How aid helps the rich get richer

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A transnational investigation in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Kenya and the DRC, by the African Investigative Publishing Collective (AIPC), of donor-funded development programmes in five extremely poor regions – of which two are post-conflict – in Africa, reveal that they have benefited mainly the rich. In north Uganda (post-Joseph Kony), Kinshasa in the DRC, Kibera Township in Nairobi, western Ivory Coast and northwest Cameroon, aid projects had all been captured by the elites, whilst the poor are no better off. In two out of five regions, they are actually poorer

“You won’t find anyone talking to you about these programmes,” says AmadiSidiné, whose shop in Duékoué sells everything from cans of tomatoes to light bulbs. Duékoué is the main town in Ivory Coast’s war-damaged western region earmarked for dozens of donor-aided “reconstruction and development” projects. We find that Sidiné is, largely, right. Two NGO acquaintances go AWOL when we want to interview them and not one intended “beneficiary” will talk to us either.

The advertised benefits from the reconstruction programmes are hard to find. The town boasts a few hundred small brick shelters for returning refugees, but many are uninhabited and already in need of repair; some have people living in them but they could be evicted soon, they say, because they are not on any official “waiting list”. Most people here have no access to safe drinking water or health care.

A local journalist tells us that the hundreds of millions of dollars in “post conflict assistance” and “Presidential Emergency Plan” funds have mostly gone into contracts for State officials to deliver goods or services through their own companies. “As soon as these ‘big men’ appropriate the contract, they run away with it,” he says, either to implement it in their own home region or not implement it at all.

An audit report done in 2014 by the Ivorian National Authority for Public Procurement Regulation over the period 2011-2013 confirms a total of 58 of 60 such “development” contracts were “irregularly awarded”. The government’s anti-corruption agency, the High Authority of Good Governance”, says they are “fully aware” and that people “should report the corruption” to them. But local pastor Oboué Armand explains, “whistle-blowers are victimised.” “The locals see how elite and officials distort the system to their advantage. But they are too scared to talk. Community leaders are enticed or pressured to excommunicate the snitch.”

Invisible trees

A spokesman at the Palace of the traditional leader in Nkwen, near Bamenda in Cameroon, says he is happy with the tree-planting project in his community. “It has been hot lately and some trees died. But about a thousand have survived.” When we tell him that we are in the area where the trees ought to be, but that there are no trees at all, he hangs up on us.

By his own admission, municipal head Augustine Fortisah Che in Bamenda’s Atuazire area has also seen things that weren’t there. He shows us a document for delivery of six World Bank-funded water wells in his area, which he had signed in 2009, even though he had only ever seen four wells – two of which had already been broken at the time. There is now a sign “Water not allowed for drinking” next to one of the two remaining ones. “I signed because I can’t read French,” Fortisah Che explains.

The World Bank delegation had come from the francophone capital Yaoundé, whilst the North West province where Bamenda is, is indeed Anglophone. But we are left with a nagging suspicion that both Fortisah Che and the Nkwen traditional authority may have received “an enticement” in exchange for their signatures. According to several academics and legal professionals we speak to, this is common practice in “development aid monitoring” in Cameroon.

Like in Ivory Coast, government officials capture the aid projects. “I see those payments to government officials and their relatives in the projects,” an auditor confesses. “But we give clean audits, otherwise one is in trouble.” The auditor and his mother phone our reporter that night, crying, begging us not to mention his name. Many have been jailed for being a nuisance to the government in Cameroon. Or worse. “I am not going to complain about those who took the money,” says a farmer we meet in an area where there should have been a water project, but wasn’t.  “They can kill my children with witchcraft.”

Witchcraft

And perhaps there is witchcraft at play. According to the address on a Cameroonian commercial business website, the Joe Conner Water Company that built the now-dilapidated pieces of road for the World Bank resides at Nkwen street in Bamenda. But Nkwen street is very long, and there is no house or plot number. A listed email address doesn’t respond and neither does the phone number, which we ring for days. The company, Bright GP, that officially had built the water wells, is equally untraceable.

