13 February 2013

Africa: Bill Gates and the Two Sides of the Donor Coin


When one looks around Africa and sees how some donor supported projects are transforming rural lives, one does not doubt that development aid can have a positive impact.

Many will agree that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian and charity-based aid where it is needed.

But there are two sides to this, of which development aid has not always had a flattering reputation.

One only needs to recall skeptics such as the Zambian economist, Ndambisa Moyo and her much talked-about book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.

Critics vehemently charge that after more than 60 years of development aid, now in the range of $3 trillion to date, there is little evidence that it has any significant effect on third-world poverty.

They do not fail to make a comparison with the Asian Tigers--South Korea, Taiwan, China, etc-which have risen from poverty to prosperity with minimal role played by foreign aid. In

Africa, only countries such as South Africa and Botswana have been mentioned in similar vein.

Then there is the comparison of aid to the "Dutch Disease".( The term first came to use in 1977 in a description of the decline of the Netherlands manufacturing sector following the 1959 discovery of natural gas in the country.)

Dutch Disease therefore describes increased inflow of income, or revenues from natural resources, that make the local currency stronger but with the negative effect that the manufacturing sector gets less competitive and exports more expensive. Inflow of aid Dollars can have a similar negative effect.

The above are only some of the criticisms. But there are firm believers of the good in development aid, such as the billionaire Bill Gates.

His Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation has made a name in philanthropy, especially in addressing ills that hinder development in Africa and the Third World.

Bill Gates knows that development aid does change lives. Where the critics may not see evidence significant effect of official development aid, Gates would like a way be found to measure the impact and positive effect aid.

He recently penned an article, My Plan to Fix The World's Biggest Problems, where he notes that foreign aid has historically been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested, and not by how well it performed in actually helping people.

He explains how he has "been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition [and how] you can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal."

Talking about goals, some skeptics have appeared to dismiss the Millennium Development Goals as "activist marketing" for the United Nations.

But Bill Gates sees the MDGs, largely donor supported to achieve, as one of greatest successes in terms of using measurement to drive global change.

He notes that it was important that "the Millennium goals were backed by a broad consensus, were clear and concrete, and brought focus to the highest priorities."

Signed in 2000 by 189 nations, the MDGs set 2015 as the deadline "for making specific percentage improvements across a set of crucial areas-such as health, education and basic income."

Gates is convinced of the need for "innovations in measurement to find new, effective ways to deliver tools and services to the clinics, family farms and classrooms that need them."

He got his idea about measurement from the development of the steam engine during the 19th Century. Its inventors used measuring tools that allowed them to see how their incremental design changes led to the improvements needed to build better engines.

Gates represents the pro side of the donor coin and if employing measurement beyond the MDGs is all it will take, perhaps it should make the idea of development aid more palatable to the skeptics.

Copyright © 2013 The New Times. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.