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It’s Time to Break Turf on the Middle-Ground

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 13:37
The author looks at the purpose of giving and also asks whether donor countries should advertise aid for development

It is late at night and we are having a heated debate about whether large donors should market the depth and level of their investments in a country. I am usually deeply cynical about this. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is notorious for branding everything from food parcels to pens, which remind you that you are receiving a ‘Gift of the American People’.

I find this beautifully insincere. There is tangible evidence that development aid is never done altruistically. But ironically, in this debate with the Europeans, I somehow support the idea of marketing aid.

I am with a group of journalists and officials from the European Union (EU) on a site visit in KwaZulu-Natal to assess programmes the EU has supported. Their donations are sizeable, for instance, over €980 million was committed to South Africa (SA) between 2007 and 2013. This amount makes my head spin because I struggle to convert it to Rands. R9 800 000 000? I figure that it is reasonable to round this up to R10 billion.

I am quietly informed that this amount is almost equally matched by the European Investment Bank, which is geared to lend around €936 million into SA.

Although the development aid is a minute percentage of the total South African budget (less than two percent), this income is still breathtaking.

The donations are focused on developing our social and economic infrastructure to enable us to grow.  An official quietly mentioned that they would like the funding to be used to encourage innovation – a tired phrase which takes on new meaning with the sizeable purse provided by the EU.

I love this because the money they give us catalyses a response and accepts a degree of risk and learning. It is the type of funding that national and provincial budgets seldom have and which civil society cries out for.

I see the results of this funding in Cato Manor, a suburb that sits eight kilometers outside Durban. Cato Manor saw one of the largest apartheid era re-settlements with nearly 100 000 people forced to move in the 1960s. It remained largely deserted until the 1980s when the Cato Manor Development Association, with funding from the EU, planned its resettlement.

Today, it is an example of urban redevelopment where low cost housing units sit alongside the established houses of the old suburb, a rare picture of integrated housing in SA.

Tarred roads link the focal points of town planning - schools, community centres, clinics and library - which are jointly situated on the steep hills of the village. The emphasis on planning is clear - the new Cato Manor understands how people move and interact with their environment. Houses are accessible, schools and community halls are central, and there are good transport links.

My argument is that without the EU funding, Cato Manor would be a typical example of a South African housing development - man-made boxes perched on hilltops, with no parks or cultural centres, with schools and police stations located at the entrance to the township and no integration with the adjoining neighbourhood.

Should the EU broadcast their investment in SA?

As we debate this issue, I find myself becoming quite insistent that they should.

Raising awareness on the work that is done does not need to be in a brash, American way which is overbearing and patronising. But when foreign tax money is being used to build my country, positively and in partnership, then I do think you have a right to tell me about it. Moreover, if I do not know about it, how can I form an opinion?

There are counter arguments of the delicacy of diplomacy, that it is a small retribution for the economic devastation of colonialism and this defeats the altruism that is at the heart of development funding.

But I disagree. I would rather find out what foreign money is funding before making an informed opinion on the self-interest that drives this funding.

If countries are confident in their donor support, and citizens are benefiting - then yes. Tell me about it, publish articles, use your success stories as case studies and take out adverts in local newspapers. This will help me understand international donor investment and who is doing it right or wrong.

We seem to have countries that are on the extremes of the graph: from the Americans who keep donating and Chinese who insist on building mega-structures with their own people, to the Europeans who are demure and silent about what, how and why they give.

Which would you rather have?

I think it is time to break turf on the middle-ground.

- Kerryn Krige has worked with leading charities and non-governmental organisations in the United Kingdom and in South Africa for over 10 years. She is the former director of communications and income development at Child Welfare South Africaand is passionate about good nonprofit management and governance.

Author(s): 
Kerryn Krige