Saturday, May 28, 2011

Foreign Aid, Dependency, and Corruption

Being here in Uganda, I have lost a great deal of faith in large NGOs and foreign aid. While I am still (and always will be) learning about international development, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has helped me to see the harm which can come from international donors, and has me questioning almost every type of foreign assistance currently being provided. I apologize if this post comes across as overly negative, but this is a huge problem here and I can’t emphasize the importance of how these issues are impacting Uganda’s future.

One of the biggest problems I see is the mentality of people here in regards to how they see themselves and their communities, which I believe mostly stems from the large influx of foreign aid into Uganda. The mindset is one of powerlessness and dependency. Whenever I make a suggestion on a different way of doing things (like that the community work together to conserve their water supplies for the dry season, or even simple requests like starting a meeting on time) people say things like, “We Africans can’t do that. Black people don’t behave that way. Our problem is…” For instance, many of the most successful and lucrative small businesses, such as supermarkets, are owned by Indians, which many Ugandans chalk up to Indians being “business people” and alluding to the idea that Africans lack some natural ability to run good businesses. I don’t know if this mindset is a product of lack of education, foreign aid providing everything, having the perception that all white people are rich and all black people are poor, being told they are “poor uneducated Africans” making them believe themselves to be at the lowest rung of society’s ladder, or a combination of a variety of factors, but this mentality is very troubling. In fact, I would hazard to guess that this is a major reason the much of Africa continues to lag behind most other parts of the world in terms of development (the word “development” has a different definition for everyone, and there are countless books that try to define exactly what “development” is, but here I use it to refer to indicators of human rights and quality of life, such as life expectancy, access to health care and prevalence of communicable diseases, literacy and education rates, access to clean water, etc.). Rather than trying to solve problems themselves, Africans have been told they are poor, they are uneducated, they need the help of Westerners to make their lives better, etc. so many don’t even try to improve their lives without outside help. Many even describe an epidemic of laziness stemming from being given so much from outside. Why would anyone work to improve their lives when they can just get a handout? As several people have pointed out, Uganda (and many other African countries) has plenty of natural resources, land for cultivating, enough rainfall, good soil, mineral wealth, etc. but yet people go hungry and live in poverty. One Indian man who has been living here for 5 years boiled it all down to laziness.

When a Western donor comes to visit to check things out, the local branches of the organization he/she is funding of course rave about their work and make it sound like they’re doing amazing things, sometimes even lying about activities – and it makes sense when you realize that the very well-paid jobs held by staff members of these organizations would be jeopardized if the donors realized how ineffective many of their donations have truly been. Yes, we always talk about ourselves and our work in the best way possible (I’m also guilty there), but it is commonplace for NGOs to blatantly lie about programs they have been conducting so that the aid money keeps coming. A lot of money seems to be spent on paying a driver to lug around “field officers” in a shining white SUV, spending an exorbitant amount of money on a vehicle and fuel that could be instead shunted to community projects. For example, my organization drives for hours every day to conduct field work because the staff members live in a major urban center more than 1 hour away from the catchment area of their projects.

I also feel that foreign aid contributes to corruption, even down to the level of the individual within society, due to the huge influx of money that everyone wants to get their hands on. Community members sometimes don’t attend educational events hosted by my organization, such as workshops about HIV or malaria, if they know they won’t receive something tangible (a soda, lunch, or just plain money) in return, and villagers know how to beef up a budget proposal for their community-based organization (CBO) to get more money than they actually need for their operations – some of which ends up spent on new clothes, alcohol, school fees, soda or street food, etc. While things like school fees and clothing are needed by the local people, it doesn’t mean that lying about the allocation of funds, and thus using corrupt practices, is acceptable. Several Peace Corps Volunteers who are working for NGOs have complained that budget proposals sent to international donors are blatant lies or include figures which the organization has purposely padded and made no attempt to make cost-effective. For example, we asked some community members to draft a proposal for funding a fruit demonstration garden. Their original proposal suggested far more plants than could fit on the land where they want to grow them, budgeted about $350 to transport seedlings from Mbarara when we already have most of the seedlings in our nursery bed here, and asked for a very large salary when these workers are volunteers and are working for their own benefit and the improvement of their own community. Their original proposal called for $4,677, while my supervisor figured we could meet all our objects for about $1,200 (which is probably still more than is necessary).

