Daily Archives: June 24, 2020


Do Not Mourn the White Saviours of DfID 149

I never write to shock. But I do relish making people think, and consider arguments out of the comfort zone of a set of group shared opinions. I am very aware that many people find this intensely annoying.

A good example is that I believe that Russian actions in Syria have been legal, and helpful in preventing a still more massive conflagration in the Middle East. But I believe that the Russian occupations of Crimea and a section of Georgia are illegal, acts of military aggression. The accepted political view in mainstream western politics at the moment is that Russia is always wrong and the West is always right. Those who dissent form a smaller group, but find strength in the line that Russia is always right and the West is always wrong. Both opinions are nonsensical.

I expect that the vast majority of people who support my website identify as left wing and take the position that the Tory decision to abolish the Department for International Development and move it inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a bad thing. I do not however think the massive praise for DFID now being deployed in the media stands up to close inspection. DFID is in fact a toxic institution that dispenses astonishing sums of money, in a way that provides greater practical benefit to the wealthy members of the Aid Industry in the UK than it does to those it is supposed to help lift out of poverty abroad.

It does not have to be like that. I entirely support the giving of 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income to international development. But at the moment it is being sluiced away. The greatest concentration of economic benefit from British aid lies in the leafier parts of North London (and not, incidentally, in East Kilbride. It is not DFID staff who are milking the system).

It is a very good discipline to ask yourself how much cash those employees of charities campaigning to keep DFID make personally from DFID. It is an interesting paradox that if they appear not to be employed by DFID, they are almost certainly lining their own pockets with a very great deal more DFID cash than actual DFID employees.

When I travel around the rural areas of both Ghana and Nigeria, I frequently pass over rivers and streams on iron and concrete bridges built by DFID’s predecessor the Overseas Development Administration (ODA). Often the road itself was first built by ODA. I am sure academic papers have been written, but I cannot sufficiently convey to you the massive positive impact such infrastructure has had over decades on rural communities, transforming access to markets for agricultural and cottage industry products and helping social mobility.

You realise the importance of a bridge in rural Africa when you see the devastating social consequences when one disappears. This is an extract from my memoir The Catholic Orangemen of Togo. I had not recalled before looking for this passage on the bridge, what an extended discussion on DFID ensues. It was written ten years ago and describes the situation still further back in 2001, but the key points remain true and I will explain what has changed.

Travelling North West from the city of Sunyani, I visited the town of Tainano. (Footnote in book: I think it was Tainano but my notes are not quite clear which of a number of towns I visited that day it was. I intend to explore this region again…) This had been a renowned market gardening centre, but had gone into a dreadful economic decline some ten years earlier following the collapse of its bridge in a storm. I arrived at the fallen bridge, a simple concrete structure spilling down into a river, a major tributary of the Black Volta, some 40 metres across, its brown surge flowing fast enough for there to be little eddies flecked with flashes of white. We were only an hour’s drive from Sunyani, but I was told that the drive to the next bridge was some four hours on a very rough road. The alternative was to cross by canoe.

I walked down to where a jumble of four or five canoes was pulled onto the steeply sloping bank. The rare sight of a white man wanting to cross caused huge amusement and there followed some excited competition as to which canoe I should take. I eyed them dubiously – they were all of local dugout construction, hewed from a single trunk with rough pieces of wood nailed across as seats. Each already contained a fair amount of water slopping about in the bottom. I chose the largest looking one and we set off. One paddler in front and one at back. They were incredibly muscled; their torsos would have been the delight and envy of any Californian gym, and they were soon sheathed in gold as the sun reflected off a mixture of sweat and river water. I was continually wiping my glasses clear.

We set off more or less straight upstream, the men paddling like crazy with huge muscular strokes but still making very little headway, the force of their efforts rocking the canoe from side to side so that water poured in and I had to lift my feet clear of the floor while gripping the slimy canoe sides to try and retain my balance. That didn’t feel safe, so I reluctantly planted my feet again, the water in the well of the canoe now over my ankles. We had started straight upstream in order to come back to a point opposite our starting one in a graceful arc. As we were broadside to the current in the middle of this manoeuvre, the water flowed over the side and along my seat, thoroughly wetting my arse.

