There was good news recently as a UN study showed that there is increasing global progress on tackling child mortality. However, there is still one region which is trailing far behind: sub-Saharan Africa. This is significant to us in the UK because sub-Saharan Africa is the region which has received most aid from the UK over the last few decades and is also where the UK has had the most influence.
We are reminded that we must pay careful attention to the UK aid system and identify aspects which may be unhelpful or harmful to the poor. Once we begin this task, we very quickly find that there are many aspects of UK aid which are potentially harmful. In fact, the more we look, the more it seems that the UK aid system, with regards to sub-Saharan Africa, is carefully designed to control and exploit the region, with scant regard for the impacts upon the poor. That is, aid seems to be used as a tool of modern imperialism.
To start with, UK bilateral aid is still conditional upon African countries following discredited pro-foreign investor, anti-poor, anti-growth programs designed by the World Bank and IMF. Under the programs the world's poorest countries are barred from using the same strategies that today's rich countries used to develop including trade and capital controls. This conditionality has previously been condemned by UK poverty activists.
For example, in 2005 Make Poverty History wrote to Tony Blair that the conditions attached to aid 'often work to entrench rather than overcome poverty.' In 2006, Christian Aid stated that by attaching aid to these exploitative policies, rich countries were 'paying for poverty'. Such criticism forced the UK government to claim that it would change direction but several analysts including the UK Aid Network have pointed out that little real change has materialised.
The UK government is also using aid to promote increased corporate control of African food production with a range of harmful impacts upon the poor. For example, the Department for International Development's (DfID's) Food Retail Industry Challenge Fund (FRICH) is aimed at promoting export commodity production (tea, coffee, vanilla etc.) by African smallholders for sale to UK supermarkets, instead of food production for local needs. In this way, countries such as Kenya export large amounts of food crops whilst many in the country starve.
DfID also funds the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, which makes grants of between $250,000 and $1.5 million for investments in Africa, primarily to large scale agribusiness companies. The support for the land deals comes at a time when Oxfam reports that large firms are increasingly taking over productive land and water at the expense of African peasants.
Aid is also helping the UK to co-opt poverty groups in Africa. For example, observers in Rwanda point out that Western aid provided to local NGOs (often first going through UK charities) works to divert them from political advocacy and promoting social reform. Instead, anti-poverty groups are funded to focus only on technical project work (digging wells, etc.) while ignoring underlying socio-economic problems. The result of this process is to further reduce the impact of the poor on policy-making, making it less likely that their concerns will be addressed.
The thinking of the UK government is clear: national economic policies in poor countries are supposed to be designed by donor governments in collaboration with compliant local elites. The poor should stay out of the way.
It is a definite possibility that ending these imperialist aspects of UK aid would help sub-Saharan Africa improve its record on child mortality.