Douglas Alexander, British Secretary of State for Development, recently challenged me to stand with the poor and feel their pain at a public event sponsored by NDN. As a privileged politician, he has recently traveled to a few places where he has met some Africans and feels comfortable quoting them as representatives of the whole continent. He made clear that in fact Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister of South Africa, was the voice of Africa (certainly not Dambisa Moyo.) His source for this fact was: Trevor Manuel. The voice of Africa then told Mr. Alexander, “We need aid and we need to spend it effectively.” Alas, even with his chosen representative, Mr. Alexander seems to have heard only the first three words of this quote without the rest.
Having spent the last ten years working among some of the poorest, most marginalized people in Africa in a remote area of South Sudan, I believe that poor people can and should be helped – I have no disagreement with Mr. Alexander on this. For example, Mr. Alexander interviewed poor people in World Food Program food distribution line in south Ethiopia, while I as an NGO worker have arranged WFP food for tens of thousands of people in a remote county in South Sudan. We both agree that starving people should be fed and aid organizations can effectively distribute food.
Where we part company is Mr. Alexander’s seeming indifference to how you help poor people (unfortunately all too common among aid officials). Aid can facilitate worthy projects or encourage greed and graft.
Regarding aid accountability, Mr. Alexander said he would make sure schools in Kenya have a poster on every school room door so that parents know how many teachers or classrooms DFID has funded. Mr. Alexander has accountability confused with self-promotion! What should happen is that the community adopts the school as their own, so that they govern and monitor the school themselves, and are accountable for the results (and then judge DFID by how much they facilitated this).
Surprising things happen when the locals are in charge. My husband has just returned from a visit to the schools our NGO sponsors in South Sudan, where he was surprised and impressed by the results of the last eight years – not so much of our NGO’s efforts but of the communities’ efforts. With minimal increase in financial support, the schools have doubled in size by their own choosing. Even though the demands are beyond our comprehension, so are the hearts of the school principals. They find it impossible to turn away any student that comes prepared to learn and we have given them the freedom to manage their own schools. The result is the schools have burst their buildings several times over and classes meet most of the year under trees. There are no doors to put posters on and the communities feel they have control over their own destiny.
Even more ludicrous was Mr. Alexander’s parting response to me, that the UK and US should be motivated to lift poor Africans out of poverty so they can consume more of our goods. His example was that China is the largest export market for Scottish Chivas Regal whisky, so Americans should help develop Africa to consume our goods. I wonder if he thinks more Africans consuming Jim Beam would be the outcome of a successful development strategy?
Somewhere myself between accountability and self-promotion: Our NGO is called Servant’s Heart and you can check us out on our website.