Overseas aid to foreign countries, to which Prime Minister David Cameron has committed millions despite our economic troubles, destroys their democracy rather than helping them. That was the unexpected message from award-winning journalist and novelist Aminatta Forna (pictured) when she spoke at one of the last events of Marlborough’s literary festival at the town hall on Sunday.
She is the daughter of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leone freedom fighter, who spent part of her childhood in Africa as well as in Zambia, Iran and Thailand, and whose memoir, The Memory of Love, won last year’s Commonwealth Writer’s Best Book Award prize.
And questioned about her attitude to the UK’s refusal to reduce international aid given our double-dip recession, she confessed that her disenchantment stemmed from the end of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, when the Revolutionary United Front tried to overthrow the government of president Joseph Momoh.
At first she welcomed the arrival of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and agencies but then dramatically changed her mind when she saw what was happening in the country.
“I thought the arrival of the NGOs was the best thing that happened to us,” she said. “Then I got very disenchanted. I am not at all convinced of the efficacy of aid on the ground. But then I have a much bigger and much more troubling feeling about it, which is that I don’t think it is really meant to work.
“I don’t anyone in western governments care a damn about it. I think aid is really investment for business. Actually aid is completely tied to markets. It’s about opening markets and that’s what developing countries do in order to get the aid.”
And Aminatta then declared: “I think aid destroys democracy because our president in Sierra Leone — and it is true of very many other countries — is much more concerned about what the aid donors think than he is to what his electorate thinks.”
She complained that it was the electorate is to whom the president was answerable to, not the providers of aid.
“We here in Britain may think we stand for certain principles and it doesn’t really matter if he answers to us. He is going to be answering to China very shortly. But it undermines fundamental relations in a democracy where he is answerable to his people.
“It is that relationship between aid and trade that bothers me most. In any case, I don’t think much aid is effective, it’s not long term, it’s not thought out.
“Quite often we have discussions like this and people quite genuinely want to help and they become very upset thinking that the help they are giving doesn’t seem to be appreciated by this woman talking to you here on stage.”
There were exceptions, she admitted, and she said she could name one or two agencies who did good work. “But I say to young people, if you want to change the developing world, if you want to help the developing world, please go and lobby for fair trade terms,” Aminatta added.
“That is much more acceptable than spending a year working with an NGO. If you do want to do something, then please switch all your assets into emerging markets.”
The need is to help people to help themselves
Support for Aminatta’s views came from Dr Nick Maurice, founder of Marlborough’s famed Brandt Group, which supports people in The Gambia to help themselves.
“She raised a vitally important issue namely the relationship between aid and development,” Dr Maurice told Marlborough News Online after hearing her speak.
“Aid suggests help for the helpless and, as an African, she rightly criticises this approach which takes no account of the extraordinary resourcefulness of African people. It suggests ‘hand outs’ rather than ‘hand ups’ – i.e starting from where people are and working with those that want to bring about change for the better.
“The word ‘development’ comes from the French ‘De-envelopper’ i.e. ‘to remove the envelope’, the envelope referring to the constraints of lack of literacy and education, lack of medical services, lack of access to business opportunities, and thus enabling people to reach their maximum potential.
“It means working with people rather than working for people.”
Aminatta is right to be critical of some aid agencies who very often come with their own agendas and pre-conceived ideas of ‘what people need is….’.
“There is a fine African saying, ‘We are given two ears and only one mouth for a purpose, namely that we should listen more and we should speak less!”