Development aid is intended to help in the fight against poverty, and climate change has recently been cited as a reason. The development economist and practitioner Frank Bremer has drawn a sobering conclusion after 50 years.
Development economist Frank Bremer has dedicated his life to fighting poverty and has worked in development aid in 30 countries in Africa, Central Asia, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean and prepared projects in the areas of rural development and the environment.
After more than 50 years of dealing with development aid, he draws a bitter balance: “Development aid is a project that is aimed at achieving an unattainable goal – poverty reduction – for an incorrectly selected target group – African small farmers – with a method that doesn’t work – helping people to help themselves”. carries out ineffective activities in an unsuitable format – the project – which, like a flash in the pan, leaves no lasting traces apart from pleasant memories for everyone involved, uses the majority of the funds for the project implementation and thus wastes a lot of money for an originally good idea”.
The fight against poverty remains one of the most important tasks facing humanity, but development aid (the politically correct word for this has now become “development cooperation”) is the wrong tool to do so. Often it has achieved nothing and sometimes even the opposite of what was intended.
Rainer Zitelmann has a doctorate in history, sociology and has been a member of the FDP for 28 years. He is also the author of the book “Psychology of the Super-Rich”.
In his book, which is well worth reading, “50 Years of Development Aid – 50 Years of Flash in the Pan”, Bremer reproduces a dialogue between the head of a village community and a German development worker (“self-help experts”), which is fictitious, but uses original formulations from the discussions that actually took place and is based on decades of practical experience in this area.
Bremer carried out the progress control for this project. I would like to quote the dialogue in its entirety – C is the boss of the dor community and S is the self-help expert:
“C: Sir, we need a small dam for our cattle watering and dry season farming.
S: That’s a very reasonable goal, but let me explain what you need first. You need to improve your managerial capacity to tackle a problem like the dam; therefore you need analytical tools, meetings and training on how to hold meetings and deal with group dynamics, as well as reflections on how women can be involved; You need negotiation and decision-making techniques that you can learn through the advice of our experts, you need…
C: Oh sir, that seems to be taking a lot of time. If fresh water stays in the mouth for too long, it turns into saliva. And our dam?
S: One step at a time, you have to think process-oriented. Believe me, our self-help specialists know what it takes to get your dam.
C: Okay, once we’ve done all that, do we get our dam?
S: That is possible. But before you tackle a big project like the dam, start small, like a hand-dug well with no pump and winch or anything.
C: Sir, we have enough wells and boreholes, even with hand pumps. We need a dam.
S: Just ask the women in the village. Surely there are some who don’t have a well yet.
C: Okay, the beggar has no choice. We dig the well. Will we get the dam then?
S: That depends on you. Fifty-fifty cash contribution, plus provision of labor and building materials; to be paid in cash in advance.
C: 50 percent sir? That’s too much for most families.
S: Possibly, but if you don’t contribute 50 percent, your sense of ownership will not be strong enough for sustainability. 49 percent is not enough.
C: Okay, you get the 50 percent. Will we get our dam then?
S: That depends on many factors: Can we fund the other 50 percent? Is it technically feasible? Do we have enough time? Anyway, always remember that for you the learning process is more important than the result. I’ll see you in the next meeting.”
Bremer assures that what sounds like a caricature actually happened. As a result, not a single retention basin was realized, but the target group was theoretically taught how to help themselves. The concept of “helping people to help themselves” is often explained with the saying “Instead of giving the poor fish, we teach them how to fish.”
Bremer doesn’t think much of such wisdom, even if it sounds plausible at first glance: “Everywhere in the world, people who live by the water know how to fish, whether with rods, nets, pots or spears, and how to fish through smoking, drying or in brine.”
They don’t need development workers for that. Of course, the saying is not to be taken literally, but as an example, but Bremer criticizes the principle of development aid, which is based on so-called “projects”. Although there is so much talk about sustainability today, these projects are rarely sustainable. Hardly anyone is concerned with what has become of it, for example ten years after the end of such a project.
If you drive through the African landscape, you see rusting signs of projects that look like grave crosses as the last sign that something was there, sometimes even from several donors in the same place. After the end of the project, there was no money even for removing the signs – at best they would be used by village blacksmiths to make cooking pots.
Many projects were quite successful during the term, since there was enough money for materials, operating resources, vehicles and high salaries. But when the funding ran out, it turned out that these highly subsidized projects were all just “uneconomical flash in the pan” from which nothing was left shortly after they ended.
The author of the book is particularly familiar with Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), a country in West Africa that is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa. As early as 1977, the ethnologist, sociologist and development economist wrote his doctoral thesis on the history of cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and now lives there.
His bitter balance of the development aid projects for this country: With the exception of one forest project, none of the 24 completed projects had a lasting effect: “In terms of this criterion, they were failures or flashes in the pan, which cost a total of 125 million euros.”
Another example is the establishment and maintenance of a veterinary pharmacy in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. The project lasted 22 years with the same expert seconded, but shortly after the end the pharmacy was no longer functional and was closed. “That happens,” says Bremer, “when development aid enters private-sector territory, but dispenses with needs analyses, business plans and profitability calculations and thus uses taxpayers’ money to set up a subsidized playground for dispatched specialists.”
50 years of development aid: 50 years of flash in the pan
When the funding runs out, the project will be completed, but that in no way prevents the development workers from launching a similar project a few years later in the same or another country, the failure of which could have been predicted from the start.
Bremer’s overall conclusion is therefore devastating: “It’s been like this for 50 years, and the entire international development aid industry, which is financed with public funds, thrives on this type of project. The supposedly favored poor farmers who are supposed to be reached by the projects are no less poor at the end of the day and left to their own devices. However, many jobs were created for seconded specialists and their supervisors in the headquarters.”
William Easterly, professor of economics and African studies at New York University, considers foreign aid largely useless, often even counterproductive. I also recommend Easterly’s book We Save the World to Death as a supplement to Bremer’s book.
Dambisa Moyo comes from Zambia and has lived in the USA since the early 1990s, where she continued her education on a scholarship. At the American University in Washington, D.C. she first studied chemistry and, after her bachelor’s degree, completed an MBA program in finance there. She also received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a DPhil in economics from Oxford University.
In her book “Dead Aid” she accounts for development aid: A study by the World Bank shows that more than 85 percent of the funding was used for purposes other than originally intended, often diverted to unproductive projects. Even where the funds are used for projects that make sense in themselves, the positive short-term consequences are thwarted by negative long-term consequences.
It is often fashionable topics that are promoted, such as organic farms: According to Bremer, they remained “for twelve years an inconsequential playground for dispatched experts and their expert appraisers for the ecological and site-specific agriculture that had become fashionable in those years. In total, around 20 million euros have been invested in the savanna sand with these projects.”
The public in the donor countries is not interested. The projects are far away – and whether they have any effect is at best questioned in science. Understandably, politicians and the media are more concerned with the issues that concern and interest voters and readers in the donor countries – and not with the question of whether the billions of euros for development aid are being used wisely.
At most, politicians or the media sometimes question critically whether it makes sense, for example, for Germany to make large payments to China in development aid – in 2017 alone it was 630 million euros.