I was in danger of wetting myself anyway. I have a terrible and irrational fear of drowning – I can bath but get scared in a shower for example, and even get scared in very heavy rainfall. Unsurprisingly, I have never learnt to swim. There was one other passenger, an old lady who had hoisted up her brightly flowered dress and knotted it beneath her loins, while balancing an improbably large cloth bundle of goods on her knees. I told myself that if she could do it, I should not be pathetic, but she didn’t improve my mood by screwing up her eyes and yelling out “Lord have mercy” throughout the entire passage. This rather cancelled out my efforts to tell myself that the boatman must make this crossing scores of times a day and it must have been completely routine for the local villagers.

After turning at the top of the arc, we were racing down with the current on the other side of the stream at a quite alarming rate. As we sped past the road, the rear boatman threw a rope to someone on the bank who whipped it round a tree trunk, pulling the canoe up with a jolt that nearly pitched me into the water. I disembarked on shaky legs, deeply conscious of my wet trousers.

I had been vaguely aware of flashes of fluorescent orange in a large tree that was growing to the right of the collapsed bridge on the bank on which we had now arrived. After wiping my glasses again I could now see about a dozen life jackets, hung high in the tree. The effect was rather macabre.

I turned to the boatman and asked why they didn’t use the life-jackets.
He flashed me a wide grin.
“Oh,” he said, “We don’t use them since people drown in them.”

The poverty and squalor of the town were as bad as I had seen in Ghana. Unlike most rural towns, which smell earthy but clean, this one had a palpable smell of sewage and the buildings were visibly decaying; the orange blooms of rust on the corrugated tin roofs were spreading, and in places the ensuing holes had gone rampant, reducing the covering to a fragile latticework of fern-like iron oxide tendrils.

As usual, I chatted with the local schoolmaster, and he firmly alleged that the government’s failure to replace the bridge was because it was an opposition town which the government was happy to see dwindle. In his school I was impressed to find the electoral commission personnel with their cameras set up, quietly and methodically issuing photo ID cards to a queue of several hundred people. They had lost some film stock on the crossing but still had plenty.

I took a trip around the surrounding countryside in an old plum and orange coloured taxi, which had lost a door and whose bodywork was battered beyond recognition, but had a Peugeot badge on the steering wheel. The chrome front bumper was rather bafflingly tied across the roof, secured to the window struts either side with ties made from strips of old fertiliser sacks. The driver, Aaron, was a bright man who was going to vote NDC on the grounds that Rawlings’ willingness to hold a free election meant that he deserved support.

But my trip showed the surrounding farmers to be as impoverished by the loss of the bridge as the town, and I determined on return to try to persuade DFID to rebuild the bridge. It seemed to me that the resulting benefit to an area which had been effectively cut off from economic interaction with the rest of the country, would justify the expenditure.

In fact I was to get nowhere with this. DFID were in the throes of changing from project work to a doctrine which is now the basis of their philosophy, that of budget support. The idea is that no longer will the UK do something for the aid recipient, like building a bridge, a hospital or some schools, or providing inputs and training to farmers. Instead we help the government, together with its civil society, to plan its budget and its programmes to maximise poverty alleviation. We then pump money into its budget to help it to achieve these agreed aims.

This has several advantages. It is more democratic, with the African country pursuing its own objectives. The consultation structures included boost the role of civil society. It also builds up the capacity of the African administration and African professionals to deliver goods to the people.

Unfortunately, these happy ideas are hopelessly unrealistic. With the greatest will in the world, the capacity of African ministries to deliver anything to the people is in practice highly constrained – even in Ghana, which probably has the best civil service in Africa.

There are numerous factors behind this. There is a lack of middle management capability, and a lack of incentive for ordinary civil servants to deliver. African bureaucracies almost entirely lack any link between performance in the job and reward or discipline, with family and tribal linkages almost always being much more crucial to your career than ability or performance.

There is also the sadly unavoidable fact that African governments are corrupt – all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. Now that is not to say that Western governments are not corrupt – of course they are, all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. But African governments are more corrupt. Why they are more corrupt, and whose fault that is, opens up another range of very interesting questions touched on from time to time in this book. But the sad truth is that African governments are rather intensely corrupt, and so simply to hand them over in effect large wodges – amounting to billions of pounds – of the British public’s cash as “Budget support” is not a policy that is going to strike the man in the street as glaringly sensible.

