BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Good money after bad?

Peter Barron | 14:58 UK time, Friday, 5 January 2007

The effectiveness, or not, of aid to Africa is an issue which comes up all the time on Newsnight. This week we spoke to Oprah Winfrey (which you can watch here) about the $40m she has spent establishing a leadership school for girls in South Africa. We also reported how, five years after the war in Sierra Leone and many millions spent in aid and debt cancellation, health provision is getting worse not better.

Newsnight logoMany are wondering these days if much of the money we spend trying to help Africa isn't good money after bad. Col Tim Collins has even gone as far as to suggest that the $14bn spent annually on UN peacekeeping in Africa has achieved absolutely nothing. Indeed, two of the countries most in receipt of western attention in recent years, Ethiopia and Somalia, have been at war over Christmas.

So, could there be a better way? As part of a series of films on Newsnight next week about how technology is changing the world our business correspondent Paul Mason will be reporting on how the advent of the mobile phone in Africa is helping to provide better services, economic growth and even democratic rights where governments and agencies have dismally failed.

As one young Kenyan puts it, we know from years of experience that governments have been unable to deliver better conditions, so why do we keep giving them money?

Paul's film goes out on Monday, but you can watch it first and exclusively here and let us know what you think.


I think Paul's report was quite good - well done to Newsnight. Just a couple of points I'd like to add: its not fair to hammer on about foreign aid; the reality in the Kenyan context is that since 2005, the Govt's budget has been 95% financed WITHOUT any external aid components. Kenya is repaying all its debts and is certainly NOT dependent on aid.

It would also have been interesting if Paul had found out how much money ordinary Kenyans are spending on their mobile phones - because its a lot! Many Kenyans spend a huge proportion of their meagre incomes on buying the prepay cards they need to be able to use their phones (contract services are almost non-existent at the moment). Safaricom, the largest operator, is not making a fortune just out of an expanding subscriber base - its also doing it because Kenyans are addicted to their mobiles and are being charged a lot for it!

  • 2.
  • At 05:32 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

For some reason it surprised me hugely, when visiting friends in Tanzania doing VSO, that so many Africans in bus stops or travelling around had mobiles. But it was obvious when I thought about it - they have skipped the need to install landlines everywhere, and for most day to day communication a PC isn't needed.

As for the money we give Africa being wasted. Well Africa is not poor if the wealth of its natural resources [oil, gold, diamonds] received a fair price from the outside world, and the money actually remained with Africans, instead of filling the coffers of multinationals operating there. Or am I being a little too simplistic ?

Until 'they' get rid of the corrupt politicians and all the other bureaucrats who are supposed to allocate honestly the money to areas needed, instead of using it to line their own pockets, the money put into Africa goes straight to the bottom of the pit. Or back pocket. So one answer would be for 'them' to get rid of the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and introduce a fair money system. But that just wouldn't be ..... cricket. Would it?

  • 4.
  • At 08:04 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • June Gibson wrote:

I have often wondered about that. I am a grumpy oldie and over my life untold amounts of aid in money and kind have gone to Africa. Successful projects have been filmed and we are told that it will all make a huge difference. And yet today there is still this terrible poverty for masses of people. We have known about dictators lining their bank accounts, food aid going sold on the black market(medicines too, probably),as well as various wasteful various wars, but we in the UK hope that a bit of difference over the decades would have been made to the lot of poor villagers. Not so, it seems. Sometimes I think the UK might as well have not given anything.

Take the damage seen post-tsunami. Despite massive aid (I presume it got there)there are still people living in make-shift homes with little hope of getting back to the level they were before. The aid to people in other natural disasters - where does that all go? What about the WWF? As long as I can remember they have been collecting, so there ought to have been more progress in that area than we see today. TV documentary programmes and small charities seem to have done more for the conservation of wild life.

Also, related to the subject of official aid, I read some months ago that Bono's fortune was hived off to Switzerland so that he need not pay tax on it. I don't suppose he is alone but it is more ironic in the case of a man so emphatic about African debt being cancelled.. How do people like him think that meaningful aid to Africa can be given by western governments unless there are some big taxpayers contributing to countries'finances?

