19 May 2007 04:13


  • Title: [SW Column] (BBC) Is aid really helping?
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  • Date :[] 5 January, 2000, 16:28 GMT

Is aid really helping?
Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 16:28 GMT

The last decade has seen huge humanitarian operations in Africa - but now many aid workers say their strategies will have to change if they are to see longer-term benefits, reports East Africa correspondent Cathy Jenkins.

In 1998 the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) flew in thousands of tonnes of food to stave off famine in the war-torn province of Bahr El Ghazal in southern Sudan. Thousands of people starved before help reached them, but the emergency operation undoubtedly saved many more who might have died.

Reacting to emergencies like this one eats up much of the WFP's budget. Lindsey Davis, a WFP spokeswoman in Nairobi, points out the dilemma for aid agencies which would like to do more than just provide short-term help.

"A bag of grain which is used as relief food to keep someone alive is a bag of grain which is not being used for schooling, for helping build roads and irrigation, and we know that those are the kind of projects that will have a long-term impact," she says. "Year after year, if you're putting in emergency food aid it's really to prop up society and keep them above the line of misery and death."

A life in exile

When Somalia collapsed in civil war in 1991, thousands of Somalis fled to Kenya. Nearly a decade later they are still living in camps and, apart from the market trade, they are still reliant on the aid agencies for their most basic needs - water, food and health care. Collins Asare of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), which runs the camp, regrets that there is not more money to spend on development. "Because of some difficulties we had during the last two years, adult education - which would have been a very pivotal activity, especially for refugee women who didn't have a chance to go to school in their own country - was temporarily interrupted. "We could have done more in terms of activity for self-sufficiency - more backyard gardening, more trading among the refugees. "It's those kinds of activities which you might call developmental which suffer when we have financial difficulties." While everyone recognises that emergency aid has saved lives in Africa, it is also accepted that development aid has not brought the sort of quantum leap forward that the donors would have hoped for.

Corruption under scrutiny

Now donor countries are becoming much demanding about how their money is spent. In this region of Africa, that means governments will be more carefully scrutinised for any underhand syphoning off of aid. Frederick Lyons, head of the United Nations Development Programme in Nairobi, says the nature of aid will have to change - especially in those countries which face problems in the way they are governed. He mentions the transparency and accountability of government, and the workings of the judiciary, as particular problem areas in some countries. "There's a recognition that unless these fundamental problems are solved, money spent on long-term aid programmes is likely to be misspent - it is very likely to fail in its key objectives," he says.


There is also a recognition that the aid world itself, which in Nairobi alone employs thousands of people and creates its own burden of bureacracy, may have to change. Nairobi is a centre for aid organisations from around the world, from the UN departments to tiny non-government bodies. They are not only competing against each other - they all have to fight donor fatigue to get funds. But will these factors force the aid world to become more streamlined?  Mr Lyons says that with the advent of the internet age, the quicker exchange of information might mean fewer people working on the ground. "Increasingly, aid will not be about equipment," he says. " It may actually be about sharing ideas."

From aid to trade

Jim Cheatle, a British aid worker who has lived in Kenya for many years, decided that the idea to get across to Kenyan farmers was to start thinking big. Mr Cheatle used donor funds given to his organisatino to help a group of farmers set up a company, called Farmers' Own. The farmers use local produce such as soya beans and nuts to make confectionary bars and snacks. Mr Cheatle believes that people receiving aid must be encouraged to use it to develop a business and make it work. "The whole aid thing has to be related to market-related forces so that people are selling something, making a profit which they can invest in health and education," he says.

If it succeeds, the company will be an example of how development aid has helped one small group of farmers in one country, to help themselves. But in the wider world, where natural and man-made disasters can turn the best-made plans upside down, the debate over how to pay for emergency and development will continue.

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