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 AllAfrica.com, 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.