More examples of how donor dependence compromises African sovereignty

Oct 20, 2011

By most accounts, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is a nasty fellow. This alone wouldn't be enough to earn him being distanced by most of Africa's rulers, few of whom can be considered cute and cuddly fellows. But that al-Bashir is welcome in the company of African leaders is still odd because of the particular nature of his alleged badness. Arab al-Bashir is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sudan's ethnically African Darfur region. One would have thought this would be one reason to make African leaders at least avoid al-Bashir like the plague, but that hasn't been the case. What gives?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for his arrest, under which all countries that are signatories to the court are obliged to arrest and hand him over. Yet al-Bashir has attended meetings in several such countries with not a finger laid on him.

The ICC has little and diminishing credibility in Africa, since it became obvious that it has a particular predilection for hounding nasty African leaders with blood on their hands, but has no similar resolve to try the leaders of leaders from elsewhere whose 'crimes against humanity' can easily equal or surpass anything that amateurs like al-Bashir can come up with.

For example, there would seem to be plenty of 'crimes against humanity' that could be laid at the doors of the major foreign and local actors in the bloody actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where those crimes are played on TV like video games. Tens of thousands of civilians killed by all sides, using advanced weaponry, and not a squeak heard from the ICC.

So general African distrust for the ICC for its perceived partiality is one reason African leaders like to thumb their nose at it. Another, of course, is that they are just covering for each other. It could be al-Bashir today, and almost any one else of them tomorrow.

Bashir’s latest controversial trip has been to Malawi to attend a summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa(COMESA.) The usual call for his arrest were heard, and of course ignored.

Part of the aftermath was a US senator asking for his country's aid to Malawi to be frozen. Malawi is on the brink of receiving $350 million under a US program called the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Among the 'qualifications' for this is 'good governance,' naturally as defined by the donor. A few months ago there were similar threats about withdrawing MCC aid when the Malawian government responded to street protests in a heavy-handed way which saw about twenty people killed.

In the latest case, Congressman Wolf wrote to president Obama, "It is unconscionable that American tax dollars are going to a country that openly allows someone like Bashir to visit.”

The US government deals with all sorts of nasty foreign characters, and has plenty of its own in the many adventures it has been involved in, so it is difficult to know what to make of Wolf’s letter. That is in any case beside the point here.

Malawi's budget has been 40% funded by 'donors.' Earlier this year a diplomatic spat with Britain so that country withdraw much of its aid. One of the most affected schemes is Malawi's much-lauded farm inputs subsidy scheme, which has led to bumper maize harvests several years in a row. The number of beneficiaries is being cut back this just-about-to start cropping season.

Withdrawal of the US aid would obviously be a big hit for a Malawi still reeling from the British aid withdrawal. al-Bashir is questionable character, and arguably a morally weak basis for Malawi to be asserting its 'sovereignty' with regards to arresting him for the ICC. But another question is whether Malawi's 40% dependence on foreign aid is not in itself a grave danger to its sovereignty and general independence of action.

A donor has as much right to stop his aid as his choice to offer it. But in Malawi's case, in just a few months there have been high profile cases of donors showing clearly that aid is an instrument of trying to exert control over the policies and actions of the recipient countries. It might not be used blatantly all the time, but when necessary it is unsheathed and used as a club to beat the recipient into submission.

In the two Malawian cases cited here, the killing of protestors and the hosting of al-Bashir, both provide ostensibly justifiable reasons for a donor considering withholding its aid. But what about if it is over an issue such as homosexuality? In western societies it is increasingly a civil rights issue, in most African countries it is deep social and cultural taboo.

Britain has just announced that its aid will be conditional on a recipient country’s stance on gay rights. Should countries like Malawi give in to foreign mores to get assistance, or stick to their socio-cultural guns and forgo the aid? This is a difficult choice because of how African nations have convinced themselves they cannot do without foreign aid. Donor countries that understand the enormous leveraging power that aid gives them also do not want to stop giving it.

Zimbabwe and Britain have had frosty official relations for years now. But every British ambassador is very careful to mention the dollar figure of the aid being expended on various projects. Where foreign aid is filling humanitarian needs not being met by the government, the $130 million aid on health projects mentioned by new ambassador Deborah Bronnert is welcome and to be thanked for.

But the way it is constantly mentioned at the slightest opportunity as proof of Britain’s good faith to Zimbabwe (though not necessarily to its Mugabe-led government) would make any recipient of ‘help’ uncomfortable.

If a neighbour came to assist your family in a time of need, you would be pleased and grateful. But you would certainly begin to feel differently if that helper announced that ‘aid’ they gave you to the whole neighbourhood at any available opportunity. Even as you remain grateful for the help, you at the same time also inevitably develop resentment at being used so blatantly as an affirmation of the donors ‘goodness.’

In the latest case where Bronnert mentions how much Britain is investing in various aid projects, it was at a meeting she had with vice president John Nkomo. She expressed British ‘interest’ in policy matters that are clearly beyond the purview of the official of a foreign country, and Nkomo is more or less reported to have said as much to her.

Her bringing in the ‘we have spent $130 million on health projects’ almost gave the impression she was giving that as the justification for her being able to poke her country’s nose into her host country’s affairs. That could very well be, since diplomatic leverage is as much a reason for the whole aid industry as is humanitarianism.

Can aid be sometimes so costly that it is better for a country to bite the bullet and forgo it? This is a question many African countries should be asking themselves.

The Zim Review


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