Aiding or abetting?


Following the decision by the Irish government to cut off foreign aid to Uganda, after the discovery of corrupt use of aid money, Evan O’Quigley explains the importance of foreign aid

When the media recently reported that €4 million of Irish aid money may have been misappropriated by the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda, Amama Mbabazi, many were justifiable outraged. Eamon Gilmore said he was “absolutely disgusted”, and Ireland immediately suspended all direct aid to the African country. The news came following a report by the Auditor General of Uganda who carried out a special investigation into the handling of aid funds.

The Ugandan Prime Minister initially denied that he is responsible for any wrongdoing saying that “no money was ever paid to me and I never handled money. As Prime Minister, I don’t handle money of government at all, ever… And even money that was paid to private accounts, some was fraudulently paid to private accounts. But some, it’s not the case they stole the money, they used it for the purpose for which it was intended, although it was irregularly managed.” However, after the withdrawal of Irish Aid he was quick to apologise, with the Ugandan government promising to pay back the misappropriated money in full.

Nobody was happy to hear the news that money had been squandered by a known corrupt prime minister, but those more right leaning were perhaps most rattled by the news. Kevin Myers wrote in the Irish Independent that it was an undemocratic country and all but argued that we should not be giving the country any aid at all. There is a new view emerging in conservative circles that foreign aid in general does not work, and is pointless.

Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist and former World Bank and Goldman Sachs employee, in 2009, wrote the book Dead Aid, which argued that foreign aid is essentially harmful and that the free-market would better solve Africa’s poverty problems. The book, unsurprisingly, received an approving forward by the historian, leading intellectual of the right and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson, a known advocate of free-market neoliberal economics, who also worked as an advisor to John McCain in 2008 and has written articles in support of the US tea-party movement.

There may be a certain amount of truth in the ineffectiveness in foreign aid, but that should not be an excuse for developed western countries to cut off all donations based on this notion. There’s a quote that often floats around the internet from by arch-libertarian Ron Paul that “Foreign aid is taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.” The first half of that quote makes no sense, as according to the Economist most foreign aid comes from corporate taxes as opposed to general social-insurance taxes. But there is some degree of sense to the second half of that quote. Foreign Aid is often misappropriated and misused by corrupt public figures, and this latest news about the Ugandan Prime Minister is no surprise. The solution to this however, should not be withdrawing all aid but rather to focus on the problem that is corruption.

There have also been suggestions that while Ireland are currently paying back bailout funds; it should not be in a position to continue to give aid. It should be no surprise to anyone to learn that Ireland is a bit strapped for cash but there is a discernible difference between losing our livelihood as many in Ireland have due to economic woes, and losing your life, as those in the developing world do. It’s difficult to even compare what we consider poverty in Ireland, and what poverty is on a global scale.

A better solution would be to tackle corruption, both on an international scale and from within Uganda itself. It would be dangerous to decide based on anti-aid economics and cases of corruption that money that could potentially save lives, help build infrastructure and pay for education, be discontinued immediately without so much as a second thought. What is key is to stamp out corruption and misappropriation of funds. Many in Uganda, such as the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU) have campaigned for the same thing for decades.

It is also worth noting that while in the west we often think of large-scale political corruption as a phenomenon associated with ‘backward’ third-world countries that doesn’t go on to the same extent in the west. Imagine if, upon hearing of corruption in Irish politics (of which there has been a lot of), EU countries and the US decided to stop all free-trade and throw Ireland under the bus, like many in Ireland are suggesting we do with regard to foreign aid in Uganda. We would be outraged, and rightly so. To punish the population of a country based on the actions of a government would be wrong.

The Ugandan ambassador to Ireland, Joan Rwabyomere, has expressed her disappointment in the decision by the Irish government to suspend all €16 million in aid. The director general of Irish Aid Brendan Rogers, who pointed out “all of that money, except for this €4 million [that was transferred to the office of the prime minister], has made a huge difference in that country. It’s a different place. It’s a young democracy,” he said. “It is a poster boy for corruption, but it is also a poster boy for progress as well.”

Despite the fact that much of the money sent by Ireland is squandered, direct aid from countries like Ireland is crucial. It’s not enough to rely on the hopefully philanthropic nature of the rich, and that great free-market we hear so much about to end global poverty. Granted these must also factor in as part of a wider anti-poverty strategy, but getting into ideological arguments about what should be done when lives are at stake is not helpful, nor will it do much good for the Ugandans, or indeed anyone else suffering in absolute poverty.