International aid – a blessing or a curse?

I just cant help to reflect a bit on this topic as it is part of my day to day life. If it is a unfounded result of frustration or if there is actually a grain of reason in the musings below is up to you readers to judge – PLEASE feel free to comment or share!

If you feed a plant intravenously how will the roots then develop? The post Homosexuality Bill in Uganda (withdrawn but soon to be tabled again) initiated a discussion where quite a few countries decided to pull back their budget support aid to the Ugandan government even though the total support is said to be unchanged over time. This, together with my own experience with internationally funded projects and frequent contacts with governmental officials has made me to reflect on aid in general, and funding of governmental entities more specifically.

Two questions arise quite immediately. First, what happens with the accountability when external funds are being used rather than tax revenues? Secondly, how much attention is given to the post project funds life and the care of project created structures?

Regarding the first question my gut feeling is that an indefinite source of external aid creates a culture where a smart, cheap, and efficient solution looses a battle with a internationally funded, inflated, expensive, and designed-to-be-bureaucratic kind of solution. The latter takes no consideration to post project life and the related structure maintenance costs. This ties directly on to the second question, where the consequences of additional structures and responsibilities are not covered by the national revenue system; “tender care and loving” of the structures being put in place fails big time.

Looking at my own domain, maritime safety and security, a quick search gives at hand that during the last 15 years a huge number of patrol boats and fisheries regulations enforcement platforms has been procured for Lake Victoria at large, and for Ugandan waters, all with external funding. Still, every discussion about maritime security, illegal fishing on the lake, as well as about Search and Rescue (SAR), points to the urgent need of patrol boats for enforcement of fishing regulations, security, and SAR.

A short list of recent additions to the Uganda Government fleet of boats, straight out of media reports:

2003: $2.4million is designated for fisheries management, including acquisition of patrol boats to police Ugandan waters.
2007: Four Interceptor boats at 8 Million USD each (UPF Marine)
2009: Four new fibre glass patrol boats worth 1.2 million Euros to the national fisheries institutions for use by fisheries law enforcement teams. In addition, each of the 35 riparian districts in the region will be supplied with one outboard engine and one fiberglass canoe to boost their water patrol and law enforcement activities at the national and district levels.
2010: Eight fisheries patrol boats and 31 motorcycles.
2013: Two 30-foot long Pursuit OS 315 UPF patrol boats.

Ugandat UGANDAIMGP1260

During 2015 another six to seven vessels (16 for the entire lake) will be procured for Search and Rescue purposes to be placed with the Fisheries organizations.

In a perfect world all these resources would guarantee a safe and secure lake, and a well enforced fishing environment. However, it is unclear how many of the above vessels that are still in operation. It has been said that the major part of the Interceptor boats are defunct, at least one has sunk at cay. Similarly, the eight fisheries patrol vessels are said to have sunk in the marina, were sold to a private party, refurbished, and bought back with aid money. The current state of these vessels is unknown. Some of these rumours are verified by media reports, some still need to be. No matter which, the learning outcome of these reflections are that an equipment donation to a state agency, without a maintenance plan and related guaranteed funds, is bound to fail…. within weeks. Honestly, the recent development where international donors abandon governmental projects in favour for private/NGO driven projects might be a blessing in disguise. The President has said that donor aid isn’t needed, the State of Uganda will manage well without it. I do agree with that analysis, International aid might be adding to the burden instead of releasing the strain on the national budget. Aid should focus on making the soil fertile instead of feeding the plant intravenously, and possibly on the roots themselves in the form of a functioning tax system that can grow the national budget organically.

The conclusion and suggestions to the international donor community: Support Uganda Revenue Authority to continue its work towards a fair and just tax system; and embrace private service delivering entrepreneurial entities working for the good of the people. This will on the one hand grow the tax base and national revenues; and on the other the burden of providing social services will be shared by private actors, employment increased, knowledge transfer achieved.

// Mattias