What is secular aid good for? The link between graft, spirituality and poverty
(Photo: The Lion Mountains kiosk outside the mill on Tawa Street, Bo)
In the wake of the UK-based Oxfam scandal in which aid workers in the Haiti earthquake aftermath exchanged aid for sex and used local prostitutes, disparate Christian voices around the world are calling for reform to the Western aid system.
As the UK’s Daily Express calls for a ‘crusade’ against development spending - the UK currently commits by law to an aid spend of 11 billion per year, .7% of its annual budget – a growing chorus of African academics are lending weight to the search for alternatives.
Zainab Bangura, former Under-Secretary General of the UN and one-time Minister of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone, said aid was unaccountable, and demoralizing.
"People don’t believe they can do anything on their own any more. Long years of support by donors makes you donor dependent." she said.
Speaking to The Media Project from her home in Freetown, the former leader who recently stood down in the race for president, blamed the donor world’s inability to criticize national governments. "We have lost the war on corruption." she said.
From having one of the strongest economies in the world in the 1960s, Sierra Leone now imports rice. Although the war ended in 2001, the country is now the third hungriest in the world, according to a Harvard-based think tank.
All this despite still receiving, in one estimate, a staggering US $882million per year in foreign aid hand-outs. Last figures published by OECD indicate this is a tiny fraction of world aid to Africa as a whole.
Sierra Leone is a tiny country of 7 million population and immense natural resources. Still seventy-five percent of its male population is unemployed.
It's so corrupt that even £10million of Red Cross ebola funds were embezzled. The Anglican church is also presently embroiled in an embezzlement scandal involving the bishop of Bo, and six of his officials.
As the entire aid industry gets caught up in the fallout from the Oxfam scandal, the call by Tory maverick, Jacob Rees-Mogg, for an end to Britain’s aid commitment and a switch to investment instead is gaining traction.
Yet it is not only the ‘charity-begins-at-home’ right-wing who are anti-aid.
Sierra Leone development expert and former Chief Administrator of Freetown City Council, Bowenson Phillips, describes aid as a ‘cancer.'
"It’s a way of destroying our society in many ways, one of which is the dependency syndrome." said Phillips. "Our people sub-consciously learn to look for hand-outs. They believe they cannot help themselves. It has crippled innovation and business drive."
Indeed, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) is criticized this week for not managing the risk of future dependency.
In its latest report published this week, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact says:
DFID’s approach was not adequately reporting and capturing results and value for money at the country portfolio level, or how programmes work together to deliver lasting impact, including reducing future dependency on aid.
Sierra Leone is a glaring case in point. Hardly poor, it sits on the world’s largest iron-ore deposits and has vast untapped diamond and other mineral wealth.
Yet its people remain in shocking poverty, caught as they are in a vice of graft on the one hand, where wealth is creamed off by the few. On the other hand, a worldview that missionaries note is the opposite of ‘functional.'
This is shorthand for fear of the occult: the collusion by ‘mystical aggressors’ with sin and negativity.
Change threatens the established order in African society - all of which are built around a religious attitude that seeks to maintain equilibrium. Yet when things go wrong, there is only one explanation.
Keith Ferdinando wrote a study of African demonology after working in Congo with African Inland Mission and claims witchcraft and sorcery beliefs are all too evident.
"They undermine initiative as the farmer, for example, who increases his crop yield may be accused of using 'medicine' harmful to the fields of his neighbors, and may indeed himself fear occult aggression by the envious." said Ferdinando.
Furthermore, such beliefs are underpinned by murder, emanating from secret societies that commit members to vows of silence on pain of death. Phillips says "African society is synonymous with secret society."
Ferdinando asserts, "The belief that neighbors, or even kin, have killed members of one’s own family [through witchcraft] inevitably causes hatred and exacerbates the ordinary antagonisms of social relations, leading perhaps eventually to cruelty, destruction and death."
Even using an old pot in which rice was once milled as a flower pot is considered dangerous. I encountered a gardener at a luxury home in trendy Freetown who refused to re-cycle an old pot, deeming it to be harmful to the spirit of the pot.
This makes it difficult or impossible for small farmers to upscale their ways of operating, and politicians give such attitudes lip-service, according to Bangura.
"When people want political power, as educated as I am, my response to these practices, in order to bring these people along, is to encourage and accept what they are doing." said Bangura.
"We the political class have refused to help the people and encourage them in that circumstance because we feel it is the only way we can get the vote."
Businessmen who try to exploit the country’s vast agricultural wealth have found they face an uphill task, and many who are honest go to the wall, without understanding fully what they’re up against.
Mike Gericke, a Zimbabwean rice farmer based in Bo who moved to Sierra Leone from Zimbabwe ten years ago (when his farm was stolen by Mugabe) says he failed to interest the international community in such an unreliable investment. As a result, the operation of Lion Mountains - the rice growing, milling and distribution company he set up - is under threat because of lack of ongoing investment and support from government.’