How Western development aid continues to stifle local initiatives
People and organizations in developing countries know what is best for them. But they are regularly sidelined by Western development aid.
This content was published on September 29, 2021 – 5:00 PM
At the age of 13, Bwaita Aggrey met Jacob and Frida from Sweden while walking through Jinja, a town in southeastern Uganda on the shores of Lake Victoria. âThey were young and didn’t have the money for a tour guide,â Aggrey explains. So he offered to show them around for free. All he asked in return was “a guarantee that they would become my friends.” As they broke up, they exchanged their phone numbers.
Several weeks later, Aggrey received an SMS from Sweden. Jacob and Frida had told their friends and family about him and had raised funds for his education. âI was so excited,â Aggrey wrote in a message to SWI swissinfo.ch.
Jacob again traveled from Sweden to Uganda and helped the boy open a bank account. Before leaving, Jacob told him, âThis is your future. You decide how you spend the money we send you. Whether you use it for tuition or spend it with your friends is up to you, but don’t disappoint us.
Help people through social networks
Today, Bwaita Aggrey is 21 years old. Not only is he a rising fashion star in Uganda, with his own fashion brand, but in 2020 he founded the youth platform ‘Youth Coffee Talk Africa’, which aims to empower Ugandan youth through technology, education, entrepreneurship and exchanges. Aggrey motivates young people to volunteer in their community.
During Covid’s containment, her non-governmental organization (NGO) provided 1,000 girls living in slums with sanitary napkins. . A clothing donation campaign was also organized. On YouTube and Instagram, âYouth Coffee Talk Africaâ educates young people about the importance of wearing a mask and gives advice on what to do in the event of illness. The NGO also used social media for a campaign against teenage pregnancy.
âJacob and Frida inspired me and motivated me to do my job,â Aggrey says. âThey gave me self-confidence. At 13, I learned financial discipline because I had to manage and prioritize the money they sent me.
Development aid crushes local initiatives
Bwaita Aggrey’s story shows that local initiatives can be an alternative to Western development aid. In other words, instead of âwhite saviorsâ from overseas, people in developing countries can be the heroes of their own stories.
This is not a new debate. For decades, foreign aid experts from NGOs and the United Nations have debated how to channel funds more effectively and engage those affected on the ground.
According to Anglo-Nigerian political scientist Faye Ekong, who grew up in Ghana and now works as a management consultant in Kenya, small local initiatives such as âYouth Coffee Talk Africaâ are a possible complement to traditional development assistance. However, the problem, she says, is that âonce the machinery for international development assistance starts, all local initiatives are destroyed. It’s like Walmart in the United States. If the supermarket chain opens a branch somewhere, the small stores go bankrupt.
For Ekong, international development assistance should be aimed at strengthening existing local efforts, rather than launching new projects. âEspecially in Africa, we have seen great progress in a short time thanks to social entrepreneurship: people have invested in their own communities, they know what is needed, they are more trustworthy and they are not held back. through formalities and reports. The advances made are also more sustainable, as the actors feel personally responsible for the project. This is by no means the only way forward for development aid, concludes Ekong, but it is a useful addition that deserves more attention.
Switzerland finances all
This is exactly Switzerland’s approach. Switzerland is the only country to publicly allocate bilateral development aid projects in accordance with World Trade Organization (WTO) guidelines. This means that any humanitarian organization in the world can apply for Swiss funding – not just a Swiss or American NGO, but also a Ugandan micro-organization like âYouth Coffee Talk Africaâ. In other countries, governments mainly award contracts to national NGOs. According to the NGO Peace Direct, it is above all the âusual suspectsâ who receive public funds; in other words, aid organizations that already have a relationship with donors.
Swiss NGOs, for their part, are not satisfied with Switzerland’s approach. Critics say this puts them at a disadvantage compared to foreign competition.
There is no international obligation to publicly bid on development assistance projects. The Swiss Parliament decided on its own initiative. And it firmly maintains the principle: the legislator recently rejected a motion calling for priority to be given to Swiss NGOs.
From a Swiss perspective, it can be frustrating when a British NGO, not a Swiss one, lands a contract funded by Swiss taxpayers’ money; but for NGOs in developing countries, the Swiss approach is – at least in theory – an opportunity. For example, a Colombian NGO can apply for funding for a project in Colombia; it probably has more local expertise and knowledge, for example, than a French organization.
What the numbers show
This does not mean that NGOs in developed countries are losing Swiss funds. On the contrary. According to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, a total of 141 development cooperation projects were publicly awarded between 2017 and 2020. Of these, 80 went to Swiss providers, 44 to providers from developed countries and 17 to local providers. .
The application conditions for contracts are strict. There are rules on compliance, monitoring, reporting, etc. âMeeting these demands is difficult and requires institutional capacity,â wrote a spokesperson for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in a response to SWI swissinfo.ch. Peace Direct criticizes Western demands – mostly bureaucratic – which are based on Western values ââand knowledge systems and automatically devalue local knowledge, thus excluding local organizations from receiving funding.
However, Switzerland is doing much better than other Western countries when it comes to channeling funds closer to the needs of the local population.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analyzed the data from 2018 to 2019. âAfter the institutions of the European Union and the United Kingdom, Switzerland provided the third largest amount to NGOs in countries in development, âreplied an OECD spokesperson. Switzerland is one of the states that allocate a significant portion of the budget of aid organizations to NGOs in developing countries.
According to the OECD, NGOs in developing countries still receive the smallest share of official development assistance. Most of the funds go to aid organizations that are based in donor countries.
Bwaita Aggrey continues despite everything. Thanks to digitization, it can reach people all over the world.