Monday, December 28, 1998

Menace of foreign aid

Effective relief needed for poverty-stricken countries


What makes Eritrea - that coastal country on the Red Sea next to Ethiopia -- the most unusual in Africa, if not the world, is that it doesn't like foreign aid.

Unusual, too, in that while it's the world's newest independent state (1993) and one of Africa's poorest countries, it's also the safest, least corrupt, most self-reliant. This, despite being engaged in a border dispute with Ethiopia, whom it defeated in war and won independence from a decade ago.

Compare Eritrea to, say, South Africa, arguably the most dangerous country in Africa: As far as crime and internal violence are concerned, Eritrea is tranquility. It has nothing, yet it has everything; its citizens like one another.
Women make up 30% of the Eritrean army -- in the front line with men, even commanding platoons. Inset, a woman soldier has a "V" for victory tattooed on her arm. Photos by Peter Worthington, SUN

Due to its wartime experiences when it was abandoned by most of the outside world, Eritrea has developed a spirit of confidence and self-reliance that some interpret as neo-arrogance and friendly paranoia. They listen to advice, but decide for themselves.

Through Isaias Afewerki, its wartime leader and now president, Eritrea has taken a lead in Africa with regards to foreign aid and women's rights which other countries, and not only African ones, could benefit by studying.

Eritrea believes foreign aid breeds both corruption and dependency. Although poor (in 1993 the World Bank figured the annual average Eritrean income was less than $150), Eritrea accepts foreign aid only under certain circumstances.

It sees how foreign aid in some countries has been used to keep dictatorial, repressive regimes in power; how it thwarts social and political change. The power structure of foreign aid programs often sets the agenda for recipient countries. When people (and states) become dependent on aid, they stop helping themselves.

To offset what it sees as dangerous and seductive programs, Eritrea insists that foreign aid be administered by Eritreans and not by foreigners. It does not want independent operators deciding how things should be done, but wants Eritreans responsible. The providers of funds are expected to work through Eritreans.


This is fine, providing there are competent, honest Eritreans doing the planning and administering. Back in the '70s, Western aid givers considered it patronizing and demeaning to dictate how aid should be spent. What the world got as a result was Tanzania, the prototype for abundant, wasteful, misused and useless aid programs. Today Tanzania is a basket case of lethargy and poverty, despite being the largest recipient of aid.

Kenya too, is corruption personified with pot-holed streets beneath skyscrapers and millions of foreign-aid dollars.

There's a message here for Canada, whose philosophy on foreign aid, as reflected by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) is to scatter $2.5 billion among 143 countries (50 in Africa) and regions world-wide. Some get more than others (Eritrea gets a puny $3 million, Ethiopia around $27 million).

The Netherlands, on the other hand, targets some $3 billion US in aid to poor countries it feels will benefit most -- 78 countries down from 119 last year -- 18 of which are in Africa.

Canada should also focus programs more. Why Canadian aid goes to impossible regimes like Angola, Zimbabwe, Congo, Sudan, Cuba, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) and China, to mention a few, defies logic. Why not concentrate it on countries where there's movement towards human values we respect?

Why not divert the $19 million we waste in Afghanistan, and the $26 million to Indonesia, Burkina Faso's $16 million, Zimbabwe's $12 million, all of which achieve nothing, and concentrate on helping countries that will use it wisely? Eritrea, the hope of Africa, the Caribbean, certain Asian countries? But no, that's not the Canadian way.

When Eritrea accepted European Union aid to (re)build the 130-km highway from Asmara to the vital coastal port of Massawa, to the astonishment of the providers only 70% of the allotted budget was needed. The remaining 30% was put to other uses -- repairing other roads and building houses.

Europeans had factored in bribes, waste and kickbacks in their funding, not realizing that (as yet) there is no corruption in high places and Eritrean decision-makers don't siphon off funds to Swiss bank accounts.

By law, NGOs (non-government organizations) and other development agencies wishing to help Eritrea -- and boy, the country is needy -- must file financial reports proving that only 10% of the money spent in Eritrea goes for administration costs.

Eritrea is determined to avoid the lavish lifestyles traditional for some aid agencies -- no fancy cars, no big houses, no exorbitant salaries for locals.

Too often, when aid agencies pay salaries to local administrators that are higher than the local rate, it means that the best and brightest prefer to work for aid agencies rather than for the government and the country.

In Eritrea, aid agencies must only pay the local rate, and if the agency isn't big enough to function on 10% of its budget, it can look for clients elsewhere. Small aid agencies are encouraged to rely on local representatives, and to periodically visit to ensure that funding is being efficiently used. Money is saved all around.


Even though it's been an independent state only since 1993 and is dirt poor with enormous needs, Eritrea has already quietly asked certain agencies and individuals to leave.

Also, Eritrea bans religious aid groups from funding projects in the name of their religion. There is such a delicate balance of ethnic and religious groups, that it won't risk religious aid tilting the balance. All aid and involvement has to be secular -- no foreign religious group can finance projects for their believers -- only secular projects that are non-denominational or non-ethnic.

In its 30-year struggle against Ethiopian imperialism, various Eritrean "liberation" movements got little outside help. (Ethiopia illegally annexed Eritrea in 1961 after the UN made Eritrea a protectorate of Ethiopia, rather as South Africa was given responsibility for South West Africa, now Namibia.)

The victorious EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) eventually replaced the rival ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and its weaponry was all captured from the Ethiopians. During the famine of the '80s it got little humanitarian food aid, other than some from church groups, Oxfam and Scandinavia.

The EPLF started out as a Marxist-style organization and evolved into a social-democratic self-reliance. It set up its own relief agency which was remarkably resourceful and effective.