The refugee who took on the British government, or why ‘aid’ doesn’t work in an international system of oppression and inequality

“For British politicians, foreign aid to Africa has become a cherished emblem of our idealism and generosity.” But this is a powerful story we’ve been told.

The following article details yet another tale of foreign ‘aid’ and corrupt governance (on all sides) doing irreversible damage to the lives and livelihoods of the supposedly intended recipients.

I’d strongly recommend you reading the full article, but it’s a long read, so I’ve pulled out a few of the paragraphs I found most interesting and poignant.

“Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.

Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrolment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.”

“In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagisation. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.

Their suspicions were well founded. In Opik’s district, the allocation of land for agribusiness was well under way. Information was patchy, but a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, estimated that in Gambella, at that time, the government had leased or marketed 42% of the region to investors. Speaking to investors in India, government officials referred to the land on offer as “unused,” “under-utilised” or “completely uninhabited”.”

“The Anuak had to wait 10 months for a clue. In October 2012, after questions were asked in the British parliament, the findings of the DfiD visits were quietlydeposited in the House of Commons library. They described massive flaws in the villagisation programme, inadequate services and insufficient food, possibly requiring an emergency response.

The first report, which has since disappeared from the parliament website, noted that more than half of respondents had said they did not want to move. The report warned of a “potential humanitarian crisis” due to the people’s “limited livelihood options”. It also warned of “reputational risks” to donors’ aid programmes. This, then, was the heart of the matter.”

“For first Tony Blair and now David Cameron, the essentialising of Africa has been a useful political arena for the exercise of idealism untainted by politics. It was a deft move, following the Iraq war, to establish the Blair Commission for Africaand the Make Poverty History campaign. For Cameron, ring-fencing aid spending “was a key part of the compassionate Conservative makeover,” a senior former No 10 adviser told me.”

“A former chief economist of DfID, who did not want to be named, told me, “If you’re asking, ‘Am I prepared to tolerate a certain level of human rights abuses in exchange for progress on development?’, the answer is yes.” The question, then, is who decides what constitutes a “tolerable” level of repression in the absence of a democratic system?”

“A former head of DfID Ethiopia said to me, in relation to the relocation of the Omo peoples, “but if they’re being relocated anyway, aren’t we making their lives better?” She could not see that there was a problem with underwriting the transaction. It is almost impossible for those who make a living dispensing aid to imagine how easily it can become a tool of repression. She evinced a kind of helplessness, whereas a report by the Oakland Institute into alleged cover-ups of human rights abuses noted that DfID and USAid are, “wilful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible devastating impacts on the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.””

“Of all the academic economists working on Ethiopia, I could not find one who was willing to speak on the record for this article. Much of the professional field of development studies is dependent on DfID research grants, with many academics serving on multimillion-pound study teams.

“If you challenge the consensus and make headlines, it is going to make your life harder,” said one economist at a London university, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Career progression is not just about where you publish, it is also about the amount of money you can raise and, in that regard, DfID is the biggest donor by miles,” he said. The two main centres of development studies research in the UK, the Overseas Development Institute in London and theInstitute of Development Studies at Sussex University, have depended heavily on DfID contracts over many years: “If that dependence is not a kind of institutional capture, then I am not sure what is,” said Warwick’s Prof David Anderson, a rare critic.”

Thoughts and feelings welcomed as always…


Mallence Bart-Williams on Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world and Western dependency on Africa


Mallence Bart-Williams talks to Berlin about Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world, in nature, people, culture, treasures, minerals…and stamps.

“Of course the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately. To power aeroplanes, cellphones, computers and engines. And the gold and diamonds of course. A status symbol to determine their powers by decor and to give value to their currencies.

One thing that keeps me puzzled, despite having studied finance and economics at the world’s best universities, the following question remains unanswered. Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth 1 unit of your currency, where we are the ones with actual gold reserves?

It’s quite evident that the aid is in fact not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world. The Western world depends on Africa in every possible way, since alternative resources are scarce out here.

So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming? By systematically destabilising the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns, leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying and merely surviving on the mercy of the West. Well done Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Live Aid and all the other organisations that continuously run multimillion dollar advertising campaigns depicting charity porn to sustain that image of Africa globally.”

Capitalism #ADifferentStory

You’ll know from previous posts that I don’t believe that ‘we can solve global poverty if rich countries give aid to poor countries’. This new campaign and video from The Rules questions that rhetoric too and recognises that, in the current system, “rich countries are rich because they grab land and natural resources and exploit the human labour of poor countries”. It calls for us to tell #ADifferentStory to capitalism, and, like me, believes that we can change things. It’s really worth a watch.

