Aiding the Future

Does U.S. foreign assistance really work?

International-development circles in Washington are abuzz with hope that U.S. foreign-aid policy might finally be getting a much-needed overhaul. Critics have long complained that U.S. assistance comes with too many conditions and that too much of the money goes to U.S. companies and consultants. But now, those same mumblings are coming from the government itself.

In a recent interview with, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped to amend U.S. foreign-aid policies that mean "Western consultants and administrative costs end up gobbling huge percentages of our aid overall." On July 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review intended to look at improving the effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Several reform-minded bills have also been introduced in Congress.

On the heels of Obama's first visit to Africa and with the reform debate ramping up, Foreign Policy and Oxfam America held a panel discussion on July 16 to debate the future of U.S. foreign assistance. Along with Oxfam's director of aid effectiveness, prominent Africans from civil society, the media, and government were asked to share what is and is not working with regard to U.S. policies. Excerpts:

Paul O'Brien, Oxfam America

What do we know [about foreign aid] that actually works? For Oxfam that is about [local] ownership. Why do we care about ownership? Because all the aid in the world is not going to get the bottom billion out of poverty. We all know it. If we want sustainable solutions, it's about [local states and citizens] working together in a political and economic compact where states actually care about having legitimacy from their citizens.

Right now if you're a USAID professional on the ground and you're trying to build local country capacity, essentially, you have to use U.S. contractors and even [U.S.] NGOs, because they're the only ones who understand the complexities of the Washington bureaucratic system. People aren't getting the contracts because they're the most capable at leaving sustainable capacity behind. We've got to fix that.

Wore Gana Seck, Green Senegal

We think that [U.S.] development assistance has too many conditionalities. It is like they give you a box of sweets, but before arriving at the box of sweets, you have cactus. You have to jump through cactus before going to the sweets. Before you arrive at this aid you have to do that, you have to do this -- and it's just not really effective.

The change is what people really will feel in the field. Do I have water? Can I send my kids to school? Can I travel? Can I have enough food? It's not just aid. It's economic; it's social; it's environmental. It's about equity and solidarity.

Andrew M. Mwenda, The Independent (Uganda)

In their search for revenues to sustain themselves in power, Africa's rulers do not find it in their own interest to build productive and profitable arrangements with their own citizens. Governments in Africa find it much more productive to enter negotiations with the international community for aid. If governments had to depend on their own citizens for revenues, they would be driven -- by self-interest -- to listen to their citizens about the policies and institutions necessary for economic growth.

The result of aid is actually to disarticulate the state from the citizen. The citizen in Africa does not look at the state as an institution that is supposed to serve the common good. Instead, they begin looking at the state as a patron who gives gifts that fall from heaven like manna. In this case they fall from the Western world in the form of aid.

Aid should be aimed at promoting innovation, not at rewarding failure. Currently, aid goes to countries that have failed, and therefore, aid tends to be a reward for failure. Even in dysfunctional states, you may find pockets of efficiency -- some public institutions that perform a very good function. I think those should be supported. Uganda has a very incompetent and corrupt state, so my view is that you should not give money to the state of Uganda. But the state of Uganda is not homogeneous. There are pockets of efficiency in that ocean of incompetence.

Of all Western governments, I find the U.S. government to have the most corrupt and patronage-ridden political system. If the U.S. president says, "I am putting up $15 billion for XYZ," that money must be appropriated by Congress. The moment Congress sits to discuss that money, lobbyists arrive. By the time Congress appropriates that money, for every dollar, 80 cents has been chopped off to U.S. companies. So American aid is not about the recipient; it is about American companies. How then do you change that? It is up to you Americans. American aid is the most inefficient type of aid I have looked at.

O. Natty B. Davis, Minister of State, Liberia

In most post-conflict situations, usually you have had a breakdown of the government. You have an increase in nonstate actors [such as international charities and NGOs] that are delivering basic services [instead] of government. You're trying to recover that process [so that the] government [is] delivering those services.

At the time of the inauguration of [Liberian] President [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf's government [in 2006, the budget] was about $80 million per annum. The current budget is $371 million. If you look at that three-year period, there hasn't really been substantial growth in the economy. We have been able to plug a lot of the gaps where money was going in so many different directions, and we've been able to improve tax administration. However, international development assistance continues to remain a significant component of what we need to get our work done effectively. Our estimates [of that amount] are around $500 million, but the total may be somewhere in excess of $650 million. We've moved from a point where we didn't know anything at all [about where aid money was going] to a point where we've developed an aid-tracking tool. The development partner that is most difficult to get [this] information from is the U.S. government.

When you have weak institutions and weak systems, there is a greater need for strong leadership. We've been very fortunate that we've had that in Liberia. However, we have to gradually move away from dependence on strong leadership to strong institutions that are responsible and offer accountability and transparency in the work that they do.

Paul O'Brien is the director of the aid effectiveness team at Oxfam America.

Wore Gana Seck is executive director of Green Senegal, an environmental NGO.

Andrew M. Mwenda is founder and managing editor of The Independent, a newsmagazine based in Kampala, Uganda.

O. Natty B. Davis is Liberia's minister of state without portfolio and senior advisor to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.