Furthermore, I wonder what athletic teams from impoverished countries will turn up to the Olympic Games in 2012. I have noticed that in past games, poor countries can send a team to wherever. Is there some special fund to help them or are the costs filched from money intended for the very poor?

The media often deluge us with images about a famine or drought, yet another documentary shows that a few hundred miles away there are smiling, colourfully-dressed, healthy people in crowded markets which offer all sorts of food - looking a darned sight jollier and well-fed than many in the UK. Do the richer Africans donate anything to their own kind?

  • 5.
  • At 08:31 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • JimTanz wrote:

What an amazing revelation the mobile phone is becoming. As a regular visitor to East Africa, I have seen how mobile phones have changed peoples lives, and brought people together. Small scale democratisation in this way allows people to choose the best for their lives. As soon as some see the benefits, then they not only do the same, but do better. Truly Africa can lead the way in enabling a cashless, mobile society

  • 6.
  • At 09:11 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

Another cracking film from Paul Mason.

It would be worth debating a couple of points on Monday.

1/ What about the security of the phone 'payments'. I think this would be fine for small amounts mentioned in the film. But I think larger sums from abroad may still continue to use current routes.

2/ I absolutely accept some of the changes which the phones are having, as set out in the film. But in some cases the social changes may have been about to happen - the phone has been a catalyst rather than the cause, perhaps ?

3/ Shouldn't an experienced journo like Mason have attempted to explore rap culture at the MTV event more fully by doing some rap himself ?

4/ Very glad to see that he got as far as the Maasai in the Rift Valley. I worried he was going to give the spin that they were an ancient people untouched by that modern technology - whereas it turns out they are very advanced in many ways. Certainly they can be very shrewd businessmen and women and no strangers to mobiles.

Although I was a little disappointed that Paul did not probe further into the effects the phone is having on who is wearing the 'trousers' in a Maasai marriage when a 'stranger' gets hold of the number..!

Fantastic work.

  • 7.
  • At 11:34 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • H. T. Harvey wrote:

I cannot preview your film for some reason)
My comments on African Aid.

Much aid for Africa is a waste of money. It does not go the the people it was intended for (corruption etc).
To fund Aids containment and other health schemes is counterproductive the countries of Africa cannot feed or support present population.
The basic problem is the Birth rate is to high and funding/investment should go into thise areas that will reduce the birth rate first (ie birth control and education).
All other areas should be subject to how they contribute to this end.

This may seem hard but population/birth rates throughout the developing world are the major causes of poverty and poor health.

To varying degrees population can be seen at the root of most of world problems having a direct and indisputable effect on war plague and pestilence.

  • 8.
  • At 12:23 AM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • Tony Martin wrote:

Paul Mason's film on the economic effects of mobile technology on Kenya was excellent. Important as it is to report on the difficulties that various parts of the African continent are going through, it can be distorting if that is the only picture you're getting. Paul Mason's piece does a lot to enrich our understanding of Kenya and perhaps Africa more broadly.

Maybe this approach should be repeated for China, India, Russia and various South American countries?

  • 9.
  • At 01:30 AM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • Syed Hasan Turab wrote:

Opera's help to south African nation Is a good sign specially from educational point of view, question is this weather south African nation deserve or other African countaries were more deserving compairing to South Africa.
Overall Africans are way behind compairing to other parts of the world excluding South Africa.
More then basic requirements of food & medical aid UN can resolve on permanant basis by way of education & job skill apportunities insatead of pushing them towards dependancy on foreign aid of bagging nature.
As far as Ethiopia & Somalia problem is concerned we may educate them about achievements of first & second world war.

That's the first genuinely surprising, stereotype overturning report about an African country I've seen in far too long.

Everyone should watch this on Monday!

Oprah should be appreciated. I would like to say her thanks. World needs leader, Indeed! World needs leader like you. I believe this would be only starting, a good starting which will lead world towards peace and progress.
Best of Luck!

Paul Mason's piece was fascinating!

Without a hint of tub-thumping the chasm between the initiatives of ordinary folk and "their" government's scandalous corruption came through loud and clear.

My only concern with the programme was that it tended to put the future prospects for Kenya in a fairly rigid framework of choices: Cell phones vs. Government/Charitable Aid.

