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Opinions of Saturday, 26 July 2008

Columnist: Bright B. Simons & Franklin Cudjoe

Aid-Bashing to Go High-Fashion in Accra

Six weeks from now, a conference is supposed to take place in the West African country of Ghana that its organizers and participants claim will transform the aid process for the better.

But mark our words: nothing remotely like that will happen.

Don't be fooled by the slogans and slick marketing, the Aid industry has no intention of changing its game, and its worst critics are in actual fact its best friends.

The aforesaid conference will take place between September 1 and 3 of this year in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, under the moniker: High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. (No, we didn't make it up: whoever dreamt up the title actually missed the irony of having "Aid' and "Effectiveness" in the same phrase). According to the organizers (see: http://www.accrahlf.net), top Government officials from 100 countries will convene in Accra, no doubt under lavish circumstances, to help "developing countries and marginalized people" sustain the effort to make "aid more transparent, accountable and results-oriented".

Now, don't laugh.

The temptation to bash jet-setting global big shots for their skill at mixing the champagne lifestyle with political self-flagellation is a strong one, but the underlying sentiment is overused, and we had rather not bore you. A much more interesting aspect of this saga, and the one that excited our earlier comment about Aid's most hysterical critics being its best friends, is the subject of this our little piece.

Alongside the Big Kahunas' conference, another one is anticipated to occur, supposedly on behalf of those poor, miserable…"marginalized people" being destroyed because aid is presently not "transparent, accountable and results-oriented". This so-called Civil Society Forum (www.betteraid.org) is supposed to be everything the wine soirees of the rich and mighty are not. After all, it is designed to demonstrate the power and virtue of the inclusiveness and participatory decision-making denied the voiceless majority who presumably suffer from unreformed aid practices. Its organizers inform the world that the parallel process they are mounting alongside the above-mentioned High Level Forum will contribute to what is presumably a broad-based 'fight" to transform aid into a phenomenon that benefits the majority poor not the privileged few.

And yet how clubby this "Civil Society Forum", and the so-called 'International Steering Group", actually are! How inward-looking, unrepresentative, untransparent and fully unresponsive! Take a look at the list of the accredited participants of this democratic conclave: http://www.betteraid.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=169&Itemid=6

If you have even the most cursory experience of the global policy advocacy scene, you will realize that far from these so called 'representatives" of global civil society (which is what they must hold themselves to be, given the pretensions of their mission) being representative of the spectrum of civil opinion about the aid process, they overwhelmingly belong to a school of thought that take for granted the premise that Aid as a means of engendering development is unproblematic. The difficulties are in implementation, they will say. This view, however, is by no means widely accepted by those most skilled in the art of analyzing the processes and effects of aid.

Let us be clear: we are not questioning the credentials and competences of the participants identified above. We are not even questioning their intentions. Our contention is that their claim to represent "global civil society", and especially the "international aid discourse community", is unjustified by any half-sound recourse to the facts.

Predominantly left-leaning, the group claiming to represent the voice of an outraged informed world opinion about the specific practices of the Aid Industry belongs to a category of commentators whose views, though seen by certain sections of the Media as radical, are reactionary in effect by providing legitimacy to the aid paradigm. They justify expansions of the international aid bureaucracies in the name of better "monitoring and evaluation".

The views of many of its members have spawned a new industry in "oversight & governance" that is in many respects more pernicious than the original aid industry ever was. Whereas once accountability was reflected and measured in "situation before and after", which in its true sense require little more for appreciation than the commonsense of the average citizen, it is now enshrouded in a whole host of bureaucratic "best practice" routines. Routines elaborately crafted in the endless series of aid-financed conclaves beloved by these so-called "Aid Activists".

As you may have guessed, the outcome of these changes in emphases is that our "representative" friends from civil society can now claim to possess the only genuine expertise in assessing the "effectiveness" of aid. This must be the reason why they are so unwilling to recognize that within the aid commentary crowd there are those who do not believe that "reforming" aid means tacking on fancy ribbons that in effect elongate the gravy train rather than shorten or dismember it. This must be the reason why they go through the motions of having an "accreditation" process for participation in the forum under the banner of "selectivity" though the actual intention is "conformity" with what is in their view the dominant paradigm (otherwise, why make it so unresponsive and chaotic?).

So, as we said in the beginning, don't expect the upcoming "parallel Civil Society Forum" in Accra to achieve anything that will alter the historical course of aid wastefulness (both in terms of the actual aid vanishing down holes in the ground and its decimation of local production as, for instance, has happened to Congolese agriculture).

The damaging effects of increased aid, even the type that ticks all the checkboxes on the "best practice evaluation form" on the culture of enterprise and innovation, as has been oft-lamented by African entrepreneurs like Herman Chinery-Hesse, will scant receive attention. Herman's concerns that even the most conscientious technocrats, like a number he is acquainted with in his native Ghana, become impediments to innovation and enterprise in an aid-dominated political culture, which is the case across Africa, are unlikely to be heard.

Expect every call to be about the need to increase aid and to improve "participation". Participation will, as we have argued above, mean the same thing as "increase aid". But actually, to be fair, the exact meaning is: "Increase Aid With Style".

Bright B. Simons & Franklin Cudjoe are Libertarians affiliated with IMANI (www.imanighana.com) and www.AfricaLiberty.org

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