We try one larger World Bank and western donor-funded project, Lifidep, purported to help farmers with cattle breeding since 2014. But Pius Mbipe, Lifidep’s coordinator, is not inclined to communicate any Lifidep results so far. “We don’t give information on the phone,” he says. Can we then have an email address? “No. Sorry,” is the last we hear before Mbipe disconnects.

“The farmers had some training,” says editor Ful Joy of the monthly magazine “Farmer’s Voice”. “But it’s always those who manage the projects that benefit more.” Asked what happens to the money poured into the region by donors generally, he says, it “disappears in the hands of people who have big farms. They end up presenting more competition for small farmers.”

The water and the wood

The invisible trees of Bamenda are child’s play compared to all that Gervais Ntariba, director of the DRC’s state water company Regideso, claims to see in Kinshasa. “Two thirds of Kinshasa’s citizens have clean running water now,” is Ntariba’s opening remark at an interview. When the interviewer shows surprise – since Ntariba must know that people here walk around with buckets, often for kilometres, at all hours of the day and night – the director gets angry. “You can’t count all of Kinshasa,” he grunts. “Of course we can’t do all of it. This population doubles every two years.”

Ntariba’s faith in the US$ 190 million (Sh19 trillion) World Bank project called PEMU (‘Project Eau Potable en Milieu Urbain’), that aimed to give the DRC’s three major cities clear running water by 2015 (now extended to 2020) is perhaps partly informed by the fact that the company he works for, “can only survive on bail outs from international donors,” as Charles Mbikayi Tshibangu of Kinshasa’s Institut Superieur de Commerce had written in 2008 (1). In 2014,with PEMU in full swing, the World Bank itself admitted that Regideso couldn’t even get other government departments to pay for the water they used, or get the bulk of its own meters to work.

The World Bank has contracted Chinese and South African companies, among others, to build and repair water infrastructure in Kinshasa and two other cities, but the project documents do not say how the Bank will ensure – as invariably happens – that the pipes won’t rust and the meters break down again. But Gervais Ntariba still sees what we cannot. “By 2020, Kinshasa certainly will have 100% water,” he assures us as we leave.

About 80km away from the capital, on the borders of the river Congo at Maluku, we are invited to see the results of another World Bank project: the multi-billion dollar programme that is meant to protect the DRC’s majestic forests and the people who live in it.  As we walk alongside the river with a state official who works for the Ministry of the Environment, the man – tall, sunglasses, cap, nice suit, urbane manner, “call me Jean,” points at a large boat sliding by, full of wood. “That’s Equator wood,” he says. “It’s protected. But locals have started to log it because all the other wood is appropriated by the big companies in which our officials have interests.”

“Jean” explains how his government bosses pocket donor funding received by the Ministry for the Environment whilst also cornering “sustainable” logging contracts for their own and friends’ companies. Funding meant to assist communities who traditionally live in the forests – farming, fishing and hunting – doesn’t reach them, he says. “On the contrary, they are dislodged from their areas by the logging projects, which is why they end up logging illegally.”

Forest campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa, Irène Wabiwa, confirms that “forest mismanagement” by those who are “supposed to manage them” have left both the forests and its inhabitants worse off than before. “Vulnerable people are at the mercy of untouchables who are protected by the government. These big companies pay their labourers $ 2 a day.

Kibera, Kenya

In Kibera, it isn’t wood, or salaries, but houses that the rich appropriate. “We are their labourers,” township resident Lucianna Wanjiku (58) says, pointing at new high-rise apartments across the road. Wanjiku was once promised one of these houses, but they were snapped up by the politically connected who could afford the high rents. She, a resident since the nineteen seventies, still lives in a shack in the mud, without electricity, sewage snaking through her street; people from here only cross the road to do cleaning and other piece work for those who live there now.