DFID would argue, with some justice, that they then carefully monitor the spending of the African government and the achievement of the objectives of the programmes, to make sure the money is being well used.

There are two problems with this. The first is a wonderful DFID word, fungibility. It means the ability to switch around funds and I think the meaning is clear if you think of it as fudge-ability. Put simply, it means that you put the £100 million DFID gave you for education, into education. Meanwhile you put the £40 million of your own taxpayers’ money, that you had for education, into your own pocket. Nobody will notice amid the flood of resources coming from donors.

Fungibility – where would the Swiss banks and London property market be without it?

The second problem is that in its decade of re-orienting to budget support, DFID has vastly reduced the percentage of funds it devotes to monitoring and evaluation – so it doesn’t really know how much fungible leakage is occurring.

Anyway, Ian Stuart, the head of DFID’s Ghanaian operations, advised me that there was no way DFID would do something as old-fashioned as building a bridge, and though I continued to try for another year, he was right.

Despite what I have written, there is a role for budget support in aid policy – an element of it is essential to have a real effect on primary education, for example. And other approaches can also be fraught. In 1999 the British Council organised for DFID the delivery of basic textbooks to every single primary school in Ghana – a programme of which I was proud. Again I made a point of journeying to the most remote locations to make sure they had got through, and in almost every case they had.

But in a significant number of cases they were not being put to use. One headmaster proudly showed me that the books were “safe” in a locked steel container in a locked cupboard in his locked office. The packets had not been opened. Another teacher told me they read to the children from the books but did not let them see them as “They would get them dirty.”

But in deep rural districts the biggest problem in education I had found was teacher absenteeism. Talking to those teachers present, to local priests and others, I reckoned teacher absenteeism in rural areas ran at over 60%. Often schools would have no teacher present at all, or a single teacher holding the fort for all the others – I suspect they took turns. The simple truth was that educated teachers were not prepared to live in villages with no running water, little electricity and none of the delights of urban society.

I found DFID remarkably ignorant of the true state of affairs. The problem was that neither permanent nor visiting DFID staff nor consultants would dream of calling in to a village school ten hours drive from Accra, certainly not without first giving warning and almost certainly arranging the visit through, and being accompanied by, officials from the local regional office. That would give plenty of time for absent teachers to get there and everything to be in order. Whereas I would be driving through the bush and simply see a school and call in. DFID also credited official figures which, while acknowledging the problem, hid its true extent.

That describes the situation under New Labour, when unrealistic ideology dominated DFID’s approach. David Cameron then came in to power and made this situation still worse, by effectively applying Tory privatisation doctrine to aid. Cameron speeded up a process which was already under way, of spending the aid budget through what he called the “Third Sector” and you and I call charities. This was a part of his “Big Society” initiative.

The worst effect of this was to turn previously worthy charities into corporations devoted to making cash for the elite who run them. Rather than conduits for public philanthropy, major charities became primarily an arm of private sector provision for government, as motivated by altrusim as SERCO or G4 are. Those that were most favoured by DFID started to show the most alarming effects on their corporate ethos.

It would be an interesting study to discover at precisely what point it became generally accepted that the executive staff of charities had to be paid according to the market for executives of rapacious capitalist corporations, and that it was ludicrous to even consider that those who devote their lives to working for charities might do so in part for reasons of altruism that did not require them to become incredibly rich personally. Little old ladies who slave away as volunteers in charity shops or rattling tins at events might be expected to do it for little or nothing for charity, but executive staff – heaven forfend!

I think one of the most morally disgusting statements I have read in my life can be found today on the website of the Save the Children Fund, stating that it is for the good of the poorest children of the planet, racked by poverty and disease and dying in their hundreds of thousands, that the executives of the Save the Children fund need to be paid at levels that enable them to lead lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy. If this monstrously hypocritical sentence does not make you want to vomit, you are not a good person.

We are serious about being the best we can be for the world’s children. That means we place a premium on attracting the best people to work for us and to lead our organisation.

The best people to help starving and sick children are, by this definition, those who want to be paid the most money to do it. There is a more rational argument that those who want to be paid the most money are the worst people to help the world’s children.

So this is what Save the Children ladle out to their UK executives. REMEMBER, MUCH OF THEIR INCOME IS DFID MONEY.

