Aid dilemmas bypassed by Busan Partnership

I would have preferred not to be reminded of my concerns about the situation in Malawi so early in the year. Least of all when the suspension of foreign aid to that country was presented as a job well done.

The trigger was some fairly routine business of the UK House of Commons. A committee responsible for scrutinising foreign aid took a look at the problems involved in supporting fragile and conflict-related states, with particular reference to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

It recommended that the government should “set out specific governance conditions under which it will provide direct budget support to fragile states.” In the case of Rwanda, this refers to its “human rights record and the lack of political pluralism.”

This is an impossible ask for the UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, whose affection for Rwanda is well known. However, he’s made the sensible initial response, with a broad acceptance of the recommendations.

And by way of reassurance, Mitchell boasted that: “we are prepared to withhold funding through governments when our standards are not met, as we have done in Malawi.” He was referring to the action of a number of key donors following the suppression of anti-government protests by President Bingu wa Mutharika in July last year.

I wonder how these soothing words for UK parliamentarians might sound to ordinary households in Malawi. Yesterday’s reports from the country quote a warning from the president that “there is looming hunger due to a poor crop outlook in some parts of the country.”

Food aid is indeed already required in the south. An export ban on maize was introduced last week, a sure sign of trouble. One sentence from the most recent food security update from FewsNet sums up the dire conditions in Malawi just now:

The scarcity of foreign currency supply in Malawi continues to contribute to an unstable economy, making it difficult for traders to purchase and import essential commodities, such as fuel and fertilizer. A decrease in imported fertilizer available in the country currently will likely negatively affect harvests in April-August

“The scarcity of foreign currency” is largely explained by – the withdrawal of foreign aid.

I had hoped that answers to these awful dilemmas of aid conditionality would be addressed by the recent aid effectiveness summit in South Korea, supposedly the culmination of over ten years of endeavour to render the international aid regime fit for the 21st century.

The Busan Partnership for Effective Development was the outcome. It has nothing whatsoever to say about the desirability of human rights and political freedoms in recipient countries. It could not do so because China would not have signed up.

There is a very short section on fragile and conflict-affected states which makes an oblique reference to “legitimate politics.” But the particular group of “G7+” countries to which it refers includes neither Rwanda nor Malawi.

I don’t know how Andrew Mitchell is going to deal with the Select Committee demands. He also has Ethiopia on his plate, effectively a totalitarian state, yet budgeted to become the UK’s largest beneficiary country within the next two years.

All he can do is play the security card. “If you want me to spend 30% of the development aid budget on peace-building in conflict states, you’ll have to lower the bar on governance, just as would be the case if this was defence budget spending – or emergency humanitarian relief – which is where Malawi is heading and Ethiopia has already arrived.”

Politics is a messy business but nowhere near as messy as delivering food aid to half the population of a landlocked country with no roads.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK