must be handsome additions to the landscape. And two million dollars worth of empty grain silos don't really hurt anyone.

The Canadian Wheat Scheme did hurt someone; the Barbeig cattle-herders who inhabit part of Tanzania. Or used to, until they were thrown off their land to make room for the Canadian Wheat Scheme in the mid-1970s. The land was actually better suited to cattle-grazing than to combine-harvesters and prairie wheat, as the Barbeig had proved over centuries. Ah well, an outmoded culture no doubt.

The Turkana Irrigation Scheme of the late 1970s grew lemons in the Kenyan desert. This was not a wise move. True, 15 Turkana gained employment as houseboys or cooks for the expatriates running the project. But the main effect on the rest of the Turkana people was to mess up their migration-routes and put still greater pressure on the drought-ridden bits of overgrazed bush that remained to them. The lemons doubtless tasted very nice, though it is not recorded whether a Turkana ever ate one.

The Saharan Water-The-Desert scheme was different. Westerners had learned a new set of values by that time: caring, sharing development; ask the locals what they want then try to supply it. They asked the Bedouin what they wanted. 'Water for our camels' was their reply.

It is actually quite easy to provide water in the Sahara desert because the whole place floats on it: bore an artesian well deep enough and water comes gushing out. So that is what the Europeans did. And behold there was lots of water, and the camel herds multiplied exceedingly because there was plenty to drink.

Unfortunately there wasn't anything extra for them to eat. For a hundred miles the little stunted bushes that had supported small herds were obliterated. And the brand-new boreholes were surrounded by hundreds of dead camels. Even the original herds starved too.

Nowadays of course, we know that development projects should be small-scale, with appropriate, user-friendly technology. Village woodlots, for example, are a wonderful idea. Where charcoal-burning has destroyed the forests, women still need timber to cook with, poles to build with. And so in Karamoja village, Uganda, woodlots were started in the mid1980s. Excellent: locals all in favour, planted trees themselves, half an acre per community, the only Western technical input the plastic bags around the seedling roots. Oh yes, and forestry experts suggested planting eucalyptus trees.

Nobody told the villagers that eucalyptus doesn't burn well, and so is not good for cooking purposes; or that unless you spray DDT it gets so riddled by termites that building poles scatter white powder on the heads of those living below before suddenly falling down; or that the tree itself leaches the soil, preventing almost anything from growing thereafter.

Still, sweet idea. Nearly as sweet as the literacy-by-post scheme that an Anglican bishop of my acquaintance tried once. Think about it.

All of these pale, however, beside the Village Fishponds Programme around Lake Victoria. This really seemed to have done everything right. It obeyed all the rules - or all the catch-phrases, depending on your degree of optimism or pessimism about Western approaches to development. Sustainable, low-tech, community-oriented: this had the works. Lake-region dwellers have a fishing culture already. Add small ponds to their back-yards and you get protein for all.

The fish they put in were Nile Perch which are carnivorous and grow from small fry into monsters six feet long in a couple of years. Some escaped into Lake Victoria, where the biggest native species are less than twelve inches. The Nile Perch population had no competitors and it has exploded. The lake people can now catch bigger fish more easily. Hooray.

There is a slight snag. There used to be 300 different species of fish in Lake Victoria. The Nile Perch have eaten 180 of them. It is the biggest mass extinction of vertebrates in modern times. Well, with a growth rate like that, you 'd expect the Nile Perch to have a big appetite.

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Illustration: Richard Willson

That's not all. Victoria fisherpeople used to dry their catch in the sun. Nile Perch are too oily, and have to be smoked. So the fisherpeople have cut down their trees for charcoal. Soil erosion and desertification are following. Perhaps some eucalyptus plantations might help.

There is also the slight problem that, having rendered extinct 180 species in the lake, the Nile Perch have nothing left to feed on and so have started eating each other. A little thought shows that this is not a viable long-term survival strategy: you can't get by for long eating yourself.

Already the ecological balance of the lake has been destroyed: the fish that used to eat the algae in it are extinct. It is quite possible that an algal bloom will cover the lake, absorbing all the oxygen, making the lake stone-dead sterile and killing any remaining fish species with the temerity to survive this small-scale, ecologically-sensitive and culturally-appropriate development project. What will the fisherpeople catch then?

Also, Lake Victoria is the size of Switzerland and covering it with algae will have an appreciable, though unpredictable, effect on the climate. So: a desert, eroded soil and deforestation in the most fertile area on earth; 180 species rendered extinct and the number rising; 10,000 square miles, the largest fresh-water lake in the world, stone dead; and the world's climate doing who knows what. That was quite some development project.

Robert Woods works undercover for a right-wing British daily newspaper.


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The problem
Western aid is frequently tied to the construction of unwieldy and useless projects designed by foreign 'experts' who don't understand the African predicament or environment. These people are imported at great cost to do jobs they are often ill-qualified to do at home. They rarely speak the local language or ask local people what they want. And they design projects with more regard to how they appear on paper than to whether they meet local needs or capitalize on local knowledge. The result is frequently irrelevant to local requirements, relying on costly Western technology and great technological expertise. African elites have copied this style of Western development taking out huge loans to build show projects, and imposing vast state farms on Africa's peasants, thereby destroying traditional ways.

The way forward
Development projects must involve the full participation and approval of local people, and be designed to meet local needs. They should build on 'common' knowledge about the environment and social requirements. And they should be small-scale and sustainable in terms of resources available. Good projects are often modest in their expenditure and fit naturally into local ways of doing things. In general the voluntary agencies are much better at doing this than government departments: all the development disasters mentioned in the story arose through official overseas aid rather than through independent charities. Foreign aid is usually best spent funding local people to solve their own problems, rather than employing foreigners who have little understanding of the African situation.

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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