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Finding new ways to give aid

By James Cumes - posted Thursday, 15 September 2005

My involvement in aid of a variety of kinds goes back to the years immediately after World War II, with UNRRA and post-UNRRA Relief, the Point Four Programs, the Colombo Plan, Marshall Aid, UNCTAD, World Food Program, UNIDO and so on and on - and on.

We can divide aid into two broad categories:

  1. Emergency aid - essential to prevent threats to life right now; and
  2. longer-term aid, intended to enable the recipients to build up their capacity to produce for themselves - and deal with emergencies as they arise.

Though not given as swiftly and generously as it often should be, emergency aid is a must if we are to embrace reasonably humanitarian principles and practices. We should not let our fellow human beings - especially vulnerable women and children - starve, die from treatable illnesses, or suffer painful and humiliating conditions of living if we can prevent it.

However, longer-term aid is equally essential if we are to prevent chronic suffering and or the recurrence of a more or less regular cycle of emergency need. Unless we can dramatically lift the productive capacity of some areas, they will always contrast with the relative prosperity, wealth and security of societies such as those in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In some ways poverty and inequality diverge: but both, at least in their more extreme and humiliating forms, are to be avoided if we are to be able to look towards reasonably stable international political, economic and strategic security.

In this context, it is vital that we be more fully aware of the almost miraculous progress in productive capacity and living levels that have occurred in the "Asian Tiger" economies since the 1970s. Progress of a similar kind - a progress which is even more startling because of the size of the communities involved - is now being made by China and India.

The contrast between these "Tiger" economies and the African economies over the same period, and in what have appeared to be the same world trading conditions, is so striking that we must search vigorously for the causes. If we can accurately identify those causes we might be close to finding the formula for launching the African and other "least developed" economies on the same growth path.

My experience of Africa consists mainly of service as Australian High Commissioner in Nigeria, a post which also took in Sierra Leone and those countries from Benin in the northwest to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the southeast. I made extensive tours in Africa, the longest covering, not only West African countries, but also Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Mauritius.

Over the years (and it is around 40 years since independence for most African countries) substantial emergency and long-term aid has gone to Africa, delivered under both bilateral and multilateral programs. Emergency aid has tended to be as repetitive in scale and scope as the emergencies. Ethiopia needed emergency aid 20 years ago and needs emergency aid today. Niger, in or on the edge of the Sahara, has always been a candidate for widespread misery and starvation. Its plight today can be no real surprise and that plight will be repeated unless we find a way of removing its fundamental causes in the aid that we provide.


In all of these cases, we must ask: what should we do to make the country or region self-sustaining over the long haul and self-sustaining at a level of living that, in the 21st century, we have come to regard as acceptable or at least tolerable?

Long-term aid, bilateral or multilateral, has had little effect in most of the less developed countries. Agriculture has stagnated or declined, secondary industry has shown little development, no matter how large and persistent the capital and technical assistance. Exploitation of often huge and valuable natural resources - oil, diamonds and the rest - has brought little benefit to the general population, nor has it brought sustained, diversified growth to the economy. Broadly, those resources have been squandered to the advantage of foreigners, speculators and a diversified group of political opportunists and warlords.

Overall, most African countries have probably received less long-term, fixed-capital aid than many countries elsewhere; but there is little convincing evidence that more aid of this kind would have had much more beneficial effect anyway. For example, an international organisation like UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) seems to have had a negligible impact in developing manufacturing in the African countries, despite its efforts over some 40 years. The same may be said of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, although these two institutions have helped to establish some infrastructure - not always in ways most helpful to the recipient country.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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