Rebranding Aid Won’t Make it Effective or Transparent

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August 1, 2011 By Jimmy Kainja

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“The word “aid” is being ditched in favour of “development co-ordination”, according to a recent piece by Jonathan Glennie. Mr Glennie wonders if this linguistic shift will make any difference. A friend of mine brought my attention to the piece and wondered what I made of it. I thought I would share my thoughts, as I am also interested in what others make of it. Here was my response:

The linguistic shift by aid industry resembles contemporary African politics. Majority, if not all, politicians have embraced the word “democracy”. Zaire changed to “Democratic Republic of Congo” after the ousting of its former dictator, Mobutu Seseko. As a Malawian, I know that nearly every political party that started in the last 20 years or so have the word “democratic” in its name. Why the word “democratic?” That is what everyone wants to hear, the electorate and the donors alike.

On the other hand, the word “aid” has become a PR disaster, not only because of the growing anti aid choruses epitomised by such theses as Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” but also the word is increasingly being seen as patronising by governments and policy makers in the global south. Media, communications and cultural studies have made people more cynical, as they understand connotations of such words as “aid” better – right or wrong. The emergence of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has provided competition to the old economic dominance of the G8.

The emerging economies treat developing countries like trade partners, so goes the argument, and not merely recipients / beggars of “aid” like the G8 do. That’s why India and China are more popular in Africa today than former colonial rulers, the US and the rest of G8 countries. Recently, Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency was forced to deny the allegations that unlike China, Japanese (a G8 member) officials are finding it hard to meet African policy makers. Equally, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, made sure that his recent visit to Africa was seen as a business trip. For once a western leader was not in Africa to save the content – “trade, not aid”.

It is clear that something has to be done to save the reputation and crucially, the future of aid. Using figures, Mr Glennie has managed to show shifting linguistics – from 2005 to date. What these figures fail to explain is the fact that the shift is not organic. The “aid” industry, full of highly paid PR executives and consultants, the industry is aware that its image is challenged at the moment. How do we make aid more attractive? Not only to the recipients who are increasingly preferring to be seen as trade partners, but also to the Western taxpayers that are unwilling to continue giving aid, amid prevailing economic crisis and perception that aid does not work?

Rebranding is the answer – “development co-ordination” fits the bill perfectly. It is a smart move insofar as survival and reputation of the aid industry is concerned, except that it will not make aid any more effective and transparent, which is what most taxpayers would like to see.”


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