South-South aid will go south

Track record: China is building Lagos's rail system, but like its Western counterparts, this aid comes with conditions. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Track record: China is building Lagos's rail system, but like its Western counterparts, this aid comes with conditions. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

There’s a new “craze” in the development sector – South-South co-operation. It’s becoming fashionable with the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) workshop types and is being increasingly discussed. It’s an important shift in how and with who the Global South, especially Africa, views and does development.

In a nutshell, it means poor countries look to emerging countries that were recently poor for development solutions and co-operation, and not to the traditional givers of aid, which has characterised North-South aid. Instead of traditional assistance and development coming from the United States and company, the idea is that more should come from China, Brazil, Russia and India.

The unacknowledged problem that the Global South faces is not that of donors but largely that of corruption. It will not help if Africa, as part of this poor South, changes to new ways of co-operation. Even with new benefactors, Africa won’t witness phenomenal development.

How has Africa found itself here? Many countries in the South have been disappointed by the results of aid from the North because it has not transformed the lives of the most needy quickly or sufficiently. The boreholes drilled with donor aid have not ended hunger. The empowerment programmes have not resulted in women being treated equally. NGO-sponsored educational programmes have not resulted in all children having access to quality education. The millions poured into democracy programmes have not translated into the end of dictatorships. Few African countries will meet half of the millennium development goals, the deadline for which expires this year.

It has also not helped that the donors are erstwhile colonisers, hence the aid is treated with suspicion by many African governments and viewed as having too many unnecessary strings tied to it, such as political reforms.

What we do know is that development aid has not really worked for the poor. Much of the funds meant for development have leaked away and stayed with the middle class, who purport to be development agents acting on behalf of the poor. Too much is spent on seminars and workshops in air-conditioned hotels by pseudo-activists who feign to understand the plight of poor people. But that is a debate that warrants a column of its own.

Millions are also lost to corrupt governments, which pretend to represent the poor at international forums and at which the money is pledged.

To be fair, one has to balance what the West has often wrongly laid down about how Africa ought to achieve development with what the poor themselves want. Too often it has ignored that the poor know what they need. And they do not need those who are better off to patronise them and second-guess what they need. Simply, Western aid has sometimes hit the wrong targets, and sometimes has hit the right targets in the wrong way.

But back to the new collaborators in Africa’s development: the new South. At a recent discussion on South-South co-operation presented in Midrand by the South African Institute of International Affairs, it emerged clearly that African governments are concerned that their new partners don’t want to give them cash to address their needs but would rather pay contractors from their own countries to deliver services.

That China uses its own contractors and engineers when it grants loans for infrastructural projects on the continent is becoming a frequent complaint.

What those who complain ignore is that their new-found Southern friends, such as China and India, still have their own development agenda to think about. They have not yet arrived at their own development destinations and they will put their own development needs first when they conclude deals.

In the same way, they demand that the supplier of whatever is needed must be a Chinese or Indian company to stimulate their own growth. This is what Western nations do when they provide aid with strings attached.

But, besides countries putting their own needs first, the elephant in the room is corruption linked to loans and aid. Take Malawi, a country that depends on international aid for about 40% of its budget. Its Anticorruption Bureau is battling staggering fraud involving more than R500-million, which disappeared from government coffers, apparently to pay for services and goods that were never received.

In 2012, after an investigation, Uganda arrested three health officials because of the mismanagement of about $51-million from the Global Fund. This is no small change. Uganda’s attorney general, Frederick Werema, resigned, along with other ministers. Britain suspended direct aid to the Ugandan prime minister’s office in the same year, after evidence of fraud was found.

Last year, Tanzania had $44-million withheld from it by donors after a graft scandal hit the energy sector. Sierra Leone’s Anticorruption Commission is investigating the alleged misuse by health ministry officials of about $5.7-million meant to assist in the recent Ebola outbreak.

The point of these examples – and there are many more from the continent – is that, even if funds come from the new South, they will still be leaked away and not fully benefit the intended beneficiaries. This is because institutions in Africa are weak and its leadership either joins in or allows this leakage.

It does not help either that the continent fails to speak with one voice on South-South co-operation. The African Union is happy to sit comfortably in headquarters donated by China and not bother to lay down a framework for emerging South-South co-operation.

Africa has to stop chasing donations. Aid will not bring about development. This has been shown clearly in new emerging markets.

Nor will loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank be the path to development, as has been shown by the rise of South Korea and other once dirt-poor countries.

Rushing to open up fragile underdeveloped markets will also not work. It has been tried in Africa by the Bretton Woods institutions but disappointment only followed.

Africa can move away from Northern donors and replace them with those from the friendlier South. But if it cannot negotiate on its own terms in ways that suit its development agenda, plug corruption at home and have an NGO sector that advocates truly people-centred development, then South-South co-operation will be another wasted effort at development.

Copying or importing a development model from the emerging South will not work either. History has shown this. Development cannot be copied. Each country must find its own unique global competitive advantage – this is what those who have broken the shackles of poverty have done. For Africa, its advantages are its resources and an eager young population ready to work.

  Teldah Mawarire is the Mail & Guardian‘s Africa editor. Follow her on Twitter at @teldah



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