Friday 11 March 2022
Standing in front of a hotel on Cairo Rd, the main thoroughfare in Lusaka, Zambia, was perhaps the best vantage point to observe the chugging train of development aid, playing out in its favorite hot spot – sub–Saharan Africa.
Waiting for our own Country Director of an International aid organization, I watched the shiny, new Toyota Landcruisers and Hiluxes drive passed my hotel with the insignia and branding of their parent organizations – Action Aid, Save the Children, World Vision, Compassion International, Plan, Path, USAID: From the American people… and on and on.
I jotted down:
"There are more aid vehicles driving around Lusaka than in any city I’ve seen..
The tracks of ‘development’ are deep and corroded and stinking up the place"
That day and the days and months that followed would involve multiple strategic planning meetings, stakeholder engagement sessions, public-private partnerships, multi-disciplinary approaches, sustainability discussions, and a myriad of other buzz words and rhetoric that, when repeated so often, stops meaning anything real.
It was around this time that I started to wonder what I was doing and what kind of racket I was involved in. I was reading Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, a book that would fundamentally change my view on the world, my place in it, my work and some changes I needed to make. Coincidentally, Dambisa Moyo is a Zambian economist who has found success in the global North, offering a scathing indictment of aid delivery in the global South, specifically in sub–Saharan Africa.
Her points were hitting close to home.
By this time, I had been working in development aid in Southern Africa for four years. I moved to South Africa in 2005, to take a position with a local South African nonprofit in a rural township, starting a program for Orphans & Vulnerable Children (OVC) within a rural health clinic, specializing in HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment. Professionally, I felt like I had won the lottery. I had a fair amount of education, virtually no development experience and I was suddenly at the helm of a program, funded by UNICEF, aimed at creating a data management system and providing health and psychosocial services for Orphans & Vulnerable Children. And under the umbrella of an organization doing some of the first private HIV treatment through the USAID Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program.
Looking back, I had no business leading a program for OVC at the age of 24. But such is the wildly illogical world of aid. Within months, I was organizing training for home-based care providers, working with the local government department of social development, registering children in the program, getting them signed up for psychosocial camps, raising money from the Vodacom Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Royal Netherlands Embassy.
I ran the program in the rural township for three years and then moved on to a role as an OVC Housing Specialist for Habitat for Humanity International. Working out of the Africa & Middle East Area Office, this is where my exposure to international aid really ramped up. This was also the period of time during which I stood, in front of my hotel on Cairo Rd. in Lusaka and marveled at the size and scope of the aid footprint.
In those early days of my career, my colleagues and I embraced the world of AID wholeheartedly. We bought in, with every fiber of our beings. We engaged stakeholders, looked to forge active, working partnerships with other aid organizations, felt good giving things away, and played our role in the purity spiral that seems to spin around all philanthropic and charitable work. The purity spiral is defined by urban dictionary as "A social ratchet effect within a community. A process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance relentlessly." In the world of aid, this effect is powerful and pervading. It leads to thinking in binaries: Aid/ Charity = good; business/ profit = bad. I experienced its affect to be very in-group/ out-group and rather hierarchical. Those of us working in the large, well-funded International non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) occupied a high rung, just under the sources of capital (USAID, DFID, Irish Aid, EU, SIDA, CIDA…etc.), but above local organizations who were clearly closer to the issues, held a much more nuanced view of the issues, and who were always short on cash.
The more I learned about the development aid sector and its inner workings, the more I realized how deeply flawed and out of alignment it was with people’s desire to help themselves. To work and compete and trade. Most Aid models I observed rested on the idea of the giver and the receiver. Seldom was the receiver an active agent, a determining force in the orientation of aid capital. What was given included capital, food, inputs for short-term projects, nutrition, medication, school fees, school buildings, clinical staff for health centers, tests for illnesses, vaccinations, sports equipment, clothes.
In FY2019, U.S. foreign assistance, defined broadly, totaled an estimated $48.18 billion, or 1% of total federal budget authority. Of that, just over half goes to bilateral development, multilateral development and humanitarian aid. Britain spent 15.2 billion pounds on official development assistance in 2019.
So often the tenor of the development intervention would be linked to the giving government’s core economic activity. The number of abandoned fish farms I witnessed in Zambia and Rwanda from the well-meaning taxpayers of Nordic countries was sobering. The buildings left idle after their funding ran out. The programs ignited and abandoned in the course of a three or five year period. After a while, cynical folks who had witnessed this scenario play out repeatedly started to refer to the projects as three-year wonders, a remark less linked to a project’s impact and more linked to the staggering rise and fall of hopes.
Donors dictated the way aid interventions were structured to the greatest degree. While there was always the intention to observe a need, develop a project design, and only then seek funding; the reality seemed to be that donors, proposal windows, annual budgets and regional focus areas determined what ideas got put into proposal form and eventually succeeded at raising donor investment.
In early 2009, during an economic development event in a suburb of Johannesburg, I listened to Andrew Rugasira give words to something I had never heard spoken of before that moment. Rugasira is the Ugandan founder of Good African Coffee, the first African-owned coffee brand to be listed in UK supermarkets (Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Tesco) and offered online in the US. His message was direct and unambiguous.
‘For too long, the US and the UK have seen countries in Africa as pitiful places to donate things, and to give aid. I’m here to say that we do not want aid. We want trade. We want to develop businesses and follow through on our own ideas. We are keen to do business, to engage as equals, to work alongside our counterparts in other markets. We do not want to be where you aim your guilt. We are not a continent of charity cases. We are a continent of a billion consumers.’ This is not a verbatim quote, but it's what I remember.
I will shame myself by sharing the full extent to which my mind and my world view was shaken. It is sufficient to say that in 2009, before hearing Andrew Rugasira’s talk, I lived in one world. And afterward, I lived in another. The next book I picked up was Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, and the perfect storm of aid skeptics and trade evangelists began to change the discourse on aid, trade and the best way to improve circumstances for normal people.
By early 2010, I left my International Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) and went to work for a responsible forestry company in East Africa.
What I saw over the next few years played out like a feverish, threatened territorial claim on development. As large companies like UNILEVER established active, well-funded corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and invested a percentage of their revenues in local development near their areas of operation, the die-hard aid evangelists became increasingly suspicious of the efforts, as if companies could not possibly have legitimate regard for their neighbors. Several cases of attacks on companies by NGOs ensued (some well-founded and legitimate; many, born purely of disdain for the private sector).
Twelve years later and the tension between aid and trade has begun to balance, as these things tend to do. I see friends and colleagues in International NGOs legitimately engaging with (and investing in) corporate partnerships, impact investing, and profit-oriented projects. They interrogate business models before making grants and there’s a growing understanding of the ways the human spirit needs not only compassion but also capital.
Simultaneously, companies from disparate sectors are making serious, concerted, bottom line-oriented investments in their staff, their communities, their environmental impact, and their legacy by not only aligning with international standards of Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) but also by conceiving of, creating, seeding, and scaling impact-oriented businesses. Profit and purpose have never been more in alignment and there’s never existed such strong levels of shareholder engagement on ESG and impact.
Origin stories matter. It’s entirely likely that the years of aid evangelism and extremism were necessary to lead us here. I’m confident that our collective desire to create a better world, to engage in the project of human upliftment, and to level the playing field will come to fruition through both aid and trade. People, societies, movements, and countries need both compassion and capital; cooperation and competition; education and healthcare, as well as markets and investment.
 Foreign Assistance: An Introduction to U.S. Programs and Policy. Congressional Research Service. Updated Jan 10, 2022. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/R40213.pdf