When foreign Aid Does More Harm than Good
By: Donal Conlon
It was waiting to happen. An increasingly corrupt and unequal society cannot exist forever-even if the population is inherently passive- without disastrous consequences. I have waited – I lived and worked 13 years in Mozambique - for violence to happen. Unfortunately this particular revolt is not going to improve the lot of the people…maybe the opposite. The Western Donor/AID community must take some blame – indirectly helping to create it by pressing for a liberal economy without the checks and balances to contain corruption or the institutions to sustain democracy.
Helping the Elite to Sow the Wind
Who is capable of crying stop when it is obvious that development aid is adding to corruption in a country? Not the donors, it appears! Mozambique has become much more corrupt- as Transparency International has testified- over the last thirty years while donor aid, including the US’s, England’s and Ireland’s, has poured in-the international community doesn’t really seems to mind: a small, unimportant African nonentity!
Mozambique started its independent destiny as a Marxist state - land, housing, businesses were wholly nationalised. When the Marxist President - an incorruptible - was killed in a mysterious air crash, Mozambique was pushed towards a liberal economy by the IMF/World Bank and western donors arrived. The door to corruption opened.
I worked in the education sector in Mozambique from 2002 to 2015 and travelled much of the country. I no longer live in Mozambique but, as I am fond of the country and its people, I follow its fortunes. I have watched its slide into what an ex-US ambassador to the country called recently, a “failed state”.
It is not a failed state in the strict definition of the word but something equally calamitous: a state captured by an elite. All authority in Mozambique belongs to a select few in the Frelimo party which has been in power since independence in 1975. This group controls the country with little or no separation between party, state and big business; this elite is profoundly corrupt, extremely rich and powerful.
Mozambique has been an African priority aid country for the west, including the US (about $450 million yearly) England ($1.7 billion 2004-08) and Ireland, for more than twenty years and been assisted with billions of millions of euro - both in direct budgetary aid or channelled through NGOs. It was being cited as a great success story for development aid when I arrived. There was peace after a ferocious civil war; there was GDP growth. At the time the country’s budget was more than 50% funded by donors. However, even then, everybody who cared knew that corruption was rife.
I have read press articles over the years urging the western countries not to turn their backs on the poor but, rather, to increase aid to developing countries. Having seen the aid business in operation in Mozambique I have always felt this attitude to be somewhat naive-aid being also able to do much harm. I think of that now as I was watch the debacle that Mozambique has become.
In the north, where three times more children die before the age of five than in the south, and where rubies, gas and drug trafficking routes are the prizes, there is a brutal war that the Government blames on foreign jihadists and others blame on extreme inequality, poverty and alienation. Traffic of cocaine and heroin from Afghanistan via Pakistan to Mozambique (landed in the north of the country) goes on to South Africa and Europe and has been credibly linked to senior figures in Frelimo, the ruling party. A close friend of the last President, an extremely wealthy business man, was named, some years back, by the US Justice Dept as a drug lord. Mozambique is mired in crime and corruption.
A sad aspect of the Mozambican story is that no change is now possible without upheaval which probably means violence-already happening. It is called a democracy but has none of the institutions to support a democracy. Frelimo, in power since independence, controls all branches of government: legislature, executive, judiciary, security. These branches are in no sense independent and it is extremely dangerous for anyone to threaten the party’s position.
The most obvious ‘trickle-down’ effect in Mozambique is not wealth; it is corruption. Everybody knows people at the top are corrupt so down the scale people feel quite entitled to be corrupt also: teachers, nurses, police, immigration officials…the list goes on. Public services are distorted by corruption; it is almost impossible to get higher in any of these services without being corrupt. The basic ones, health and education are referenced as the most rotten.
Donors point to statistics in certain sectors such as Education to show they are making a difference. Example: there are more primary-age children are in school now than before as donors have helped build more classrooms. However, behind this positive picture is a grim reality. About 50% of children don’t finish primary school and many who do cannot read or write. Donors insisted that Mozambique produce more teachers for the new classrooms so after ten years of basic schooling and one year of training young teachers are put in front of classes of 60 to 70 without resources. Added to this difficulty is the fact that 75% of these children start school unable to speak the language of instruction, Portuguese. Children who have the luck to get to secondary school are quite often illiterate.
At the next two levels, of which I have a direct experience having taught in university and visited many secondary schools, the situation is totally dysfunctional. Teachers are absent with impunity and even when present are under little obligation to teach -being present is enough. At all levels - primary, secondary, third level- many teachers are willing to give grades for money or sex.
There is schooling without learning in Mozambique. The country has descended into the bottom 10 of 190 countries classed in the Human Development Index (HDI), which takes into account elements such as education and health. Donors trumpet the numbers: more children in school. It is a kind of make-believe, a justification for their existence and the money spent.
How can one explain why the bringers of aid continue helping these regimes, knowing that the aid they bring deepens the corruption? The money –a percentage of GDP – of course, has to be spent so it might seem a step too far to ask them to recognise how damaging their actions can be. It is also in donor governments’ interest that the idea of international aid projects a positive image.
I am unaware if there are serious independent bodies which look, in detail at countries’ aid programmes, and how the millions are spent. Who investigates the positive claims they make for themselves in their glossy brochures? How might they defend themselves from the reality of the decline in the standard of basic education in Mozambique over the last ten years? Maybe by saying, “It would be worse without us”: a position difficult to defend.
Foreign aid to Mozambique has been scaled back in the last number of years because of a recent ‘secret debt’ scandal. The ex-Minister of Finance and a son of the last President are amongst those in jail for a fraud that has cost the country $2 billion. The ex-minister has been in jail in South Africa for several years awaiting extradition to maybe the US, maybe Mozambique. We might applaud the fact that at last something is being done about corruption! Was the corruption revealed by the Mozambican Judiciary, Police or Press? The donors? No, it was the US Justice Department - some of the money was channelled through the US banking system- who instigated the case. It seems extraordinary that it would not have come to light otherwise. But who would dare? In any case, it is now too late; corruption is entrenched and endemic.
It is sad, even frightening, to see so much money going to a country corrupt on a grand scale: a distorted monster of a regime controlled by serious kleptomaniacs who have learned to control and manipulate donors.
Might we not hope that Governments and their aid-wielding donor diplomats be a little more discerning in how they spend tax-payers’ money?
These opinions are mine and held for many years; the facts are verifiable. If you wish to consult a recent serious study on the Mozambican situation then you can find it at: The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) on