Here’s their intro to the video:

How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of climate change but we are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single year. We are forced into economic crisis after economic crisis and the only people who aren’t brought to their knees are those that cause it. In fact, they often just get richer and more powerful while the rest of us work harder and harder for less reward. Politicians all say the same basic thing. No one, it seems, is offering anything that is really different. The whole operating system is somehow wrong, but also somehow inevitable. Nothing can really be changed because this is just how things are.

At least, that’s what we’re told, and how it can feel. But this way of living – our system of modern capitalism – is just a story.  And this story is not the only one there is.  It’s not inherent within us.  It was invented by human beings, and so human beings can change it.

But in order to get there, we first have to face up to some difficult truths.

You can find out more about The Rules and their campaign on their website.

Let me know what you think. What story would you tell?


Aid: a sticking plaster approach to a gaping wound

Thank you Health Poverty Action (HPA), for your genuinely groundbreaking report pointing out something that is painfully obvious, but that a lot of ‘us’ won’t see or admit. That $192 billion every year is lost from Africa to the rest of the world – almost six and a half times the amount of aid given to the continent.

On Tuesday the charity, alongside a number of UK and African NGOs, released the report, Honest Accounts? The true story of Africa’s billion dollar losses, as a first attempt to calculate Africa’s losses across a wide range of areas. The calculations included illicit financial flows; profits taken out of the continent by multinational companies; debt repayments; brain drain of skilled workers; illegal logging and fishing and the costs incurred as a result of climate change.

The huge disparity between aid and resources leaving Africa is an issue that I’ve been wanting to tackle ever since I started this blog. The fact that we continue to fight in the UK to get the government to keep its commitment to allocate 0.7% of the budget to aid when we take so much from developing countries is shocking; the fact that ‘we’ consider that generous is abhorrent; and when you couple that with the fact that ‘aid’ is often spent to better our own national interest it’s another galling matter entirely (and definitely another blog post on the long list of topics and issues I’d like to explore).

HPA and its partners are calling on the UK government to reassess its focus on ‘aid’, which:

“paints a misleading picture of the UK’s ‘generosity’ towards Africa, and take urgent action to address Britain’s contribution to Africa’s poverty.”

HPA Director Martin Drewry calls it ‘sustained looting’ – the opposite of generous giving, and argues that the City of London is at the heart of the global financial system that facilitates this (NB: The HUGELY unfair global economic, social and political system that was built and is run by and for the West on things like greenhouse gases, tax haven networks, valuing money and power above all else, trampling all over the rest of the world, Western ideology, patriarchy and corporate greed etc etc etc). Agreeably he calls for change from NGOs too and asks them to move beyond their focus on aid levels to “communicate the bigger truth – exposing the real relationship between rich and poor and holding leaders to account”.

This is a start but I want to take things further. I want governments across the world to take notice of this report. All those governments who give a pinch with one hand while taking a fistful with another. We don’t need to ‘save’ ‘developing’ countries and we certainly can’t use aid to do so. We need transparency and honesty, we need equality and a level playing field and we need countries to stop pretending that they’re ‘helping’ others when it’s really a smokescreen for actions taken in their own self interest.  Not asking a lot huh?

Another key element to our aid issues is looking at how Africa (and other developing continents) are portrayed as a continent in need of help. There are a lot of harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa and Africans in particular that need to be challenged and banished as they undermine the continent’s truth, dignity and ability and contribute to the dominant Western narrative that portrays Africa as the grateful beneficiary of the rich world’s generosity. I’m currently working on a little something with some pretty inspiring people that might go someway to kickstarting this, so watch this space. Let me know if you’re interested in finding out more!

I’d love to hear of/from others who have thoughts on this subject and of any articles/posts/books on this topic. Recommendations and comments welcome as always.

If you have time, I’d recommend reading this pretty cool comment piece from Martin Drewry on the Guardian Development Professionals Network about the report. His criticisms of a narrative that focuses on the importance of aid are particularly poignant and again something I’d like to address at a later date.

If you want to discuss this post on Twitter, please use @devtruths and the Health Poverty Action report hashtag #honestaccounts.

NB: Very excited to have discovered The Progressive Development Forum as a result of this article. Am looking forward to some interesting reading!

Why this blog?

I’m not sure how this is going to go, or whether this blog is even a good idea but international development and eradicating extreme poverty are issues that I’m truly passionate about and always have been. I’ve never thought that it was fair that I have been born into a world of opportunity and good fortune and others haven’t when we’ve done nothing to deserve our starts in life – it’s all down to luck.

I’ll fill you in with a bit more about my background and experiences of international development in a later post, but for now – I hope that this blog will become a place for debate, discussion and learning (for me at least!) about current international development practices and whether or not they are effective/helpful. I am also DESPERATE for this debate/blog to not be lead by me sat here in the UK, because what the hell do I know? I hope that it will be hijacked by people actually living in developing countries who can straighten the record out, correct all the assumptions (that even I’m probably making!) and so that I can take my cue from them and assist (with my marketing/PR background) in the way that will actually be most helpful (also feel free to tell me that this blog/my involvement isn’t helpful in any way shape or form).

