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Specialists Debate How US Aid to Africa Can be More Effective

As both the Obama administration and Congress discuss reform proposals in U.S. foreign aid and development assistance, experts at a panel discussion in Washington have called on the United States to make U.S. foreign aid more supportive of effective governments and citizen-led institutions.

In his speech to the Ghanaian Parliament and Africans in general a week ago, President Barack Obama promised substantial increases in U.S. foreign aid to Africa.

Thursday’s panel discussion in Washington among development professionals and aid recipients offered some suggestions how U.S. foreign aid can be more beneficial to recipients.

Paul O’Brien, director of the Aid Effectiveness Team at OXFAM America, an international relief and development organization said local ownership of aid was one of the key ways toward smart development.

“For many of us who focus on development exclusively, we think the best way to serve U.S. national interests - our defense interest, our diplomatic interests - would be to focus on development as an end in itself. Yes, we need to give information, yes we need to build capacity, but ultimately if we want responsible leadership in the field, we’re going to let countries lead,” he said.

O’Brien described what he called “a control paradox” in U.S. foreign aid policy in the form of legislative earmarks.

“They are a function of the fact that the executive branch on the one hand and Congress on the other don’t trust each other. And so they feel that if they are going to get impact for their money they’ve got to decide exactly what that money is going to be used for. The consequence of that break down of relationship is that we can’t give any control out in the field to the development professionals who supposed to be listening to what people are doing on the ground,” O’Brien said.

Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, a regular critic of Western aid, said African countries should think more about how to do away with aid rather than how to make it effective.

“Rather than deal with their own citizens, governments in Africa find it more productive to enter into negotiations with the international community for aid. The consequence of that is of course ineffective public institutions,” he said.

Mwenda said if African governments were to depend more on their own citizens for revenues, they would be driven by self-interest to listen to their citizens about policies.

He said aid should be given to African countries or institutions that are succeeding rather than to those who are failing.

“Once you have identified those nations, aid should go to those nations that are effective.If you have a country that can use aid effectively, then you do not need conditionalities from the West, and you do not need lectures from the West,” Mwenda said.

Liberia’s Minister of State for Development and Reconstruction O. Natty Davis II said international aid has been helpful to his country’s reconstruction efforts following years of civil war.

“We’ve increased the number of school children going to school. We’ve now put in a school feeding program. We’ve increased health service delivery. Over the course of the last three years we’ve been able to rehabilitate some of the principal roads within the capital, and that is now been extended out,” he said.

Davis admitted corruption is systemic in Liberia but said the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken steps to fight corruption.

“We have set up the Anti-Corruption Commission; we are investing more heavily in the justice system and the justice ministry. We are working to try to improve the court system. We are putting in those kinds of reforms, particularly in our public financial management system that reduces the space and the opportunity for corruption,” Davis said.

He denied local news reports that Liberia was on the brink of losing its eligibility status for the Millennium Challenge Corporation Funding because of the lack of political will to fight corruption.