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Revealed: The racist and colonialist conspiracies in global aid industry

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International aid organisations in Africa use colonialist and racist parameters to determine who gets funding on the continent, a new report suggests, forcing an uncomfortable conversation within philanthropy networks on the colonial power dynamics in the multibillion-dollar industry.

Crucially, only half of the money sent to Africa actually gets here while the rest is lapped up by predatory aid agencies as administrative and other costs, notes the report, titled Barriers to African Civil Society: Building the Sector’s Capacity and Potential to Scale Up.

The study calls out the “racialised and colonial nature of funding” on the continent and the complex donor systems forced on needy countries for stifling development on the continent. It is co-sponsored by Vodacom and the Vodafone Foundation and is dedicated to the memory of the late Bob Collymore, the former Safaricom chief executive officer who died of cancer in 2019.

The researchers warn that the racist approaches the West uses to allocate aid to Africa are “unreasonable and unhelpful”, and that they are often deliberately designed to make African countries and their institutions forever dependent on international donors.

Complex network

To make aid deliberately beneficial to the donor and not the recipient, organisations hiding under the banner of philanthropy have developed a complex structure that makes it almost impossible for authentically African-owned and African-run civil societies and even startups to get funding.

Other barriers include constraining funding approaches and complex donor languages, lack of trust and various negative perceptions about local firms, weak governance and leadership systems among local civil organisations, and power dynamics that flourish as a result of the localisation and domestication of international non-governmental organisations in Africa.

But it is the racist intonations and cadences within the donor community, which comprises a thriving army of philanthropist organisations with incredibly deep pockets that is likely to shake up the aid industry. The Sunday Nation is not naming any international organisations operating in Kenya and the continent for legal reasons.

“Structurally, international development funding arrangements favour Western intermediary organisations at the expense of local African civil society organisations, in particular non-governmental organisations,” note the study authors,  Bhekinkosi Moyo and Kenny Imafidon of ClearView, an audience insight and strategy agency based in the UK.

 “Considering that only a portion of philanthropic and donor aid reaches African organisations, this becomes an important area of enquiry and advocacy. Most of the donor resources go to intermediary Northern-based NGOs. This is by design. Some respondents we spoke to estimate that ‘only 50 per cent of bilateral aid makes it to Africa’.”

Billions of dollars

The claim that only half of the billions of dollars in aid money that Western institutions send to Africa actually reaches the continent is startling. When placed in the context of the ever-expanding donor economy in the global South, it becomes even more staggering. The proposition is that the global aid and philanthropy system is designed to benefit the West, and scarcely Africa. That perhaps explains the riddle of billions of dollars in aid to the continent that appear to have scant effects on the quality of life.

Candid, an organisation headquartered in New York and which monitors development cash outflows, has shown that US funding to Africa jumped more than 400 per cent, from $288.8 million in 2002 to nearly $1.5 billion in 2012. Shockingly, most of this funding is believed to have gone to organisations headquartered outside Africa, specifically to large international NGOs for direct delivery and as channels of funds to smaller “partner” groups.

As a result, this use of bigger, Western-based organisations to channel aid to Africa has spawned a clever philanthropy industry in major capitals in the West. And because these foreign-based groups understand the donor language, or what Mr Moyo and Mr Imafidon call “donor infrastructure”, they are able to clinch multi-billion-dollar deals.

“International non-governmental organisations understand ‘donor jargon’, including accountability and the reporting requirements that are seen to ensure value for money and project effectiveness. It is also convenient for Northern donors to fund Northern organisations working on African issues rather than local African organisations,” note the authors.

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Last year the government moved to block direct donor funding to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, re-igniting debate on the credibility of international organisations implementing election support programmes in the country.

A number of international organisations had set up camp in Nairobi two years to the General Election and reactivated their dormant programmes. After an intense bidding war, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) overlooked a local consortium of non-governmental organisations to award a Sh1.1 billion tender to a UK-based firm to manage the Kenya Elections Support Programme (KESP).

Western capitals

Criticism of the channeling of funds to Africa through Western capitals has seen quite a number of them move their headquarters to Africa through what the industry terms as “translocation” or “localisation and domestication” of the organisations. It is, therefore, quite common to find international aid organisations operating from plush offices in the most attractive corners of African capitals.

But, as one respondent notes in the report, even with this translocation, power never really shifts to local groups as the Western aid firms maintain their familiarity with funders and, by extension, “their prime position in the funding hierarchy”.

“At the end of the day, intermediaries, regardless of where they are located, have the access and privilege. This contributes to the povertisation of indigenous African organisations because it’s not just about the money, it is about the networks. What does it mean that your office in London can walk to FCDO and have a cup of tea while an African indigenous office cannot do that?” poses a respondent, whose identity is not revealed because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The same problem has been debated within the startup community as well. Mr Roble Musse, an entrepreneur and author of the book Un-Silicon Valley, notes in a February 2020 article that 70 per cent of startups in Kenya that received $1 million or more of venture capital investment in 2018 were led by a white expatriate founder “despite the expatriate community making up only 0.15 per cent of the population”. This suggests that foreign startups stand a better chance of funding than local ones.

A 2019 Forbes survey of 1,079 co-founders across 788 startups in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria found that Kenya had the highest concentration of foreign expatriates at 37 per cent in its tech space, compared to Ghana’s 10 per cent and Nigeria’s five per cent.

This biased flow of resources and the coloniality of power relationships means very few organisations get resources from local philanthropists and corporates, and hence gives power to international organisations and donors who are more often an extension of former colonial countries.

Neo-colonial relations

To understand the relationship between funding and power relationships, one needs to look at how a country’s colonial past influences the sources of its civil society funding. Most Anglophone donors end up operating in Anglophone countries in Africa, while the French operate in the Francophone regions.

“Neo-colonial relations are still widespread and, at times, characterise relations in the funding environment,” notes the report. “It is for this reason that donors ought to be sensitive to Africa’s past, and local groups also need to find ways to build their sustainability and disentangle themselves from over-dependency on international donors.”

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as some international aid organisations have made strategic changes that have made them more open-minded and inclusive in their funding of African civil societies and startups.

Amplify Change, for instance, has a grant that targets only indigenous African organisations, while Open Society Foundation only funds African organisations and actively looks for potential grantees based on their ability to act on issues that are critical for Africa.

The Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative, too, is actively targeting African organisation has made a five-year US $1bn investment in the long-term capacity and sustainability of 300 social justice organisations. BY DAILY NATION


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