Thursday, 17 April 2014

Charity, aid and blackmail

Well, Mrs Banda, the President of Malawi, certainly didn't pull her punches! The Guardian described her criticism of Madonna's alleged demands for special treatment during a recent visit to the country as 'excoriating'. Here is an extract from Mrs Banda's 11-point press release :

Granted, Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi. According to the record, this gesture was humanitarian and of her accord. It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can't be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.
Now Madonna's apparent demands for state recognition, including, as Mrs Banda scoffs, a 'red carpet', '21-gun' salute' and 'VVIP treatment' may seem quite trivial. However, it is not the specific demands in themselves which are significant, but the perception of them as 'blackmail' in intent and effect. The word 'chained' resonates through this paragraph, recalling Malawi's nineteenth century role as the marshalling point and transport hub for slave-trading activities across East Africa. So too does the word 'obligation', with its associations with grim 'duty': behaviour based on what others expect rather than what one chooses to do oneself. Behind the President's irritation is resentment at the sometimes arrogant assumptions and behaviour of colonial powers: Britain in the past, the USA today.

The issue of influencing or, indeed, controlling the actions of a sovereign country through the use of financial inducements or benefits of one kind or another is a common theme in current discussions of the role of international aid. The example of Madonna is simply a miniature personalised version of the same situation. Traditional powers such as Britain are accused of using government aid as leverage in forcing their erstwhile colonies, particularly African countries, to introduce or implement policies with which they disagree or which they may even find repugnant. An obvious example is the west's suspension of some financial aid following the legalisation of institutionalised homophobia in Uganda. So much so straightforward, from the developed world's point of view, that is. 

Accusations that financial support is used to manipulate national policies at both strategic and operational level are sometimes aimed at the alleged role of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in forcing developing countries to adopt financial measures which have a detrimental impact on the very people they are intended to support. On one level, financial pressure may relate to national trade agreements and debt repayment and their impact on national development priorities. It is worth reading Wangari Maathai on these issues. However, such pressure may also influence policies at a much more mundane level.

One example is the understandable expectation by international donors that developing countries control the salaries of public employees. The problem then is, however, that ill-paid civil servants are open to corruption or, at least, to the temptation to make ends meet through excessive claims for sitting allowances. These allowances divert resources not just from public funds but also from charities and non-governmental organisations. Civil servants may often earn more from flat-rate attendance and travel and subsistence claims than from their official pay. And it is worth remembering that the term 'ill-paid' means 'unbelievably ill-paid' in some cases, salaries often not covering even the most basic of family expenses, let alone the cost of one children's education.

In Malawi, donors are trying to control this diversion of resources by capping the amount attendees at their workshops can claim and insisting that compensation is provided in kind rather than cash. That means that they provide participants with accommodation and meals rather than money, an unpopular move. The other approach is to expect receipts, though these can easily be manipulated, as the MPs' expenses scandal in our own country has shown. Controlling allowances may seem a minor issue from a western perspective, but is essential in ensuring development funds are used for the purposes they were intended. The payment of sitting allowances is a significant issue in Malawi, as it was in Uganda. Action to control and minimise such payments is undoubtedly an attempt to control the behaviour and priorities of public servants.

On a different level altogether, even when ex-colonial countries are invited to work with national governments, their activities may be misinterpreted. Recently, the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) paid for a forensic audit into Malawi's 'Cashgate' scandal to be carried out by the British firm Baker Tilley. The Cashgate scandal involved the embezzlement by civil servants of around $100m (£60m) of public money, leading to donor countries, including the UK, which subscribe to the Common Approach to Budget Support, suspending $150m of their aid to Malawi. This suspension, which has lasted since last September and is unlikely to be lifted soon or at least until after next month's election, has had a drastic impact on public services. This is because around 40% of Malawi's national budget is funded through international aid. The government is supposed to have prioritised social welfare spending, but in a poor country like Malawi, that is quite difficult. As for individual government departments, well, the Weekend Nation of 22nd March led with the front page headline CIVIL SERVICE ON ITS KNEES. The article reported that departments had no stationery or fuel.

The decision to suspend aid hasn't meant that donors have pulled out completely from funding development work in Malawi. However, it does mean that donor nations now do this through support for individual projects run by NGOs and other agencies, rather than through direct budget support. The impact is felt acutely within the core services of education and health. Getting to the bottom of the corruption lying at the heart of the civil service is therefore of the highest priority. The British High Commissioner, Michael Nevin, concluded a recent interview published in the Malawi News (March 8-14 2014) as follows, 'With further political will and external assistance 'Cashgate' can still represent a landmark opportunity to turn the tide of fraud and corruption and be an example to others.'

Baker Tilley's report was published while I was in Malawi. It contained 62 recommendations for improvements in financial management but not the names of those responsible for the theft. The decision to withhold publication of these names was made by the British High Commissioner, to avoid prejudicing any subsequent trial. Nevertheless, accusations have been made that the British are trying to meddle in Malawian politics or to protect particular individuals. 

One particular complaint that caught my attention was published in Zebedee's column in the same edition of the Malawi News as the interview with the British High Commissioner. It asserted that 'Britain now overrides our Parliament and Public Accounts Committee' in being the first to receive the report and 'dictating' that the names were removed. The article concludes, 'Britain has hijacked our sovereignty.'

I suppose it is more or less inevitable that the once colonised should suspect the motives of their old colonisers. Yet how fair is it to assume that these motives are always ulterior?

Perhaps one way of considering the question is to look at the kind of projects which Britain is supporting in Malawi and to which your taxes are contributing. The key aim of UKaid is quite explicit: to end extreme poverty. All the projects listed below make some contribution to that overall aim. (The information is taken from the regular Development Tracker emails circulated by DfID.)

And Britain is not alone in supporting projects such as these. Every day Malawi's English language newspapers are full of advertisements for posts in donor-funded projects, NGOs and charities. A lot of people from a lot of countries are working to help Malawi feed, heal and educate its people.

I started this post with a reference to Mrs Banda's words that 'kindness is... free and anonymous'. There is no secrecy about Britain's support for the projects described above, but neither is the information shouted from the rooftops. Britain is one of the few countries which contributes the full amount of international aid which it once promised. Yes, it is quite likely that this aid provides Britain with leverage, influence and a degree of power. Nevertheless, running one's eye down the list of projects, it is difficult to argue with their potential importance and impact. I for one am quite proud that this is where my taxes are going. 

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Should the west stop giving aid to Uganda?

How the world is helping Uganda

Quiet diplomacy

Also the newspaper article with which this post started:

Madonna earns the wrath of Joyce Banda (The Guardian, 14 April 2014)

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