Some say billions of dollars. Others trillions. Regardless of who's right, however, the amount of foreign aid that has been invested in Africa over the last 50 years is staggering - especially considering the impact it seems to have made.
Life expectancy is actually falling in several African countries. Many others still have a majority of their population living on less than $1 a day. Several African economies are moribund. And democracy, as current events in northern Africa illustrate, is often a veneer hiding a corrupt regime receiving healthy inflows of foreign aid.
As part of our Leading Thinkers series, George Roter, co-founder and co-CEO of Engineers Without Borders took questions on failure in aid, in an earlier discussion.
Here is a transcript of that discussion:
Hi everyone. I'm Tim Querengesser, an editor with The Globe and Mail. We're just getting ready for a live discussion with George Roter, CEO of Engineers Without Borders, where we'll be discussing failure in foreign aid. Submit your questions for Mr. Roter in the box below.
George Roter: Hey Tim, looking forward to the discussion.
[Comment From Alannah DelahuntyAlannah Delahunty: ]/b> Can the average person, in the development field or outside of it, lobby the Canadian government for more accountability and transparency of foreign aid in Canada and why CIDA seems to be such a mysterious entity?
George Roter: I'm at my desk and excited to get going.
Tim Querengesser: Okay George. Alannah has a question there. Let's start with that one.
George Roter: Thanks for the first question Alannah. I think this is very relevant given recent CIDA events in the news.
[Comment From Rusty Redfield Rusty Redfield : ]/b> I think I agree with Mr. Roter that there has been a massive failure with respect to what foreign aid is supposed to do. How would he define success?
George Roter: First, when we think about accountability and transparency, it's important to keep our eyes on the purpose -- effectiveness. There are two actions for the average person: 1) Taking time to learn more about what our government is doing right now ... spend some time on the CIDA website, get an understanding of their Project Browser, learn about development, talk to friends about this, get involved in groups that facilitate these conversations.
George Roter: 2) Get in touch with your local Member of Parliament, and have that intelligent conversation with them. Let her know what you like and don't and the questions you'd want asked. That has great influence because they talk to their colleagues.
George Roter: CIDA = Canadian International Development Agency. It is the agency/organization in the Canadian government that is in charge of disbursing roughly $3.5billion each year in taxpayer funds. www.acdi-cida.gc.ca ... I encourage people to browse their work.
Tim Querengesser: George, this is an advance question e-mailed earlier:
History has been very clear that a better economy leads to better health of the population. How can the developed world direct aid money to infrastructure in the less developed world instead of despots bank accounts?
George Roter: They generally spend funds in 3 ways: 1) Through contributions/agreements with 3rd party organizations (like Engineers Without Borders or Oxfam), 2) Directly through partnerships with poor countries like Ghana, Tanzania, etc ... and 3) Through contributions to multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank.
[Comment From Jim Jim : ]/b> Mr Roter, reading quickly through the 2010 Failure Report, I'm struck by how technocratic everthing sounds, even while people attempt to address grassroots problems.
George Roter: Let me unpack that question from Rob. First, I would agree that economic growth leads to greater health and opportunity for citizens. And indeed you are right to point out that infrastructure and physical capital is important in driving this growth -- if you don't have roads, then you can't move goods to markets. However, where we have seen less investment is in the human capital within these countries -- for example, in skills and training for the local governments that are going to manage those road-building projects, and maintain them. This human capital investment is generally much less exciting and harder to measure the success of, but critical.