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Aid--Let's Get Real | The Nation

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Aid--Let's Get Real

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The Africa trip of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Irish rock star Bono produced a bumper harvest of photo ops and articles about aid to Africa. Unfortunately, media coverage was mired in the perennial and stale aid debate: Should we give more? Does it work?

About the Author

William Minter
William Minter is senior research fellow at Africa Action, in Washington, DC, which is conducting a campaign for "...
Salih Booker
Salih Booker is executive director of Africa Action, the oldest US-based advocacy group on African affairs,...

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The battlefield death on February 22 of Jonas Savimbi marked the end of an era. With undiluted ambition, consistent ruthlessness and extraordinary skill in manipulating both friend and foe, he repeatedly dashed Angolan hopes for peace. Today almost 4 million Angolans have been displaced by war, and although Angola is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, infant mortality is the second highest in the world. The United States must now help Angolans rebuild. That means both paying our fair share of the bill for reconstruction and insisting on transparency in the use of revenues Angola gains from US oil companies.

The United States has a particular obligation because it intervened decisively for war in the key period just before Angola's independence in 1975. As has been long known to specialists and conclusively documented in a new book by historian Piero Gleijeses, US covert military action in Angola preceded rather than followed the arrival of Cuban troops. In the 1980s the United States again joined South Africa to build up Savimbi's war machine.

Savimbi's death removed the single greatest obstacle to peace. Three weeks later, the Angolan government declared a unilateral halt to offensive military actions, and a formal ceasefire was agreed to in early April. But the war has left generalized insecurity in the countryside that may well continue. The decades of conflict have also entrenched a climate of distrust throughout Angolan society.

These results come in part from Savimbi's military strategy, which was to make Angola ungovernable. His forces systematically targeted civilians and cut the economic links between city and countryside. He also eliminated internal rivals he regarded as too open to peace. But Savimbi did not create the cleavages in Angolan society that he exploited. There is a profound gap between those who profit from Angola's links to the world economy and those with little chance to do so. This division, more accurately described as regional and structural than ethnic in character, dates back to the colonial era. Since independence, Angola's oil wealth combined with war has further reinforced inequality.

Paradoxically, the Angolan government has served as an unwitting ally of Savimbi. Relying on income from oil to feed the cities and to buy arms while leaving the interior to neglect, Luanda sealed the success of Savimbi's strategy of dividing city from countryside. At the same time, Savimbi's intransigence raised the credibility of the Luanda government. In the 1992 election campaign, for example, the ruling party won support from many Angolans who recoiled from Savimbi's threats more than they resented the government's failures.

The Angolan government has taken the first step with its unilateral truce, but more fundamental changes are also essential. Speaking in Washington on February 27 after he and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos met George W. Bush, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano listed some lessons learned from Mozambique's experience. He stressed the need for a comprehensive peace-building process, including greater openness to dissent and to the connection between social and economic development and peace. President dos Santos's peace plan acknowledges these points; however, acceptance of the need for voices from civil society and independent media has been slow and inconsistent.

The hardest tests will be outside Luanda. Delivering material benefits to these long-neglected areas will be critical, but humanitarian operations are stretched to the limit and badly underfunded. Here Angola's international partners--governments, multilateral agencies, oil companies and nongovernmental organizations--have a role to play. The United States and others should quickly provide the remainder of the UN consolidated appeal for Angola for 2002, which as of mid-March had received only 10 percent of the $233 million required. They should also join Angolan civil society in insisting that the government commit its resources to schools, clinics and rebuilding the infrastructure, as well as to immediate humanitarian needs. Angola earns at least $3 billion each year from oil exports, but as much as a third disappears into a complex web of transactions among foreign companies and the Angolan elite.

It would be wrong to punish Angolans by holding up humanitarian relief, but there are other ways to exert pressure. Currently, the World Bank and the IMF are conducting a review of the oil sector with the stated goal of promoting transparency and accountability of oil revenues; this study should be concluded rapidly and made public both in Washington and Luanda. The issue of where the money goes and how to use it must be debated openly. Angolans will quickly be able to see whether the dividends of peace begin to flow. If that happens, this time peace will have a chance.

