Summer internships and development aid: Why are you in Africa?

August 22, 2018
At the moment, hundreds of students from U.S. universities dot the globe knee-deep in development projects. I am in Accra, Ghana, on a research project, and this city is awash with interns from Princeton, Harvard, and the like determined to transform the world. The stints come with good perks: dining and drinking with Accra’s high society, living in posh upscale neighborhoods, and for the really lucky ones, being chauffeured around the city in diplomatic vehicles.

In no way do I disapprove of development aid; occasionally, when the stars align, some occasional good does come out of development aid. But I think we should concede that it is often a perpetually dysfunctional system — perpetual because of the interests such a system serves for privileged and (sometimes) greedy joyriders. Development aid provides the wealthy with a philanthropic avenue, helps global powers keep a tight leash on third-world governmental regimes, and employs elite college graduates and allows them luxurious lifestyles in exotic cities. On weekdays, they gallivant between villages testing out Jeffrey Sachs’s moribund poverty eradication theories. Weekends are spent on getaway safaris.

To begin with, development aid is an industry on its own and provides some of the best paying jobs. Hence, in some cases, love for the poor and a yearning to uplift them out of despair is just incidental for those who facilitate development aid. The industry increasingly attracts professionals whose motivations lean more toward experiential tourism and leisure than humanitarianism. The deep pockets of development aid organizations guarantee great comfort for employees, while at the same time allowing them to fulfill their altruistic aspirations. As a result, few people question the real impact of this aid in poor societies and often overlook its profound detriments.

In his book “Development Without Aid: The Decline of Development Aid and the Rise of the Diaspora,” Dr. David A. Phillips, an ex-World Bank staff member, highlights some worrying trends. For example, between 1997 and 2004, the number of development projects more than doubled throughout the globe (but disappointingly, their average budgets roughly halved).

The pervasiveness of development aid in Tanzania is an illuminating example of the ballooning industry. Each year, the east African nation files 2,400 reports to aid donors and hosts 1,000 aid missions from donor countries and organizations. I imagine that each mission in Tanzania likely comes with a visit to the white beaches of Zanzibar or a safari in the breathtaking Serengeti. Likewise, I bet the government borrows funds to wine and dine these guests, that is, the esteemed trustees of global development and custodians of poverty-eradication knowhow.

Worse still, Phillips adds that in 2006, more than 700 of the projects in Tanzania were neither coordinated with the government nor between aid agencies, resulting in a massive duplication of efforts and a waste of resources. To compound the miscoordination between governments and agencies, each donor agency comes with its own processes of initiating, implementing, monitoring, and reporting on projects, which require innumerable audits, environmental assessments, procurement reports, financial statements, and project updates from government officials. This bureaucratic red tape steals valuable time from these government officials who would otherwise be serving the needs of the poor. The flurry of bureaucratic activities around development aid is so head-spinning that Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana have mission-free periods at certain times of the year to allow government officials to concentrate on their actual responsibilities.

Sadly, the trend toward needlessly intricate corporatization, bureaucratization, and individuation is unlikely to change. Many of these donors, be they Western governments or family foundations, will not concede to pooling resources and coordinating their projects cooperatively with other donors and the aid-receiving governments.

Further, we must step back and reconsider the multiple reasons why people participate in development aid in the first place. There are many who genuinely care and believe their work is beneficial for the communities they serve; in some cases, they even put themselves in harm’s way to facilitate aid. But there are also well-intentioned folks obliviously exacerbating the situation while staying true to their organization’s misplaced and conceited mandates. And worse still, there are self-interested joyriders out to have a good time and help the organizations expend their budgets.

We need to reflect, at a personal level, on what it is we are involved in and how it is affecting those we are trying to help. We need to be aware of both the good and the bad that we, and the organizations we work for, transfer to these communities. It is important to revisit our motivations for joining this line of work and recalibrate our career goals accordingly.

The overall impact of development aid is unclear. However, motivations for organizations and their employees should be in line with the needs of the poor communities they serve. In the cases where there are misalignments due to political or financial motivation, then it’s likely that more harm than good is being meted on these communities. For now, enjoy the rest of your summer in development aid, and I cannot wait to hear your incredible tales of valor (real or perceived) when we reconvene in the fall.

Elijah Kimani is an MPA student and a former IMF employee. He spent the summer at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Accra, Ghana. He can be reached at [email protected].

Share this page


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *