Is aid fuelling corrupt activities in aid recipient countries? Why should Sweden continue giving aid to a corrupt country such as Zambia? What happened to the money given to your Ministry of Health? These are but a few of the questions I faced last week when I was in Sweden at the invitation of one of our partners. I was asked to speak at a number of events across Sweden.
My audiences ranged from local communities, civil society groups, government officials, members of parliament and ordinary Swedes. At every occasion the question of aid came up. I guess this is not surprising given that Sweden has been for many years a faithful co-operating partner giving huge sums of money to our nation for development projects.
One of the reasons people I spoke to asked about aid was the much publicised scandal at the Ministry of Health several years ago which generated a lot of public interest in Sweden. I believe that in recent times government officials here in Sweden have used that incident to strengthen their perception that aid is ineffective and are perhaps hijacked by the elites of aid dependent countries. In Sweden this scandal led to a lot of disappointment, naturally. People questioned, I believe, and rightly so, why countries such as ours should continue receiving aid from Sweden.
On one of the occasions I spoke at, I shared the platform with a colleague from Sweden. The topic was whether or not it is morally right to continue giving aid to Zambia. My contention at the debate was that aid was still very much in need in Zambia. Whilst we have made strides economically, to the extent of being re-classified a 'lower middle income country', many Zambians still struggle to make ends meet.
I demonstrated the need for support from industrialised economies such as Sweden by using data from the JCTR's BNB basket which shows that in spite of the positive performance of our economy many Zambians continue to suffer. I further augmented my argument by pointing to the fact that in the last six years or so very few jobs have been created for the many young people who leave our education institutions. It is for this and many other reasons why countries like Sweden should continue giving aid to Zambia.
Part of the problem with aid scepticism at the moment comes from the hugely popular and sometimes controversial book by Zambian author Dambisa Moyo. It was another subject I could not avoid making comments on. I have always, since Moyo published her book Dead Aid, argued that she does make some good points. I have also pointed out that there are some misleading comments in her book.
Basically, to condemn all development assistance on the premise that such support ends up in dictator's pockets or gives rise to corruption and thereby depriving deserving beneficiaries of the much needed development may be true in some cases at some time in the history of the African continent. However, I don't think it is true at all times and all places. Sometimes Moyo's book suggests that it is the case that all aid is unhelpful and ends up delaying development efforts of aid recipient countries.
In my many talks in Sweden I argued rather controversially that some aid from places like China are delivering positive development outcomes such as improved infrastructure like roads, health institutions, advent sports facilities. Surely, such aid is helping a country develop rather than regress. I also gave examples of many non-state actors who receive aid from overseas and are able to channel such aid into providing social services such as education and health.
Many mission run schools and health posts depend to a large degree on external support to provide social services such as education and health. I was reminded of a story I heard from one of the Catholic nuns who runs a hospital in a rural part of Lusaka who told me that financial resources from the treasury arrives much later than when needed and also always does not meet the expenses of running the hospital. She relies on donors to run the hospital, provide drugs and pay the staff. Surely, Moyo would not suggest that this aid is being misused or misapplied.
The problem with the kind of aid Moyo condemns is that it is not properly targeted, administered and does not enjoy wide and broad participation of stakeholders in planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating the progress of development programmes. Evidence from the work of the JCTR on projects supported by aid has in many instances revealed numerous problems. In some cases, funds that were supposed to be released a few years ago to finance the development project have not arrived. In other cases local politicians and bureaucrats have diverted the resources to other purposes.
Our own Auditor General's reports year in and year out point out corrupt activities that in many cases go unpunished. So the problem, it seems to me, is not aid per se but what we do with the aid we receive. If it is properly administered, monitored closely by all stakeholders and accounted for then we might just begin to see the results that our partners are looking for. However, if we do not have stringed measures and strict monitoring procedures to track the utilisation of aid resources then we will continue to see the support that comes from our benevolent donors disappear into private pockets.
In Sweden at the moment the focus appears to be promoting the private sector to drive development programmes in developing countries. At one of the events I spoke at I pointed out that it is true that the private sector can contribute immensely towards delivering development to our communities. However, the problem is that if left to its own devices the private sector does not carry within itself re-distributive mechanism. This probably explains why in spite of robust growth figures many Zambians cannot find jobs. What is required is a stronger State commitment to ensuring that the wealth created by the private sector is equitably distributed.
At the JCTR we believe that the State exists to provide those goods that neither the private sector nor individuals cannot provide. We have seen in recent times that the two forces have failed to significantly improve the living standards of the people and provide means for the majority of Zambians to earn a decent living. We pray that with support from Sweden and other developed countries that the state will continue to place the interests of the poor at the heart of national development.
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