That is whithout even considering the salary of the “Global Head” of such charities. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, wife of Stephen Kinnock, skimmed £284,000 a year plus expenses as global head of Save the Children. Her successor, Inge Asher, somehow scrapes by on £188,900 a year. The utterly shameless David Miliband, Chief Executive of the International Rescue Committee, gets an eye watering US $911,000 a year for his work for a “charity” that gets £100 million a year from DFID.

Compare Save the Children UK and Islamic Relief UK. Islamic Relief is the slightly larger charity by turnover, despite being unusual in UK development agencies in getting a scarcely significant part of its income from DFID. Islamic Relief’s Chief Executive gets a salary approximately 60% of that of his Save the Children UK counterpart, and would not be in the top 20 highest paid employees at Save the Children UK. This precisely because the Islamic Relief trustees feel that working for the charity should in itself contain an element of sadaqah, or charitable giving. Here the Muslim community has maintained a much greater sense of morality than the DFID bloated rest of the British development “charitable” sector. The UK large scale “charitable” sector is a scam on an epic scale. DFID is responsible for much of that development.

So when you hear the UK aid sector screaming at the threat to DFID, do not be shocked. Thousands of luxurious lifestyles across London are potentially at threat.

It astonishes me that there is complete denial about the link between the deliberate entrenchment of corporate macho management structures, with their vastly inflated financial reward systems, into the charity sector from the 1990s onwards, and the ensuing rash of incidents of appalling sexual abuse by charity executives and staff, of which the behaviour of Save the Children senior executives Justin Forsyth and Brendan Cox were among the worse. If you base your recruitment policy on the reward structures of large capitalist enterprises, you will get nasty people. Overpaid, over-entitled and arrogant jumped up arses are going to behave like overpaid, over-entitled and arrogant jumped up arses.

When Save the Children produced their report on why its senior male executives felt entitled to physically molest any female employee who crossed their path, understandably the current overpaid crew avoided blaming either over-payment or over-entitlement. But the truth of the matter is that the entire ethos of the charity sector has been ruined by the massive pump through of DFID cash. I genuinely can’t begin to understand the mindset of people who believe they should personally take these mind-boggling sums from a supposed charity to help the poorest. DFID have created the situation whereby the sector is full of highly paid individuals, in it for the money, who would rather sexually exploit the poor than help them.

This overpayment and excess of self-regard feeds directly into what is generally recognised in international development as “White Saviour Syndrome

When you have reached the stage where there needs to be a parliamentary report on “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector”, you know that things have gone very wrong indeed. The fault lies at base with DFID and their massive hosepipe of high pressure money. Charities have been allowed to argue that they need reward criteria the same as would be employed by the Wolf of Wall Street, because the money motive is what brings good staff. You cannot therefore be surprised they started to behave socially like the Wolf of Wall Street.

DFID’s own direct staff costs are comparatively modest, at around £212 million in 2018/9 including pension and other costs, which is a commendable 1.4% of its total budget. Its very top salaries are broadly the same as the very top salaries at Save the Children, although the DFID executives are managing a budget 50 times greater.

The salary of the four highest paid executives at DFID represents 0.03% of DFID’s turnover. The salary of the four highest paid executives at Save the Children UK represents 0.15% of Save the Children UK’s income.

This is even more acute in the field. When I worked alongside the Overseas Development Agency in the British High Commission in Nigeria, a portfolio of projects totalling hundreds of millions of pounds were managed by two ODA officers, of whom the most junior, who did most of the project management, would earn the equivalent in today’s salaries of about £25,000 a year. He would pay tax on that, pay for his own private vehicle, live in a small flat and have access to the High Commission Land Rover Defender pool when on official duty.

Today, the management of that portfolio of projects would no longer be undertaken directly by DFID. It would be split between a dozen different charities. Each would employ a minimum of one expat on a minimum of £50,000 a year tax free, plus their plush detached house, return holiday tickets and full time use of a $100,000 Toyota Land Cruiser. Sometimes the take home pay of an ultimately DFID funded charity aid worker in Africa, managing a single project, is higher than that of the tax paying British ambassador who is in charge of all UK interests in that country.

I want you to understand I am not pontificating from an armchair. I am speaking from four decades of direct involvement and experience in African development of this transformation, which I have witnessed up close and in detail.

