Who gains from UK aid to Rwanda?

The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development, Ms Justine Greening, last week announced a resumption of aid to Rwanda. But in doing so, she turned aid philosophy back to the pre 1990s.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development, Ms Justine Greening, last week announced a resumption of aid to Rwanda. But in doing so, she turned aid philosophy back to the pre 1990s.

Before an anti-Rwanda UK media hysteria forced the British government to suspend aid following allegations of support for the M23 rebels in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, most UK aid to Rwanda was channelled through the government’s budget in what is known as General Budget Support.

Ms Greening’s aid plan seeks to revert to the old ways of giving it through international aid agencies, NGOs and charities.

This about-turn can only be explained in terms of British domestic politics. The British government, and Ms Greening, in particular, since taking over from Andrew Mitchell as Secretary for International Development, has been bullied by a rabidly anti-Rwanda media to back out of a previously working aid arrangement. The government is also conscious of public anger at continued aid to other countries when it is cutting expenses at home.

Also, the aid business is a multi-billion dollar industry that attracts many players in the form of international relief and aid agencies, NGOs and charitable organisations – the sort that are Ms Greening’s choice as conduits for British aid. The industry has powerful lobbyists in the media, churches, academia and parliament who will do everything to see that their clients get a big cut of the money.

In taking the decision that she has, Ms Greening has had to mollify a restless domestic constituency and bend to a powerful aid industry lobby. International economics or the desire to see poor Rwandans rise from poverty are only secondary.

In restoring aid to Rwanda, Ms Greening is also playing on the old moral myth that the existence of so many poor people in a world of plenty is a scar on the collective conscience of the affluent and it is immoral not to do anything about it. 

But why did the UK agree to general budget support in the first place? It must have been convinced that it works. The Government of Rwanda must have put up a compelling case that this was the most effective way to use aid.

And so far there is no dispute about that. Everyone – even the UK media that led the loud cries for the crucifixion of Rwanda – agrees that aid has been put to effective use. Because of this, and prudent management of the economy, more than one million people have been lifted out of poverty in the space of only five years and the country is on course to meet nearly all the Millennium Development Goals. At this rate, there would be no more poor Rwandans for Ms Greening to worry about giving British taxpayers’ money.

In the last few years, the discourse on foreign aid has been more about effectiveness than the modalities of its disbursement. Rwanda has been at the forefront of this discussion both as proponent and model. Obviously, this mode of giving aid divested of its overtly political side and sidestepping the many players in the industry was too much for some and had to be subverted. Ms Greening’s plan does just that.

Even in matters of aid, there are issues of sovereignty and dignity to consider in addition to the more practical ones for which it is sought. It is the business of the state to plan and provide for its people and get them to work for themselves and not depend on hand-outs.

Of course, the means to do that may not always be available. That is why aid becomes necessary. Its purpose and principle is to support the programmes of the recipient country. It follows that programmes and priorities must be identified by the recipient country and agreed to by the donors.

That is the bottom line – whether the aid is given as general budget support or sector or project support – it must support a people-owned programme. It can never seek to replace it.

The UK aid decision recently announced is changing all that and returning us to the pre-1990 aid policies. Everyone knows they did not work very well.

First, there is no accountability for money channelled through aid agencies – certainly not to countries it is intended to benefit.

Then, most of the money is spent on administrative and transport costs on personnel from donor countries, capacity building which really means endless meetings, seminars and workshops. Very little gets to the real beneficiaries.

The NGOs that UK aid would be channelled through are structurally and ideologically not positioned to make aid effective as development support. Their relevance depends on a continued need for their existence – poverty to alleviate, service to provide, and so on. It is obvious that they cannot work themselves out of existence by being efficient.

In addition, NGOs usually set themselves up as alternatives to the state. In purely terms of self-interest, they must undermine the state, not support it. Therein lies possible conflict with the state.

There is also the question of NGOs being single issue organisations, unable to look at the wider picture of national development. The government cannot be reduced to simply an observer and coordinator of disparate organisations over which it has no control.

Aid is needed, but on terms that make it effective and benefit its recipients. It must answer their specific needs. It cannot simply be an exercise in easing the conscience of do-gooders or a face-saving device.

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