A lot of community projects fail because when a project is started to generate income for the community/NGO, someone ends up pocketing at least some portion of it. Maybe it’s impossible for me to understand the type of desperation that comes from poverty due to lack of personal experience, but the level of dishonesty when it comes to money in almost every situation in Uganda astounds me. We’re currently trying to come up with some income-generating activities that the community can do to continue The Hunger Project’s programs after we pull out (each Epicenter is only supposed to receive 5 years of external support before being self-sufficient) but I’m realizing that there is absolutely no way to prevent the committee leaders for our programs from pocketing any income for themselves – and based on what has happened at other Epicenters, this is exactly what has happened. I simply don’t know how to function in a system with such an overwhelming level of corruption from top to bottom. Yes, there’s corruption in the U.S., but not nearly to this extent.

African society is considered more community-oriented than in the U.S., yet a lot of the things I see happen are very individualistic. For example, we have tried to start a vegetable demonstration garden at our Epicenter before but people have always stolen the vegetables. Taxi drivers and shop owners are always trying to rip people off, and not just the muzungu who they assume is rich – fellow Ugandans, too – and they can do it because there are few price tags here, you just ask how much something costs and have to know whether it’s a fair price or not. Theft is very common here, and one house in my village was violently broken into during the night when the thieves knew the homeowner had sold cattle that day and had 1.5 million shillings (about $650) in his house. He and his wife were beaten badly and took a long time to recover. I can’t even leave things like my buckets or towels outside overnight because someone is likely to take them. There are certainly aspects of society that demonstrate how much Ugandans care about the greater community – people greet everyone, my neighbors get worried if I don’t come out of my house all day, and I recently attended a funeral where well over 500 people were in attendance because everyone attends, not just the people who knew the deceased. However, a lot of what I see is counterintuitive to what I would expect to see in a community-oriented society.

Another thing I don’t really understand (and that is not completely related but I want to discuss it) is poor job performance. When it comes to government “public servant” jobs, there is no accountability because everyone is on a permanent pension and virtually nobody gets fired. Another Peace Corps Volunteer works at the District Health Office, and a co-worker of his remarked that in 16 years of working for the Ministry of Health, they’ve never known a single person to get fired. Thus, poor job performance is rampant, not only among health care workers, but in every position in Ugandan society. Nurses show up to work hours late and leave hours early, forcing patients to wait a long time for health care, sometimes until the following day. Secretaries fail to deliver important messages. Groundskeepers simply don’t show up for work, yet are still somehow paid. I continue to be amazed at the quality of “customer service” here – almost all shopkeepers, hotel staff, waiters, etc. give off the attitude that you, the customer, are bothering them and they wished you would just go away so they can get back to their nap. Such job performance would never be tolerated in the U.S., so I simply can’t wrap my head around why in Uganda, where the unemployment rate is astronomically higher, employers continue to put up with this when so many other people would be available to fill the position. A big part of the equation is low salaries, but with the level of poverty here, even a low salary is something worth working for.

Despite all this, I still believe that people have a moral obligation to help other human beings who are suffering or in need. So how do we help developing countries without squandering money in ways that are ineffective and actually create problems of their own, like dependence on outside resources? One way is investment. If foreign investors spent their money on rewarding good Ugandan businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship, rather than just donating things and money, we would get past a huge host of the current problems, including fostering creative approaches to ending one’s one poverty rather than waiting for an outside handout, and creating a sustainable way to boost the local economy. However, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m struggling with what kinds of solutions I can bring to the table as just one person (along with other PCVs and my community).

Like I mentioned earlier, I am still learning and am trying to get my hands on books such as Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo. Friends have raved about this book and I’m hoping to read it soon, as well as similar books, to help flesh out my new perspective on foreign aid.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing, Britt. It helps me understand more fully what Ryan is dealing with. I feel your frustration through your writing.

Chrisann Luckie

Anonymous said...

Britt I am working in malawi right now and I can agree with 90 percent of your post. The violence/theft is a bit less here in malawi but otherwise everything you are describing is spot on. I'm reading "dead aid" right now and it is a very good book. Glad to see I'm not the only one who sees all this stuff!


Anonymous said...

As a former volunteer I understand your frustration. But actually, I think you don't know what your're talking about.