Does donor aid work?

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By Thupa Kubu

NEWS that came out in one BBC radio programme at the recent G8 summit was that developed countries were willing to provide more aid to Africa.
One “SMS” comment from a listener went something similar to this: “Rather than share their riches with Africa, G8 powers should trade their riches with Africa.”
That got me thinking.
Does Africa need trade or aid? The same question can be asked about our country, Lesotho. Do we need aid or trade?
However, by and large, we need the latter, both internal and international.
First, credit should be given to where it is deserved. The donor countries have done a lot, many times with good intentions, in attempting to lift Africa out of poverty.
For instance, consider that according to one author, Lesotho was a recipient of aid from nearly 30 countries and 80 organisations between the mid-70s and mid-80s.
That was described by the author as a “disproportionate volume of aid given in exceedingly generous terms”.
Nevertheless, such generous handouts failed to get Lesotho out of poverty. More than three decades later, we are still both receiving aid and wallowing in poverty.
On the other hand, no one can deny the genuine efforts of the government of Lesotho, including the present one, in trying to address poverty in this country.
Defective as they may be, the government has done a lot especially in the area of education. Thanks to their efforts, Lesotho can boast one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
Not only that, Lesotho is among the Top 10 countries in the world in terms of gender equity according to some recent international ratings.
That aside, there is little to show for a country that has trained so many people, here and abroad.
It is true that many Basotho now hold degrees in numerous fields and at all levels. Yet many ask, as did the late Henry Ford: “Education for what?”
For the masses without higher education, the only thing they can attest to is that higher education is beneficial, yes, only to those who are lucky or (supposedly) bright enough to go past high school level.
After all, who hasn’t seen those with university degrees become “successful” government bureaucrats or high school teachers?
Therefore the obvious question is: What should happen? Or we could also ask, what should have happened?
The problem with foreign aid, in my view, is that it clearly doesn’t address the causes of poverty.
Take a close look at NGOs and different embassies representing donor governments in Lesotho.
It is true that the prevailing ideology in many of these donor countries is that of private sector development, supporting small and large businesses whether these are companies or cooperatives.
Companies are much more common than cooperatives in those places since they are normally more stable.
This is not to say that a cooperative model has no merits even when it is well managed. However, it is harder to succeed with that model due to some self-limiting regulations such as voting members of executive committees in and out of power every year and its inclusive nature that make decision-making rather difficult (study the local coops if you don’t believe me).
Yet, what is interesting is that almost none of these donors will give you funding unless you are a cooperative or a social organisation.
Mainly socially oriented endeavours are funded. It is rather intriguing that the governments, some of which are known to support privately owned companies in their own countries, steadfastly support only the more social or cooperative organisations when they are here (some can rightly point to the evils of company oriented approaches, but they have the advantage of stability and efficiency).
Yes, the donors do also build clinics, hospitals, roads and so on. Well, that is great, except that they would be doing us more favour, if they could  focus more on empowering local businesses, cooperative or not, especially those whose potential to create jobs and improve trade is not in question.
Thus, once we are capacitated to create jobs, we will not need to ask for aid in perpetuity. Clinics, roads and schools will take care of themselves.  That is, we will build them.
Sadly (or otherwise?), “beggars can’t be choosers.”
This brings us to the question of what the locals may do. The problem is not so much that we have people with wrong skills.
The problem is that we have people whose skills we do not fully utilise. Many who possess diplomas and degrees in this country can compete very well internationally; in fact they do, given the opportunity.
Yet for a long time, we have made our government, with all its inefficiencies, the sole job sanctuary for graduates.
On the other hand, watch the government as it attempts to create employment for the unskilled labour and what you see is jaw-dropping!
The sight of people making dams, ninety percent of which soon collapse or prove to be of no use, and efforts to stop soil erosion by causing more of it on the edges of the mountains is heartening indeed!
It’s easy to blame politicians for that but the problems are often deeper and involve all of us. The recent announcement that fifty million maloti has been set aside to help youth and women SMMEs was long overdue.
One wonders, why didn’t anyone think about this all along? It is a step in the right direction.
Another issue is education. We have the National University of Lesotho. We know it doesn’t train engineers and doctors, the kind of skilled labour we really need.
It has no sound post-graduate programme either (a must if good research should come out of it, the fact many are either unable to understand or choose to ignore, as they level criticism against “lazy” NUL academics).
But the real question, which many surprisingly fail to ask, is: Where would we rather spend most of our money? Would it be in sending students to study in opulent South African colleges (and spend three times the amount spent at the NUL, on people who may never come back and are under no obligation to come back after learning “specialised” courses), or in strengthening and helping create relevant faculties in the NUL so they can study those courses right here?
Which option would prove to be a wiser investment in the long run?
Also, we have academics at NUL. Some suggest they don’t do as much research as we would expect. That may be true. However, are we aware that good research is not a matter of wishful thinking?
Who can deny that the institution is a home to local and international world-class academics, many of whom wouldn’t be working there, had they been only concerned about “making money”?
Have we observed how other countries encourage and retain such people?
They understand that a country that does not invest in science and engineering research and commercialisation of their findings in cooperation with local companies will always buy everything from a toothpick to Mercedes Benz, which, I am embarrassed to say, we do.
They act on that understanding. They set up funding bodies and deliberately call proposals for research and development in certain areas of national priority. Academics compete and those who show they have a capacity win. Therein lies the secret, empowering academics to get them to do what you think is relevant, important. And, I assure you, they deliver, and many in developed countries know it. Can we learn anything from such “open secrets”?
Or shall we be satisfied with mediocrity to the end of time? When faced with choices like these, we are often inclined to repeat our favourite mantra: “We have no money.” That is (may be) true. However, the truest thing is that we will continue to “have no money”, if the little money we have is not spent wisely.
And “in the end, it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”

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