Last night, I went to a Roundtable for Accountability hosted by the Helen Suzman Foundation. It all sounds very snooty – and I got to use the word “hobnob” in more than one conversation.

One of the speakers at this event was Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the founder of South Africa’s newest opposition party Agang. And she is magnetic, as far as medical-doctor-social-anthropologist-former-managing-director-of-the-World-Bank-political-activists go*. But what I found really interesting was the curious incongruity in her message.

Let me backtrack a second. The spokesman for the DA was also in attendance – and in between the well-couched generalities and the snide remarks about “particular planes landing in particular airports”, his dominant theme was the impossibility of good governance in a one-party state. Now that sounds reasonable – until you look at the United States and realise that having two parties doesn’t really help with good governance either. And if you want to take it further, you can look at Italy, where any joker can have a party and get elected. And frankly, for all its parties, Italy is no shining beacon of accountability.

Dr Ramphele’s point, on the other hand, was:

  1. South Africans have acquiesced to a system of patronage;
  2. this has left them disempowered and despondent; and
  3. therefore, what we really need is a little more fearlessness.

Which I found fascinating: because patronage is surely the ultimate goal of any political party that wishes to stay in power. The incentives behind the political process don’t benefit from an empowered voting public; unless of course you’re the opposition. But even then, you are not asking for support – you’re asking voters to remain helpless, place their helplessness in your hands, and rely on you to get their voices heard.

Now I’m sure everyone is wondering where I’m going with this, so let me give you a headline:

World Bank pledges $1 billion to aid peace in Africa’s Great Lakes.

Let’s talk about “Dead Aid”

The world of aid policy is cleanly split into two camps:

  1. Anyone that likes Jeffrey Sachs: who believes that the poor, and African countries, are stuck in poverty traps (they’re poor because they can’t work and they can’t work because they’re poor). So the only solution is to pump them full of Aid – because if they’re a bit less poor, then they can start to work, which will make them even less poor, which means that they can work even more, and so on into prosperity and beyond. And also, the poor starving children. And malaria.
  2. William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo: who believe that systematic foreign aid** removes the obligation of African governments to do anything constructive. Which turns systematic foreign aid into a moral hazard open to corruption – and, like, what is the incentive for a government to improve to a point where they no longer need foreign aid if reaching that point means that they’ll no longer get foreign aid?! It’s a recipe for absolutely no progress at all.

The empirical (and intuitive) evidence does seem to suggest that, poverty trap or not, foreign aid can be a real hinderance – the incentives for corruption and entrenchment-of-the-status-quo are just too high. And if you really want to be entertained for a morning, this website has the running to-and-fro debate via public articles between Sachs, Easterly and Moyo. Nothing like academic punches!

In all seriousness though, I hear where Mr Sachs is coming from – something ought to be done. But unfortunately, I think that you can drill the debate down to: give the man a fish (because shame he’s so hungry!), and teach the man to fish (because he’ll still be hungry tomorrow if you don’t).

One approach is empowerment; the other incentivises him to beg better. The latter is the opposite of helpful. Also: if you’re trying to feed lots of hungry people – handing around fish causes a riot; and there’s always someone with a gun that sees a profitable opportunity when he’s left in charge of the refrigerator.

So let’s go back to the World Bank aid situation. What it’s offering is $1 billion in foreign aid  to the Great Lakes countries if they adhere to the Peace Accord brokered by the UN. They’re calling it a “peace dividend” – so, to paraphrase: “we’ll pay you to stop fighting”. 

What kind of precedent is that setting?

When you run out of money – just restart fighting so that we can pay you to stop again“?

Madness! And that’s in addition to the arguments against this kind of systemic assistance.

I think that Dr Ramphele and Dambisa are talking about the same thing

To me, the real issue with foreign aid, as with a political system of patronage, is that it turns the recipients/voters into victims. And when you’re a victim – then in a sense, you’re a captured market. It doesn’t matter how upset or hurt you are, the abuser can continue to do what he wants because you’re already trapped.

If there is a reasonable alternative to empowerment through claiming responsibility, then I don’t know of it. Sure – it doesn’t seem fair for a victim to take on blame for their current state. But the alternative is to continue as is…

Sadly, of course, it does mean that Dr Ramphele isn’t going to be winning any elections.

But maybe she’ll make a difference anyway.

*PS: for the South African folk, here is a link to her petition for electoral reform. You should sign it – surely it makes sense to have constituencies? How can a party be held accountable if there is literally no one accountable… Names and faces. Those can be shamed.

**Systematic Foreign Aid is money given by governments, the IMF and the World Bank to other governments. It just needs to be distinguished from “emergency aid” and “charity-based aid” – which are certainly not the same thing (even if those too can have their problems).