By Tonny Okwir on August 21, 2019

The tyranny of poverty: Why foreign aid has failed to bail African countries from the prison of poverty


The concept of poverty has dominated the agenda of international development discourses for the last three decades. Undoubtedly, poverty has become a development challenge which is seen as a rich world of one billion fighting for a poor world of five billion people. Indeed, the world has been so passionate about bringing to an end the poor and marginalized people’s sufferings. For instance, the World Bank’s commitments came in the year 2000 when they voiced we at the Bank have made it our mission to fight poverty with passion and professionalism…”The World Bank’s assertion was soon followed by Nelson Mandela, one of the ever famous African presidents in the fight against poverty in his appeal speech on BBC news in 2005, ahead of the global campaign to the Make Poverty History meetingwhen he said, “Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.”Notably, the global campaign to make poverty history succeeded in raising awareness and compelling governments into taking actions towards fighting absolute poverty.

The search for an end to global poverty has been facilitated by the increased partnership between the rich and poor countries further guided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda 2030, which succeeded the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The strengthened global partnership has ensured an increase in the amount of foreign aid flow channeled through different avenues most especially through the governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). However, does foreign aid go to the poor? This same question was earlier posed in an International Monetary Fund working paper by Gilles Nancy and Boriana Yontcheva in 2006. In fact, this is an important question to consider in the context of the argument in this thesis. This concern about the impacts of foreign aid is further justified by World Development Report 2017, which noted that a clear link between foreign aid and the reduction of poverty has been so hard to find.

Much as the amount of foreign aid flow from the Global North to the Global South has significantly increased, defining its impact on the poor and marginalized people in especially Sub-Saharan Africa has probably been the most difficult task. For instance, US professor William Easterly argues that anti-poverty intervention funds often indirectly finance initiatives that the poor people may not directly benefit from and/or that even hurt them more. In addition, US-based Namibian professor of Economics Dambisa Moyo believes that foreign aid has encouraged governments in developing countries to desert their roles and responsibilities of giving public goods and services to their citizens. Moyo further claims that foreign aid has obstructed the development of African countries and called for much improved alternatives. Indeed, for over the last fifty years, there have been massive aid flows to African countries but people have still remained socio-economically disadvantaged with the exception of a few countries like South Africa and Botswana, which have recorded some success stories.

According to political analysts, foreign aid has made governments in African countries more accountable to the international donors than to their own citizens. This has created a governance gap between the government and the citizens, and obstructed a sustainable source of revenue collection from their own citizens by over relying on the donations. Moreover, it has limited the contribution of the citizens in forms of taxes, which is fundamental in the country’s own development. Therefore, African countries ought to engage with their own businessmen, innovative entrepreneurs and enterprising leaders who are great contributors in the growth of the private sector, which is the main source of a country’s domestic revenue. And yet, African leaders prefer to hold infinite negotiations with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other donor agencies instead of their own citizens.

Many development experts, however, argue that the absence of effective, efficient, and strong domestic institutions is the major challenge hindering African countries from taking advantage of their improved cooperation with international development actors. It would be prudent, therefore, for donor agencies to concentrate their resources and energy in addressing the root causes of the problems being faced by African countries rather than addressing the symptoms and impacts. Notably, providing food aid to the hungry village, treating the sick, building the roads, supplying water and taking troops to help keep peace in those countries affected by civil war is a good gesture of an act of charity, though seems to have affected the socio-economic development of African countries more than doing good. These, for instance, caused a number of civil conflicts as well as prolonged civil wars in many African countries because of fighting for foreign aid resources. In addition, aid has eroded the innovativeness of the motivated individuals in African countries and instead made them desperately in need for more donations, thus creating dependency syndrome.

As argued by William Easterly,there is no convincing evidence of a country that has developed because of foreign aid. To bail African countries out of the prison of poverty, therefore, it would be significant to direct foreign aid where it is possible to effectively be reinvested. More emphasis and priority need to be on wealth creation other than poverty alleviation. Certainly, this requires a strong domestic institutional gallows and guiding principles facilitated by robust research institutions to provide required knowledge to the citizens who are paramount in the development of a country. This, however, has often been missed out on in the foreign aid conditions and guidelines, thus inadequately addressing the problems in most African countries.


Written by Tonny Okwir

Y4P Fellow 2019

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