The concept captures fundamental characteristics of today's world order.

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Africa Action has launched a petition, supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, that calls on Secretary of State Colin Powell to name the genocide in Darfur and to support immediate intervention to stop the killing.

The war on terror is threatening to overshadow a far more deadly threat—the AIDS epidemic.

If the O'Neill-Bono safari resulted in Washington finally paying more of its proper share for global health, education and clean water, that would be cause for applause. But any real change requires shifting the terms of debate. Indeed, the term "aid" itself carries the patronizing connotation of charity and a division of the world into "donors" and "recipients."

At the late June meeting in Canada of the rich countries known as the G8, aid to Africa will be high on the agenda. But behind the rhetoric, there is little new money--as evidenced by the just-announced paltry sum of US funding for AIDS--and even less new thinking. Despite the new mantra of "partnership," the current aid system, in which agencies like the World Bank and the US Treasury decide what is good for the poor, reflects the system of global apartheid that is itself the problem.

There is an urgent need to pay for such global public needs as the battles against AIDS and poverty by increasing the flow of real resources from rich to poor. But the old rationales and the old aid system will not do. Granted, some individuals and programs within that system make real contributions. But they are undermined by the negative effects of top-down aid and the policies imposed with it.

For a real partnership, the concept of "aid" should be replaced by a common obligation to finance international public investment for common needs. Rich countries should pay their fair share based on their privileged place in the world economy. At the global level, just as within societies, stacked economic rules unjustly reward some and punish others, making compensatory public action essential. Reparations to repair the damage from five centuries of exploitation, racism and violence are long overdue. Even for those who dismiss such reasoning as moralizing, the argument of self-interest should be enough. There will be no security for the rich unless the fruits of the global economy are shared more equitably.

As former World Bank official Joseph Stiglitz recently remarked in the New York Review of Books, it is "a peculiar world, in which the poor countries are in effect subsidizing the richest country, which happens, at the same time, to be among the stingiest in giving assistance in the world."

One prerequisite for new thinking about questions like "Does aid work?" is a correct definition of the term itself. Funds from US Agency for International Development, or the World Bank often go not for economic development but to prop up clients, dispose of agricultural surpluses, impose right-wing economic policies mislabeled "reform" or simply to recycle old debts. Why should money transfers like these be counted as aid? This kind of "aid" undermines development and promotes repression and violence in poor countries.

Money aimed at reaching agreed development goals like health, education and agricultural development could more accurately be called "international public investment." Of course, such investment should be monitored to make sure that it achieves results and is not mismanaged or siphoned off by corrupt officials. But mechanisms to do this must break with the vertical donor-recipient dichotomy. Monitoring should not be monopolized by the US Treasury or the World Bank. Instead, the primary responsibility should be lodged with vigilant elected representatives, civil society and media in countries where the money is spent, aided by greater transparency among the "development partners."

One well-established example of what is possible is the UN's Capital Development Fund, which is highly rated for its effective support for local public investment backed by participatory governance. Another is the new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, which has already demonstrated the potential for opening up decision-making to public scrutiny. Its governing board includes both "donor" and "recipient" countries, as well as representatives of affected groups. A lively online debate among activists feeds into the official discussions.

Funding for agencies like these is now by "voluntary" donor contributions. This must change. Transfers from rich to poor should be institutionalized within what should ultimately be a redistributive tax system that functions across national boundaries, like payments within the European Union.

There is no immediate prospect for applying such a system worldwide. Activists can make a start, however, by setting up standards that rich countries should meet. AIDS activists, for example, have calculated the fair contribution each country should make to the Global AIDS Fund (see www.aidspan.org).

Initiatives like the Global AIDS Fund show that alternatives are possible. Procedures for defining objectives and reviewing results should be built from the bottom up and opened up to democratic scrutiny. Instead of abstract debates about whether "aid" works, rich countries should come up with the money now for real needs. That's not "aid," it's just a common-sense public investment.

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