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Interview by Welt-Sichten (World-Views)
Irina Fuhrmann/Oxfam

There are at least a million people in the West who live off the aid industry. They have a vested interest in perpetuating it. But it will disintegrate over time and die slowly.

WELT-SICHTEN: You wrote that the aid effectiveness journey since the Paris Declaration in 2005 was misguided right from the beginning. Why that?

YASH TANDON: Because it was conceptualized by the donors, and not by the people that were supposed to be assisted. It was not a participatory project. When it became clear that aid had failed, instead of looking at the issue in a fundamental manner, the donor countries put the blame of ineffectiveness on the recipient countries.

WELT-SICHTEN: But the Paris Declaration also calls on the donors to harmonize their aid policies, to align them to recipient-country systems, among other things.

YASH TANDON: Those words are deceptive. The five principles of the Paris Declaration are ideological, one-sided and not enforceable on the donors. They looked good in a conceptual sense, but the implementation was enforced only on the recipient countries.

WELT-SICHTEN: You have said that after the High Level Forum in Busan, the aid industry in itself is finally dead. Why?

YASH TANDON: Well, this industry was nurtured by countries that have used aid to serve their own political and economic agendas in the south. In fact, the so-called development aid never did promote development. Since 2005, the OECD countries and the World Bank have tried very hard to sell the idea of “aid effectiveness”. But the Outcome Document of the Busan Forum does not mention the word "aid effectiveness". It's gone. Finally, the architects of the aid industry, namely the OECD countries and the World Bank, have recognized that they cannot use that word anymore. Aid has become a dirty word, like colonialism. The result is that the aid industry has no longer any legitimacy.

WELT-SICHTEN: By contrast, the Minister of Development in Germany sees a new beginning: He said that Busan was a basis to “bundle” old and new actors in development cooperation and to steer them in the same direction.

YASH TANDON: Well, the minister better read the Outcome Document again. It calls on the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness to dissolve by June 2012. The words are clear. There is no “rebundling” of aid.

WELT-SICHTEN: But the Outcome Document says that a new Global Partnership for Development should be established.

YASH TANDON: This new development partnership will not take off the ground because the ruling classes of Europe and the West have a distorted, an upside-down, understanding of “development”. Let Europe first show that their “partnership“ with the people of Greece takes off the ground before they offer the same failed strategies to the poor indebted countries of Africa and the third world.

WELT-SICHTEN: NGOs have said Busan was a compromise: the Outcome Document left much to be desired, but it was a success that civil society was recognized as a development partner.

YASH TANDON: The NGOs that came to Busan were not representative of the global civil society. The overwhelming bulk of them were financed by the OECD. For the last six years, these guys have been saying the same thing, namely, that the OECD has compromised but there is a still a lot to be desired. This is an admission that they have failed to change the “aid effectiveness” agenda. The NGOs have a self-serving delusion about themselves: they live in a fool’s paradise.

WELT-SICHTEN: So in your view the only purpose of the aid effectiveness process was to legitimate the apparently ineffective and self-serving aid industry of the West?

YASH TANDON: That is correct. Of course this industry will not disappear overnight. There are at least a million people in the Western countries that live off the aid industry. They have a vested interest in perpetuating it. It will disintegrate over time and die slowly. When the aid industry started 50 years ago with multilateral and governmental agencies that were providing financial support to countries that were emerging out of the colonial period, it was already corrupted. For example, when the World Bank came to provide the so-called assistance to my country Uganda at its independence in 1962, it came with its own strategy of development. It was not people-oriented, it was top-down, it was aimed at continuing to serve essentially the interests of the former colonial powers – namely to export our primary commodities to them. The whole economic agenda was flawed right from the beginning. And that agenda was bought into later on by the charity organisations and the NGOs.

WELT-SICHTEN: But many development NGOs have been strongly criticising the official aid agenda and the World Bank policy for many years.

YASH TANDON: Yes, but many of them got corrupted over time. For example, Oxfam started out as a well meaning, well intentioned organisation by people who wanted to give money as charity to people who were less fortunate than them. But look at how Oxfam has evolved: it has become a party of the development strategies pushed by the Western countries. Gradually charity organisations like Oxfam got sucked into that strategy. They criticised the effects of it, but at the same time continued pouring money into the same strategy. And when the OECD worked out this thing about “effective aid”, the NGOs jumped on this agenda as well. Instead of examining this question in its fundamentals and looking at the root causes of aid ineffectiveness, the NGOs simply called for even more aid and “better aid”.

WELT-SICHTEN: You say that aid has failed. But what's wrong with, for example, the German development bank KfW financing water supply systems in Kampala?

WELT-SICHTEN: Why do you call it aid? Just call it business, like the Chinese and the Indians do in Africa. The Chinese go to Kampala to do business. They go to the government or the private sector and talk about investments. Aid, by contrast, is humiliating.

WELT-SICHTEN: So it's better to do it like China?

YASH TANDON: Absolutely. Why hide your commercial and political interests? Be transparent, just call it what it is. Call it business.

WELT-SICHTEN: Another example: What's wrong with a German Church-based development organisation working with grassroots partner organisations in rural Uganda to empower women or poor farmers? That's aid, isn't it?

WELT-SICHTEN: There is a particular kind of relationship I accept: that is a relationship based on solidarity. But solidarity is a very difficult concept. If the goal is to help the Ugandan women to empower themselves, by their own projects, then I would call this solidarity. But the people from Germany must not impose their values on the Ugandan women. In other words, if the communities of these women have certain cultural practices, then solidarity organisations from the West should respect that.

WELT-SICHTEN: Even if such practices conflict with universal human rights? Should we not encourage women who raise their voices against practices that violate their human rights?

YASH TANDON: No, this is not your business. The women don't require outside agencies to “encourage” them, as you put it. My experience from 20 years of grassroots work in Africa is that the initiatives of rural women in Africa against oppression are very strong and very strategic. They know what will work and what will not. If in such a situation a foreign organisation comes to provide assistance based on the women's own initiatives, then it will work. By contrast, if an outside agency comes to solve the problem, then you might create conflicts which the outside organisations cannot manage. All development is self-development.


* Yash Tandon is a political economist and author of several books on development economics and aid. Until his retirement in 2009 he was the Executive Director of the South Centre in Geneva. He was born in Uganda and now lives in Oxford.
* This interview will appear in the original German version in February in Welt-sichten.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.