Public image of aid threatens climate talks

Michela Wrong’s exposé of Kenyan corruption, It’s Our Turn to Eat, published earlier this year, has brought the despicable Anglo-Leasing scandal to a much wider audience than would otherwise have been possible.

This includes the Kenyans themselves. They have been scrambling to read the book since it became known that local retailers were refusing to stock it out of fear of government retribution.

I found an appropriately African quality in the book that may not have been intended. The strong contours of the opening chapters and the intimacy of the relationship with the central figure, whistleblower John Githongo, create anticipation of a journey of forensic certainty.

I expected a triumphant Poirot-style conclusion in which each protagonist would be humiliated by meticulous reconstruction of events. Instead the loose ends remain tantalising, the perpetrators and their deeds never quite pinpointed. The central character himself acquires a shadowy presence.

Michela Wrong is far more resolute when it comes to the role of the UK Department for International Development which gets a good kicking in the concluding chapters.

She is unhappy that DFID continued to lavish aid funds on Kenya after it became all too plain in 2005 that the Kibaki government was as rotten as its predecessor. The agency also silenced the voice of the maverick British ambassador, Edward Clay, after he pulled no punches in his famous “vomit” speech.

The author only indirectly acknowledges that DFID did make an adjustment to its published aid plans for Kenya. The intended switch from project funding (which should elude government officials) to direct budgetary support (which is more efficient but which might go straight into their pockets) was postponed.

UK aid volume was however unaffected. According to Michela Wrong, DFID officials defended their inaction on grounds that a long term development partnership cannot be effective if it allows short term political considerations to get in the way.

I’m not convinced that this would have been their primary argument. Concern for the poor is surely the reason why aid keeps flowing in all but the most inhospitable host countries.

This was not the only blind spot for the poor in the book. Michela Wrong frets that massive and successful British aid for primary schools had the perverse effect of delivering the electoral promises of the Kenyan minister for education, apparently a thoroughly undeserving candidate for public support. She makes no attempt to weigh this downside against the benefit of millions of poor kids getting into school.

I have lingered over these esoteric corners of aid history because I’m twitchy over the slightest misunderstandings about aid effectiveness. It’s Our Turn to Eat may strengthen the hand of those who, influenced by Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, argue that aid is flawed and should be run down.

The faltering public image of foreign aid hovers ominously over the Copenhagen climate conference. Claims for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries are of the order of $100 billion per annum, almost doubling existing overseas aid.

I envisage leaders of the rich countries wriggling off the hook of their moral obligations on climate change by playing the political card. They may claim that their hands are tied by voter withdrawal symptoms on aid. The struggles of the poor get forgotten in these arguments.

The key question is whether the developing countries can be bought off with promises of valuable carbon credits for reducing deforestation or engaging with efficient energy technologies. My current bet is that the poorest countries will collapse the talks on this issue.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK