Uganda: 'Donor Aid Shouldn't Be Tagged to Politics'

Ben Simon | 28 Jan 2007
Monitor (Kampala)

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, a top adviser to the United Nations Millennium Development Project and author of Make Poverty History, an international bestseller. On a recent visit to Uganda, he said that if the country did not drastically step up its development efforts, it would not achieve the Millennium Development Goals. After his speech, he offered these thoughts to Sunday Monitor's Ben Simon

Sunday Monitor: Prof. Sachs, two years ago you identified Uganda as a country that can absorb more foreign aid, and [that it] should receive more foreign aid. Do you still feel that way?

Sachs: I've always said that Uganda can absorb more aid. The arguments against absorption of aid were wrong. There used to be an argument here that was fairly strong among some technocrats that Uganda shouldn't take aid even if it is available because it could be macro economically destabilising and that it can't be very effectively absorbed. So there was an argument about principle. I think that argument has really gone down, or gone away. The main argument now is, will donors actually provide more aid and so I am going to do my best to help mobilise more aid for this country.

Sunday Monitor: Specifically, I was asking about some of the more troubling developments of the past couple of years. The argument could be made that the rule of law has suffered a few blows in that time. The third project comes to mind.

Sachs: Right...

Sunday Monitor: Do these things impact on a country's ability to absorb aid?

Sachs: Well they definitely impact on attitudes of donor governments. There is no question about that. I am against politicising aid and I don't like donors turning aid on and off, whether they like the third term project or don't like the third term project or other things. I think that aid needs to be judged on its merit as helping development or not helping development.

In my view there are extremely important things to be done right now that would help development in this country considerably and therefore the things that need to be done should be supported by aid. And economic development helps that long-term process of political stability and democracy, though I think that the politics of aid, making aid highly politicised is a mistake.

Sunday Monitor: Sir you talked a lot today about the importance of controlling malaria but you didn't mention DDT once. How do you view the government's decision to begin spraying DDT as part of its malaria control programme?

Sachs: I think that DDT is a good idea if it is properly and carefully used. There is pretty much a consensus worldwide that DDT is an important part of the anti-malaria arsenal. The World Heath Organisation agrees with that; many environmental groups agree with that because they properly make the distinction between using DDT as indoor spray and using it as an outdoor pesticide.

There is pretty much a consensus that using it as an outdoor pesticide is not right. The problem with it though is that it is expensive; it is not so appropriate in certain places. It doesn't work so well in other places. Bed nets are highly effective and very inexpensive and they don't rely on government for the long term.

Sunday Monitor: In November 2006 you said "deforestation will challenge the very survival of hundreds of millions of people around the world in the coming decades." What is your opinion of this government's decision to allocate large chunks of national forests for commodity production?

Sachs: Well I would say one overwhelming thing: the primary force of deforestation in this country is rapid population growth. This country's population is growing at about 3.5 percent per year. If you keep that growth rate for 20 years the population doubles. That is extraordinary, quite obviously.

In Southwest Uganda I saw a region that was all rainforest up until about 50 years ago but because of population pressures the rainforest has almost all been cut down for farmland and that is happening all over Uganda and its happening all over Africa.

So it is extremely important in my opinion as part of a development strategy and as part of sustainable development strategy to slow the rate of population growth.

Now the good news is that this can be accomplished in an entirely voluntary and beneficial way for households if it is taken as a matter of national priority. It means having contraception available for people who choose to use it. It means of course educating girls at the primary and secondary level.

It means very importantly child survive because ironically when the mortality of children is very high mothers and fathers respond by having even more children and actually you end up with a faster growth rate.

All of this is to say that the real environmental pressures here, which are severe in this country -- water stress, land stress, deforestation -- all are a result of this extraordinary population growth rate, one of the highest in the world and one that I think for Uganda's own sake certainly needs to slow down considerably in the coming years. And this can be accomplished if it is made a part of government programmes.

Sunday Monitor: But not government programmes in the sense of imposing restrictions like those seen in China. Those don't work?

Sachs: I think, whether they work or not, they are not necessary. What can be achieved is a rapid and voluntary drop in fertility rates. This is one of the last places in the world where mothers are having seven children on average. That is just extraordinary. In most of the developing countries it is just three.

Sunday Monitor: In his speech earlier, the Minister of Finance (Dr Ezra Suruma) said he was growing increasingly frustrated with the cumbersome conditions attached to Western aid. Earlier this year, every head of state in Africa was summoned to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao. Most went. At the time, it was suggested African leaders might increasingly turn to China because Chinese aid was unlikely to be accompanied by various conditions, be they to do with good governance or human rights. Do you think the actions of individual state actors will affect the overall climate of foreign aid?

Sachs: Well first of all with respect to China, I think that China is very pragmatic. China, as a developing country knows how important infrastructure is. They know how important roads, power, ports and so forth are. I like the pragmatism of how they target their support in terms of what kinds of programmes they are actually supporting. So I am very happy that China is becoming a significant donor.

As I mentioned before, I think the true test for aid is, is it used properly and does it have a good result? [But not, as an instrument for regulating politics. Not as test case depending on the political relations between donor and recipient. That kind of approach leads to very short-term programmes, stop and go aid policies, little impact on development, lots of distrust and rhetoric that goes way ahead of reality. I think it is really important for us to understand in the United States and Europe that we can't run the politics inside other regions of the world but what we can do is to ensure that if we are giving aid for help that it is actually reaching the people in the villages. How do you do that?

Not by a long list of political conditionalities, but rather by a very good programme. For example, mass distribution of bed nets, or a de-worming programme, or helping with construction of dispensaries and clinics. Things that you can count; things that you can measure; things that you can monitor and things that you can audit. And things that don't involve a lot of trust. I don't think that trust is a big part of this relationship, frankly.

I think it is about practicality. I'm not calling for distrust; I'm just calling for practicality. And also things that don't rely on going through six levels of government before they reach the people that need the aid. So if you are targeting people in the village, make a village programme. Don't send it through the central government down through the next government. Think about how to ensure the direct delivery of services from the lowest level of government that can carry this out. And that might be district officials for example.

And with modern information systems, spread sheets, and other ways to do this one can have a programme that just gets the help down to those who need it and another trick of course is that when people know that they should be expecting a bed net, that they should be expecting a vitamin A supplement or de-worming, or they that they should be expecting a clinic to come to every village, then they become monitors of the government as well.

And Uganda has proved that in the past. When it published its education budgets down to every school district level, the communities got involved to make sure that the money wasn't stopped at the district level or at some higher level of government. So Uganda has actually shown in the past how to use pressure from the bottom to make sure that aid actually gets there and is used effectively.

So I want aid to carry much less of a burden than it carries right now. Aid should not solve all politics, aid should not be a measure of overall happiness between rich people and poor people and their governments; aid should be very pragmatically directed so that the life and death challenges facing the poorest of the poor can be met systematically and on a sustained basis so they can escape from poverty and when they do, they are going to raise their democratic voice, they are going to demand a say, they are going to become step by step a middle class, which creates political stability and democracy.

So let's get the order right. Let's help those in need in a very practical way and let's do it in ways that we can really monitor measure and audit. Because I am not a softie on this. I want delivery. I just don't want a lot of high politics involved in this and a lot of high theory. I want real results on the ground.

AFM commentary: Prof. Sachs's sweeping statement that IRS is expensive is misleading. In certain settings IRS has been found to be more cost-effective than providing bed nets alone, and new data is being gathered on the cost-effectiveness of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) and IRS in various epidemiological settings. Moreover, bed nets are effective at preventing malaria but must be used properly by over 80 percent of a community, and replaced every five years.