Primarily I was inspired to write about this as I have become more involved in the world of international development and increasingly started to wonder about how effective some of the practices are, and how seemingly patronising some of the representations are of ‘developing countries’.

I must seriously point out here that I’m NO expert, I don’t have a masters degree or PHD in development, I don’t live in a ‘developing’ country, I don’t live in extreme poverty, but I do live in the Western world, I do consume a hell of a lot of information about and representations of developing countries/development/aid and I do have an opinion on it all. I hope that people will engage with me on this blog to challenge my opinions, to post articles to discuss and debate development and perhaps even teach me a thing or two. I won’t get everything right, but I’ve struggled to find much literature specifically on the topic of patronising representations of developing countries and those that live in them.

This all started when I got off the phone to one of my best friends who lives in Burkina Faso. I logged onto my computer and the first advert that popped up on the internet was about a young African girl who had to walk several miles a day to collect water and how people could text to donate money to help her. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought but I was struck by how patronising and unempowering the advert was – that all we should feel for this human being, this personality, this girl, was pity – and these adverts become the poster campaign for how we feel about the whole of the developing world (or in this case, Africa.)

Now I’m not saying charities and organisations fundraising to support their activities don’t have the best of intentions, but in general (in my opinion), people living in developing countries/continents (and Africa in particular) are often stereotyped, and collectively labelled as ‘poor’ and ‘helpless’ and often, not much else. It has been grating on me that people who are living, breathing, dreaming, hoping, dancing, smoking, loving, drinking, partying, praying, eating, sleeping and equal in every way other than that they are often limited by their place of birth, are only known for what they don’t have and what ‘we’ assume their lives to be like rather than who they truly are.

From my conversations and observations of the general public where I live in England, a lot of people have totally misconceived, patronising and unhelpful opinions of people living in extreme poverty – often opinions held with the best of intentions and due to a lack of information (or an abundance of misinformation), but still not right. I’m not even suggesting I’ve been completely guilt free of this – until I did my research, experienced international development first-hand and started to challenge the advertising/campaigns/stereotypes/media I’m pretty sure I would have held some of the same views.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that the UK stops working/interacting/supporting developing countries – there are a lot of ‘western’ NGOs/organisations/agencies doing some good work (although I DO think that the whole ridiculous ‘industry’ of development needs to be seriously reconsidered – and hey, if developing nations can/want the west to p*ss off then it should). But I think the collective Western perception of people living in extreme poverty and the marketing/branding of developing countries in ‘the West’ need an overhaul. The days of ‘poverty porn’ and calling on the general public to feel sorry for the ‘poor people in developing countries’ are not only over (people have become numb to this type of marketing anyway), but are patronising, damaging and downright wrong!

I’m not professing to have all the answers and it’s probably even patronising that I think I can do anything about this, but people living in extreme poverty shouldn’t be living in extreme poverty – they don’t need or deserve to and with the right support from the international community they’re very capable (with the right opportunities and empowerment) rising out of it, not because they’re people who are all the same, who we should take pity on and ‘save’.

I don’t know how, or even if this is the right thing to suggest, but somehow those living in extreme poverty who have the capacity and those of us that feel the same as I do need to stand up to the world and challenge the pity and the stereotypes and the assumptions. I am ready to support in any way I can – but I’m aware that this is something that needs to be led by those who suffer from this injustice or it’s just another example of western supremacy…

For years I’ve been struggling with notions and ideas of development and have never seen a model/concept/notion of development that’s sat well with me – I’ve never seen how I could fit in and support development without being patronising or downright ridiculous – what do I know about being born into/living in extreme poverty? I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems, I don’t how to end extreme poverty and I’m not about to tell anyone that I do, but I do know that this  needs to stop and that people need to see that people living in developing countries are equal in every way to the rest of the world and they need to be taken seriously and not pitied. My background (and limited expertise) is in communications and marketing, and if, in some small way I can help this cause and the people it represents earn some respect and recognition for who they truly are, then that’s what I want to do.

Things are changing rapidly in the developing world and will continue to do so. Economics are driving change, technology and communication is driving change and people themselves, from within developing countries, are driving change. Now there needs to be a ‘culture change which catches up’ as a good friend put it. All I’m asking for is the West to get a grip and give fair representation of developing countries and see them as equals.

I hope in the near future this blog becomes surplus to requirements.

Please feel free to comment on this, to challenge what I’ve said (or support it!) – I’d love to hear your thoughts.