Donor Interference and Transparency Remain a Real Concern to African Countries

This week, I have been attending the 2012 African Economic Conference in Kigali, where I just witnessed Rwandan President Kagame express his frustration with the international donor community. Using strong words during his keynote address at the conference, Kagame spent most of his speech in criticizing donors. He is extremely angry over the decisions by various donor countries to suspend aid to Rwanda for alleged claims that Rwanda has supported rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

According to the visibly irritated Kagame, the problems in the DRC are older than he is and the government of the DRC and the international community have failed to deal with the problem effectively. “It seems that the international community is too big to fail so it has to look for someone else to take responsibility—so blame it on Rwanda,” the president said, insinuating that donor countries were trying to influence decision-making in Rwanda to advance their own interests. President Kagame believes that donor countries want to deliberately derail the very good economic performance in the Rwanda. He is suggesting that Africans cannot be truly independent to make their own development choices in the face of interference from outside.

Speaking in the presence of former Nigerian President Obasanjo and other former African leaders, Kagame said that Africa lacks independent leaders like Obasanjo to stand up to outsiders. To my great surprise, Kagame told the former president, “You left too early.” He went further, saying, “We shall not be dictated by anyone and everyone passing through.” He added, “This new Rwanda that I know all too well does not respond well to blackmail.”

For a country that has benefitted a great deal from the partnership with international donors, antagonism towards donors is not a promising path. Clearly there are concerns about the continuing tragedy in DRC, but the approach taken by international donors may end up complicating the problem. My view is that the DRC’s problems require serious focus by the African Union and the international community. Suspending aid to a reforming country like Rwanda is ill-advised. On the other hand, Kagame should know that taking such position may lead Rwanda down a slippery slope.

Apart from the suspension of aid, another issue of concern to the Rwandan government is the lack of transparency in many aid programs. During a side meeting at the conference with some senior technocrats from Rwanda, I gathered that there is genuine frustration about the transparency of aid to Rwanda and in this case aid from the U.S. government. Their concern is when a donor government signs an aid package for, say $100 million, only a small portion of that aid money is actually received by the recipient government (for example, 40 percent of aid money goes to financing salaries of U.S. mission staff, 20 percent to U.S. technical staff, 30 percent to NGOs and 10 percent to project support). So in essence, 60 percent of U.S. aid to Rwanda is spent on Americans, often in what Rwandan officials would consider luxurious consumption. And as these technocrats told me their perspective, they were not smiling.

I do not know the accuracy of their story or the allocations of U.S. aid to Rwanda. However if what the officials said is correct, I would also be very concerned about the efficiency of U.S. aid delivery to poor countries. If it is wrong, the U.S. government needs to make concerted efforts to provide the correct information.