"You Can't Look Back"

Liberian warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson speaks out about the war crimes charges against him and his plans for the future.

At the end of last week, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a report examining the causes and consequences of Liberia's 14 years of brutal and gruesome civil war. The war may have ended six years ago, but Liberia's 3.4 million people are still reeling from a conflict that displaced a million people, left a quarter of a million dead, more than three fourths of women raped, and everyone traumatized.

The commission's report has made waves in the Western media for its condemnation of internationally popular President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over her past support for rebel groups. But the charges against another high-ranking government official are far more serious and might have more-lasting consequences.

Prince Y. Johnson is now a Liberian senator. During the war, he headed a notorious rebel group called the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The final TRC report names him the No. 1 most notorious individual perpetrator and recommends that he be prosecuted for gross human rights violations and war crimes, specifically mass murder, extortion, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, and rape. Johnson labeled the report a "joke" and vowed to resist with force any attempts to arrest him, raising fears of renewed violence. Last week, just before the report was released, freelance journalist Glenna Gordon went to his home on the outskirts of Monrovia for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Johnson discussed the (then forthcoming) TRC report, which he saw as biased and aimed at the wrong targets:

TRC is supposed to be neutral. It's supposed to be an institution that people of Liberia can depend on to help reconcile. But instead, it has disappointed the people of this country. It is supposed to bring together perpetrators and victims to reconcile both sides. But the TRC chose to keep the victims away from the so-called perpetrators. They never brought the two people together, so where is the reconciliation?

Reconciliation is not an overnight thing. It is a gradual process. There are many programs that can bring people together. If two people have a problem, how do you solve it? By keeping them apart? No, by bringing them together. The perpetrator can remember what he did and he may or may not say sorry. That's the first phase to begin reconciliation, and [it] was not done. And if you cannot reconcile yourself you cannot reconcile a nation.

Who supplied the guns to them? Who supplied the finance to buy the weapons? Who provided the training? It's a whole lot of questions that need answers.

The first group of people that bear the greatest responsibility is not the fighting man but the people who supplied and bought the weapons. I don't know who planned and bought all the weapons, but the men didn't just come here shooting guns from the sky.

When justice itself is unjust, there is injustice. So if you want justice, ... you have to go for the big Nigerian men who got the weapons, who supplied so many things. They are still in power.

I spoke at the TRC and said, "Forgive me for my sins, but when two elephants fight, the grass suffers." I was repentant. I've accepted Jesus.

Every country in the world knows the history of Nimba [Johnson's county]. They know what [former President Samuel] Doe did to my people. I had to defend my people.

Johnson originally allied himself with former President Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. The two leaders soon became enemies as rebel groups splintered and fractured. Johnson thinks that Taylor came to power with the aid of the United States:

The people who helped Charles Taylor escape from jail in the U.S.A. said that upon the removal of Doe, this is what you should do: Return to speedy democracy and let us come in to vie for public office. But Taylor decided, I cannot work for you to enjoy!

To be frank, there was absolutely no need for Taylor to send people to Sierra Leone. Removing the government of Doe was the only problem. After the removal of Doe there was a need for reconstruction. Not only the roads, the schools, but the minds. To reconstruct the mind. Taylor was to focus on that. He didn't need to go to Sierra Leone to make new war.

I do not have any communications with him now. How can I communicate with him while he's in jail? He wants to be Jewish to be free! He thinks that the American officials, most of them are Jewish. [Taylor's wife recently told the BBC that her husband had converted to Judaism while in prison.]

Although Johnson is thought to be semi-literate and never to have finished high school, he speaks about the importance of wisdom over knowledge and why he might still run for president:

In Liberia, 99 percent of our leaders who have a university degree do not represent their home county. The framers of our Constitution did not make education a criteri[on] for political office. Don't look at anyone [as] ignorant because you have [a] master's degree.

If people say go there [run for president], I'll go. Leadership does not come from how much you know. Leadership does not go by how much education you have. A leader that is born, you can see the characteristics.

I'm honest, straightforward, disciplined. When I say "yes," it's yes. These are characteristics that make people ... trust you. Tolerance, etc., etc. It's a gift. An individual gifted with wisdom is more than the man who is knowledgeable. When you gain knowledge you also gain wisdom. But there is no institution where you can gain wisdom. You got too many institutions that teach knowledge. Wisdom is a gift from God.

Johnson wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of President Samuel K. Doe, which he says sold a million copies. In 1990, Doe -- then Liberia's president -- was tortured and executed. A videotape of the ordeal was distributed to news stations around the world. It showed Johnson sitting at a table and sipping a beer while Doe's ear was being cut off. Johnson says he has no regrets over what happened to Doe:

The problem with Doe was that he listened to advice that led to his attack on Nimba, and that's why we had to fight back. He was in our custody, so we are responsible for whatever happened. He was with us, that's all I say.

If you want to move forward, you can't look back. Jesus never looked back. He never looked back. We need to look forward. When you look back, you look left, you look right, you get distracted. You need to focus on what you want done for this country.

I sleep sound; I sleep good. I snore.

Photo by Glenna Gordon