I completely agree with the assumption that the future will see dramatic increases in the use of cheap communications technology (that's definitely something that the Motorola's of this world have a keen interest in). The question will remain an old one though -- who will benefit?

It's nice to see the small business folk (whether they be farmers or market stall holders) benefit from better price/performance data but I have to say I'm more inspired by the community activists who were showing how they could better protect those in the direst states of poverty from enduring forced evictions from their shanty towns.

And I think, at the end of the day, the increased communications that lead to this type of greater political involvement will ultimately bring the changes necessary for fundamental improvements in peoples way of life.

It would be, and will be, marvellous to see how the greater transparency cellular communications create help solve the initial problem Paul poses: When the people to whom aid is initially committed are able to track -- from first bank deposit to paved stretch of road -- the steps involved in real improvements. And, to be able to "see" who is involved in scraping off the piles of cash.

It'll also be transformative for us in the West. The true nature of the "billions spent on aid..." will become clearer. It's always worth pointing out that government aid, typically, ends up benefitting the donor countries (through trade agreements to home firms and corporations) more than the recipients.

There are aid networks already posting this type of "performance" data on the web. Soon we'll be able to validate it, instantly. But let's not take away from the broadcast the notion that more cellular towers (which are erected at the discretion of the local governments) and handsets are a solution in and of themselves. Money is still key! It's going to be great to have the infrastructure in place to know that it's going to the right people.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking and, if I may say so, inspiring film.

  • 13.
  • At 05:12 PM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • Charlene wrote:

We keep giving money to African governments because a) it makes us feel noble; b) we can avoid the nasty business of actually dealing with real people at the community level; and c) much of the money "given" in aid actually never leaves our home countries, so it benefits us as much as (if not more than) them. If we really wanted to be noble instead of just looking the part, we'd help people not from the top down but from the ground up.

It's amazing how many people in the West think Africans are lazy because of the money given to (and wasted by) African governments. This even though most Africans work longer hours at more physically demanding work than even the most workaholic Westerner does.

  • 14.
  • At 08:40 PM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • madbadbrush wrote:

If in say a thousand years, persons or beings look back at the way we live now. they would think we have no more brain {as a whole} than a dead rat!! What are we doing!! We make a harder life for ourselves our kids and have absaloutly total disregard for the planet we live on because the only thing that motivates anybody is money!
Time has come to change.
Time is here to end running the world for money! It is time to unite the planet! We all work for each other and produce what we need for each other. No Waste No mess NO fuss!
Strong words! We have only one chance to do this, and it is now!!!

Hi sir,

I completely agree with what Col Tim Collins has revealed. Africa has to go more if it has to liberate itself from the throes of poverty and I don't think the countries like US can do anything in this matter.

The African countries must come forward and form a union ala EU and strive for their own economic development.

This is the best solution and they 'd soon be finding themselves on the road map to prosperity.

The BB C's coverage of the African crisis is simply excellent.

Thanking you,

Yours faithfully,

With modern communications technology arriving in even some of the remotest African communities for the first time, the future for Africa is surely brighter than for some time.

The arrival of internet access via the UN clockwork laptop could even show the way for a new kind of economic system, suited to Africa's hostile geography and climate. One use might be to allow farmers to bipass the normal outlets for their harvests and sell (or exchange) directly on the international markets.

It would also seem reasonable to expect that when different regions of the same post-colonial African state are in regular trade and dialogue, that the traditional version of tribalism will change, and that hostility between tribes will become more difficult.

The traditional power structures may also be subverted by the increased role of women. And with access to free online education of the highest quality, such as the M.I.T. project, the goal of a dynamic Africa, unburdened by debt, geography or history must be a big step nearer.

In short, the implications for Africa are enormous, as the Newsnight report on the effects of mobile telephones will show. But with the first UN laptops arriving in communities from July, the western world can expect to be dealing with a very different Africa in the future.

  • 17.
  • At 02:10 AM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:

I have just watched the Kenyan film. May I first say, well done, an excellent overveiw of how the mobile phone can be a great asset.

I do think the downside should have been shown also, i.e. every call is databased . Technology is a great thing, but it is also an intrusion into privacy.

At the moment it is an enormous help to the Kenyans, and no doubt it will improve their standard of living. I wonder if it will end up as just another tool of Big Bro though. No, I dont wonder, I know it will.