You will scour in vain the 196 page DFID Annual Report and Accounts for a breakdown of what percentage of DFID aid is paid to UK charities. The accounts are scrupulous in detailing DFID’s direct salary and administrative costs for its aid, but then take all the money paid out to charities as effective aid to the intended final purpose and destination, without any accounting for the administrative costs of the charity.

The £50,000 salary, the Land Cruiser and the luxury house of the charity worker helping administer a DFID project in Malawi will count as aid to Malawi, even though Malawi gets no benefit. So will the fat fee, air fares and expenses of the British consultant who will fly out from time to time to evaluate the project. The White Saviour syndrome reaches its apogee in projects which consist entirely of sending out British experts for “advocacy”. There are entire tranches of “aid to Africa” which consist entirely of paying members of the UK Aid Industry large sums of money to go out and patronise Africans on the subject of human rights and women’s rights. I have witnessed this in Ghana where society is perfectly capable of tackling these subjects and the general position on both sets of rights is no worse than in the UK.

The DFID annual report is equally silent on what percentage of aid is provided as direct budget support. It details what sectors and geographical locations allegedly benefit, but has very little to say on the medium of provision.

There are entire DFID programmes that consist of nothing but paying particularly wealthy British people to go out and talk down to Africans. As though African countries do not contain extremely educated people concerned with gender and other rights. It is the modern, politically correct version of the Victorian Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. It reflects the attitude of “Over the seas there are little brown children”, who we need to enlighten. Plan UK are one of many British charities who are main DFID conduits for this type of well paid activity. The DFID money given to the bank accounts of the wealthy British people who undertake this work all counts as “Aid to Africa”.

Ghana gave us Kofi Annan; sent us Afua Hirsch; it has a real human rights lawyer – and friend of mine – as its President. It does not need lectures on rights as “aid”. But it gets them.

Many people whose world view I broadly share will be horrified by my criticism of DFID. One of those is Owen Barder, whose work I generally admire and not only because his late father Brian was something of an intellectual mentor to me (and my boss in Nigeria). There is a fascinating discussion between Owen and Ian Birrell on the effectiveness of aid, centred on a report of the DFID £11 million backed Millennium Villages Project in Northern Ghana, which essentially said it was a waste of money. This evaluation report is truly unusual because normally the consultants evaluating projects are also employed managing other projects. It is all a part of the Aid Industry and they do not normally produce reports that rock the mutual gravy train. I am not sure that ITAD will get much more DFID work after this honesty.

Both Owen and Ian are genuinely knowledgeable, and they have entirely different conclusions on DFID and aid, as brought out in these twitter threads of Ian here and Owen here – each thread having lots of bifuractions and interjections that lead into interesting areas.

But still more enlightening is the perspective of President Nana Akuffo Addo:

Personally, I support the idea of 0.7% of Gross Domestic Income being given by the UK and other wealthy states in aid to developing countries. This is both morally correct and an exercise of enlightened self-interest. I believe that this aid should overwhelmingly be given in the form of delivered turnkey projects. That could take the form of building and furnishing complete factories to provide the processing and added value to African commodity exports which Nana Akuffo Addo outlines in the above speech. Building and handing over cocoa processing plants and gold refineries would be a good start.

I understand why project aid was discredited by disastrous dam projects in the 1980’s. But the provision now of solar energy power stations and the infrastructure to integrate them with the local grid, or indeed of rural roads and bridges, remains for me the most effective way to provide aid. It should be delivered turnkey. You identify what factory or infrastructure is needed and you build it and hand it over. Of course this should take account of long term project sustainability and include the ancillary materials, connections, training and technology transfer required. But at the end of the day, you will have given something concrete to the people of the country. This is certainly how I wish to see Scottish aid develop post Independence.

I am well aware that the current danger from the Tory move to disestablish DFID is that aid funds will be diverted to the military, security services, armaments industry and to boost the profits of Tory donor companies. My expectations of anything getting better in any sector under the current rulers of the last days of the United Kingdom are close to zero. But contriving a worse system for managing aid than DFID is going to be quite hard to achieve. There are excellent left wing arguments against DFID as it has developed institutionally under the ideologically driven right wing governments that dominate the UK.

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