Government men had come in 2000 to promise Wanjiku a title deed and an upgrade. In exchange for Sh1,000 she had saved over five years, they had written a number “of the title deed” on her wall.

There have been many donor-aided upgrade programmes in Kibera since, which have invariably yielded new houses for the middle classes. The parking at the just-finished apartments in Soweto East, courtesy of World Bank and the most recent UN-Habitat funded Kenyan Slum Upgrading Programme, KENSUP, started in 2005, is already full of cars owned by the new occupants. It has once again panned out just as Kibera inhabitants, interviewed for a thesis for the German University of Magdeburg in 2009, had feared. The poor are relocated away from the building projects, lose meagre livelihoods and social networks and remain at the mercy of the townships’ slumlords.

Research by the World Bank itself has suggested that Kibera’s slumlords could be bought out at a cost of Sh100 billion, a bargain compared to the Sh500 billion that is again about to be poured into KENSUP by its donors. A spokesman at the housing ministry says that tenure is indeed on the agenda and that 498 informal settlements have already been “mapped out” for this purpose. But a top official in the same ministry, speaking anonymously, says he believes that “people high up in government don’t want Kibera to cease existing. They own the place and make so much money from the slum.”

Outside Peyero bar on Gulu Municipality’s Langata Road in north Uganda is a car which, by the last letter on its licence plate, belongs to State House, the official residence of the president.  Upon inquiring we learn that both the bar and the car belong to Harriet Aber, the “social friend” – as she was called during parliamentary questioning time recently – of General Salim Saleh, president Museveni’s brother and a veteran of the war against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). It is this 20-year war that has left the regional Acholi people landless and destitute, and therefore the object of large-scale poverty alleviation and land resettlement programmes.

The big men of north Uganda

But the elites in Uganda also want the land. General Saleh has been the target of many protests by locals with regard to alleged land grabbing by himself, his friend Harriet and others. These “untouchables” form a group with interests in big local and foreign businesses and they use their political connections to secure hundreds of hectares of land for them. Perhaps predictably, the massively donor-funded Peace and Reconstruction Development Plan, which started in the region in 2007, had mainly helped such “big men” to appropriate projects and contracts.

Even land rights NGOs are scared to stand up to “those political leaders who are access points for land grabbing,” as Pamela Judith Angwech of the Gulu Women’s Development and Globalisation (GWED-G) calls it, whilst her colleague Elly Turuho, also in land rights advocacy “because land is everything here”, adds that her NGO, ACORD, also hasn’t been able to “deal with (further) evictions” of the landless.

The appropriation of the PRDP by the big men in North Uganda had not upset the programme’s donors. But the fact that $14 million (Sh1.45 billion) of the donor funds was outrightly stolen by government officials, did, at least for a while. The UK, Norway and Ireland suspended aid and demanded money back; the World Bank said it would review its lending to Uganda. But after the accountant of the PRDP programme was jailed – nothing happened to other high-level culprits – they all came back.

A new European Programme for North Uganda launched in 2016 does make note of, once again, a “high risk of capture by local elites”. It was approved nevertheless.

‘The elites are your friend’

The risk that elites, either in local communities or nationally, appropriate aid to get even richer, and that this can result in a “net loss to the country’s economy,” had already been described in research by the University of Glasgow in 2006. A World Bank study done three years earlier in 2003 has also warned against “enhancement of privilege” of elites as a result of capture of aid monies.

But it continues. “Working with elites is, to a large extent, deliberate policy,” comments an independent consultant with a 20-year track record in monitoring aid projects in southern and east Africa.  “As a donor, you need to incorporate partner countries in your political agenda – whether that is fighting ISIS or decreasing migration to the West. The higher up your partners are, the better. It is also easier for donors to give away big sums at the top. Small amounts need too much admin. But aid given in that way may have a counterproductive effect with regard to the poor.”

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