Anyway, apart from my negative comment, I wish the folk of Africa the very best for their future. They have had the rough end of the stick for far too long. Also thank you for showing this film, it does make me beleive there is hope for the downtrodden of this World.

'Kenya's Mobile Revolution' shows how, with modern communications technology arriving in even some of the remotest African communities for the first time, the future for Africa is surely brighter than for some time.

The arrival of internet access via the UN clockwork laptop could even show the way for a new kind of economic system, suited to Africa's hostile geography and climate. One use being to allow farmers to bipass the normal outlets for their harvests and sell (or exchange) directly on the international markets. Possibly even on Ebay.. or a similar system devised to meet the specific needs of farmers.
Information really does confer power.

It would also seem reasonable to expect that when different regions of the same post-colonial African state are in regular trade and dialogue, that the traditional version of tribalism will change, and that hostility between tribes will become more difficult.

The traditional power structures may also be subverted by the increased role of women. And with access to free online education of the highest quality, such as the M.I.T. project, the goal of a dynamic Africa, unburdened by debt, geography or history must be a big step nearer.

In short, the implications for Africa are enormous, as the Newsnight report on the effects of mobile telephones will show. But with the first UN laptops arriving in communities from July, not to mention the long-term effects of 'micro-banking', the western world can expect to be dealing with a very different Africa in the future. And by implication, a different world. The hopeful predictions are beginning to come true. What will the pessimists say now?

And what will the Man from Del Monte and Nescafe say when he arrives to find the harvest has already been sold?

  • 19.
  • At 09:37 PM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

Sian Jones, June Gibson.

I accept that corruption is a problem in Africa. What is your point ? Or your proposal for a solution ?

It reads as though you think it is acceptable to withdraw all help, and thus punish everyone, even if they are in the majority who aren't involved with the corruption.

I recommend you both read Joseph Stiglitz' book 'Globalisation and its discontents' and you will certainly see that Africa certainly doesn't have a monopoly on corruption, unethical business practices and greed.

  • 20.
  • At 11:39 PM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:

To June Gibson #4.

If you really want to know why Africa is in such turmoil. Could I suggest you search Google-video for "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" and "Secrets of the CIA".

Watch these films and you will have a good understanding of the problems in South America and Africa.

Aid to Africa is a waste of our money when foreign agents are doing their best to improve the Africans lot. Every op the CIA has done there, has ended in total failure. Channel 4 did a 2 hour documentary about the CIA last week. What an eye opener!

Maybe the mobile will help prevent the covert mob from stirring up trouble.

  • 21.
  • At 11:53 PM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Chris King wrote:

Good information points, if simplistic presentation. I worked in Central Africa for three years and set up a small charitable project there. Giving aid to corrupt African governments is a waste of money. Even NGO development projects are of dubious value despite what those in the charity industry say. I know! The people need to enable themselves and develop for themselves. Micro-banking and educational projects can work and it looks as if the mobile phone really is an enabling technology. Excellent, as Africa is a great place and the Africans deserve better.

It sounds to me that Oprah's school is a selective girls' Grammar school. The girls are interviewed and have to be academically strong before being offered a place!

Why aren't left-wingers up in arms at this!?!

  • 23.
  • At 12:37 PM on 09 Jan 2007,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Is it cynical to suggest that what is happening in Africa is precisely what is intended by those who continue to donate billions?
Corrupt governments are kept in place while resources are exploited. Effective aid to populations while keeping control of their countries would be far more costly.

  • 24.
  • At 01:08 AM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • June Gibson wrote:

If #s 19 and 20 are still reading this, I should tell that I'm an old cynic. I cannot see how ordinary people can give help to other ordinary people in another part of the world. I don't think they can, because all aid efforts/collections are frequently thwarted by the various agencies which exist between donors and potential recipients, not only the ones you mention. There are too many organisations with their hands in the till and, from what I have read over the years, the UN itself is not blame-free in relation to high salaries and expenses. I have no answer. As for corruption elsewhere, don't get me started on the "brown envelope" culture which seems to have permeated government and industry from top to bottom, be it in Europe or elsewhere.

