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October 02, 2012

When do the 'democracy' credentials of an aid-recipient government matter, and when do they not?

That much of Africa has allowed itself to get pitifully hooked on foreign aid is no secret. In recent years there has been heated discussion about this, but the aid industry is not at all threatened. Too many interested parties are involved in it on both the donor and recipient sides for that to happen.

The aspects of this mutual dependence most often discussed are how much (or how little) the aid achieves, how sustainable the ‘projects’ it funds are, whether the donors are as dependent on the relationship as the recipients and so on.

In recent years there has also been talk about linking aid to ‘human rights, democracy and good governance,’ but there is no reason to think there is any shred of seriousness about this rhetoric, if even a cursory look at some of the worlds biggest donor/recipient relationships is any indication.

Of course there are varying levels of humanitarianism in donor/recipient relationships, but there are so many other factors that feed them from both sides.

One big issue that it is taboo to talk about is that many of the people who work in the ‘non-governmental’ sector that is almost totally donor-dependent might actually be ‘donating’ much more to their countries if they were in the productive sector-farming, setting up businesses, etc. But shhh, it is politically incorrect to think this.

Recently deceased Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi was rather effective at raising donor money in the western world. However, it was notable in the generally favourable eulogies in the ‘international media’ (people who use this term almost always actually mean the western media) that there were almost none who pretended that he was a great respecter of ‘human rights, democracy and good governance.’

Zenawi’s government’s forced mass villagisation campaign has received a lot of negative coverage, but at no time did that seem to threaten to stop the foreign aid taps from gushing their largesse.

One victim of the villagisation program has tried to get recourse in an innovative way-by suing the British government’s main aid-dispensing arm. The un-named farmer has reportedly engaged British lawyers to sue the UK Department for International Development for providing part of the funding for the program in Ethiopia.

Of course the DFID denies it specifically funds any such program, which may not be the farmer’s precise point anyway. That the Ethiopian government has in place such a controversial, much criticised scheme, or that the DFID gives it generous amounts of aid are not denied.

Question: putting aside the specifics of this case, in the whole aid-and-‘human rights, democracy and good governance’ discourse, which governments are ‘good’ enough to pat on the head with aid, and which ones are so ‘bad’ that they must be slapped on the wrist by being denied it? When is a despot an alright guy, and when is a despot a very bad boy?

Looking around at the world today, there seems no clear, consistent answer to the question! Perhaps the closest answer to the riddle is ‘when the despot is our friend he is okay, when he’s not, he’s not.’

Oh well, so much for the link between aid and respect for ‘human rights, democracy and good governance.’

African Agriculture

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