Lesotho development aid needs new direction



Jack Healey

A recent blog post, Can Lesotho survive more development? by John Aerni-Flessner and Charles Fogelman points out that “Despite post-Millennium development programs…, most Basotho still live in poverty, and average life expectancy is 49 years.”

This astounding fact reminded me of my time in Lesotho in the late 70s. My friend David Levine was responsible for a training program designed to prepare Peace Corps volunteers entering the apartheid state of South Africa. I was one of the three Peace Corps directors in the region. In Swaziland, Reg Petty was a seasoned civil rights worker. Meanwhile, in Botswana, Norman and Elsa Rush shared a background in human rights work. We were all firmly opposed to the apartheid system and did our best to work with Levine’s program as directors. In our efforts to awaken some of our volunteers to the horrors of that system, our little network enabled us to rely on each other for support and friendship.

My role was not to provide development aid but to feed Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) into the existing development programs of the host nation. We averaged around 80 PCVs over my four and a half years there. The volunteers were very good at their jobs. Volunteers did not get in the way or cause problems…they just helped. I admired them. But what remains the same today as it was during my days in Lesotho is this: development aid from wealthy nations is more self-serving than beneficial to the poor in Lesotho.

Unlike my days in Lesotho, it is not just the United States providing the type of development that benefits the wealthy instead of the poor. Now you can add the powerful nation of China, with some help from Taiwan to the mix. All three of these nations have large poverty rates, so we must not expect them to help the poor abroad. Since they lack the ability at home, it is impossible to transmit a solution to Lesotho or anywhere else receiving aid.

While I was in Lesotho, an event occurred, which I was fortunate to observe, that expressed the inefficiency of foreign aid. Robert McNamara came to Lesotho as the head of the World Bank. In celebration of his visit, Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan organized some villages for dancing in a rural spot. McNamara came and everyone sang and danced together. Of course, Lesotho in time received lots of tractors and plows. Yet, within a year, these plows and tractors rusted because the farmers could not afford the fuel to get them moving.

I was close to the UNDP director David Mac Adams in Lesotho who shared these worries with me. Even at his level, his ability to produce change was minimal. Macro development was adopted because the USA was fighting “communism” in little ole Lesotho as well as the powerful South Africa. That fear was unreasonable, but not to the forces of Reagan and Thatcher. Roads everywhere were built. Commerce (non-communist) needs roads and thus roads were made in all directions.

Lesotho’s political parties remain at each other’s throats, a constant theme since the mid-70s. Similarly, corruption remains present within many governmental contracts. While Lesotho’s powerful struggle for influence and control, over 200,000 Basotho seek jobs in South Africa, yet another issue present during the 70s.

Development money that could have been used to address Lesotho’s poverty issue has been funnelled into infrastructure. Roads, now shiny and bright, sport an even more spectacular overhead. Macro development is the name of the game and led by the Millennium Challenge Corp (MCC) and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Road-building is a sine qua non of western and eastern aid. Moving stuff in and out has been deemed the most necessary imperial need of the outsiders with cash. While their pockets grow fatter, trickle down, the old Reagan ploy, is still being used in the aid program.

The average Mosotho lives a life of poverty with a life expectancy of 49 years. The illusion of escape has been created, as specialized jobs have been made available to Basotho women. These new jobs are in factories, which are located in the capital Maseru. However, Basotho women do not live or want to live in Maseru. While new industry can help relieve economic strife, it comes at a cost, the risk of destroying communities. The situation is reminiscent of the 180,000 miners who left home and travelled to South Africa to mine diamonds and coal.

The government’s focus on roads has done nothing to address the Basotho’s struggles. The new roads and the overpass are nice for walking, but since few Basotho have cars, it is rather a limited source of pride for the Basotho. What has truly helped the Basotho is the delivery of a water system from its newish dam, which benefits both South Africa and Lesotho. Water is a great blessing for Lesotho and the people appreciate the delivery of clean water from their dam. The dam serves as a reminder of the minimal positive relief Basotho have received.

In the early 80s, Lesotho was struck with an aids/HIV epidemic, a terrible and awful one. Thousands died. HIV lives throughout the villages in the mountains. Help eventually came for this epidemic, but the damage was done, and it was massive. Despite this disaster, political parties continually keep its citizens in suspense without breaks of violence against one another. Furthermore, politicians have lined their pockets with a surplus of cash from their corrupt dealings with investors. The presence of constant violence and corruption has alienated the average citizen to the point that they just avoid politics and hope not to get caught in crossfire of these endless, silly but costly battles.

This article could be just a look back, old and inane. I wish it were; yet, it is not. The aid community lacks the simple but powerful outlook of every parent that calls for: a safe place for the child; a doctor when hurt; food to grow up on and a school to get educated. If these basic needs can be fulfilled, then Lesotho will excel. Current macroeconomic aid does not fix the problems faced by Basotho. They need schools, a healthcare system, agriculture products that can actually be used by locals, and a police department that takes care of its people. Now that would be an aid package. That program would not repeat the late 70s. The current one does. There are only two million citizens in Lesotho.

It is not hard…. wake up America and China to the agenda of every parent.- huffingtonpost.com



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