  • 25.
  • At 10:25 AM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Catherine Bryant wrote:

Something which occured to me with regards to the mobile phone cash idea - if this became implemented in other (western) countries then wouldn't it mean that we as individuals could send money directly to individual people in Africa, rather than sending it through aid/government/etc? Then we KNOW they are getting it? Or would that be too simplistic?

I caught this on newsnight by accident, and I have to say it really cheered me up. I feel that amongst all the upheavel and disaster in the world today, that we are becoming increasingly interconnected on a grass roots/individual level is going to open up all kinds of hope and potential. Despite being open to the usual forms of abuse, the internet and communications technology in general is a fantastic tool for those who wish to make changes independent of government and politics - not just in Africa.

This is an interesting story. In fact I believe that there may be a similiar post on my blog (The Benin Epilogue) titled "paradigm shift in African business" the cell phone was mentioned as a catalyst which helped businessess operating within different African countries to expand their markets and access information more quickly.

Each of the comments metioned above makes interesting points. However, I would like to remind a few of you that Africa is a continent and not a single nation. There are 54 independent nations on and around this continent and though, in some cases, they may share borders and maybe a language here and there, each one tends to have it's own unique set of circumstances that set them apart from one another. In the practical sense, as far as social and economic indicators go, there may be 1000's of Africa's within Africa-so to speak.

Smarter aid and more trade can and has helped in many of Africa's countries. It is also interesting to not that contrary to popular belief, if one views all 54 of Africa's economies in the aggregate that aid is not the #1 source of inflows. It is actually #3. #1 is foreign direct investment, which is follwed by #2 overseas remittances from Africans living and working in the Diaspora.

My final point is that if one actually does a little bit of independent study and one looks across Africa's various nations, one might find that there is actually an economic renaissance which is taking place right now amongst some of these countries.

  • 27.
  • At 09:03 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • C. Alexander Brown wrote:

Let's get this aid to Africa discussion into perspective and reality. Every eight weeks or so, America spends more money fighting in Iraq than it has given to Africa in aid, ever. Total. From the first dollar to aid in the pipeline now. Got That? And this includes aid to colonial governments quashing freedom fighters, as was the case in Angola and Mozambique, aid to puppet killers such as Savimbi, and arms. As for Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, they have sucked more out of Africa than they have put in and can put in as aid for the next two decades, and I am not including the slave trade. And let us not forget Belgium and going back, the slave traders from the Emirates. Now, forget aid. What about fair and free trade? What about putting an end to helping thieving political leaders hide their stolen billions in European and North banks? Which is still going on?

  • 28.
  • At 10:50 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • ericj wrote:

24 June Gibson summed it up perfectly I thought.What she says is the reason little gets done in places like Africa .Too much spent on administration by inexperienced people and too little getting to the front line . Pay the proven captains of industry on results and you'll see a difference and a better return onour charitable £
Corruption is a major factor - Nigeria is not poor but the corrupt few retein the wealth and take it overseas . A solution will be tough but we could make Darfur an example starting with sorting the UN's contribution .

As someone who both has lived in Africa, and works with technology I can only but say that abeit that technology is slow to appear in Africa before other continents, but due to infrastructure, economical and social issues Africa has embraced technology in many ways with a breathe of life. Why well one example is my own firm KT Technology who develop self service solutions and we have recently seen the growth of internet kiosks into regions were otherwise people would not be able to connect to the internet. This has both provided many lives with information which can and is used to help there daily lives. Therefore I fully encourage the efforts which charities, NGO organizations, and the UN by sponsoring such projects. Many may feel that Africa is a bottomless pit but there are many grass root efforts in place and if it werent for those organisations supporting them then the average African persons lives would be far worse off. Corruption, bribery is not a African issue but a issue for the whole world as corruption can be seen rife in most regions and sectors of our lives in todays world and universe and is not solely a African problem but more a global one.

A national health promotion and disease prevention initiative bringing together many individuals and agencies to improve the health of all Americans WBR LeoP

From Paul's film, and from the duscussion here I can see that Afrika (meaning the middle part, not the South Afrika and not the Nothern countries) is full of contrarieties. Some people live good, follow technological progress, etc. while others simply hunger. Even in pretty civilized countries, like Egypt, there's place for hunger and poverty... I will bever forget people living in the cemetery in Cairo, because they have no other place to live.

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.