Aug 9, 2010

Aid and regime change

We have competitors, some from NGOs, opposition political parties and, I have to say this, almost all developing countries when they are about to go for elections, they experience this: donors will normally withdraw funds and find many excuses to give for not doing this funding because their interest is to see a regime change because they believe that that is when they can promote democracy through regime change.” – Mike Mulongoti (Zambia’s Works and Supply Minister)

I am not sure which urge to satisfy first – laughter or incredulity? This man is either dull or just lazy! I wonder if Mulongoti is simply bemoaning the lost opportunity to misdirect aid money while distracting voters from the fact that his government has been the architect of many failed policies that may indeed lead to regime change. 

While there may be some truth in Mulongoti’s assertion that donor’s withholding aid on the eve of elections is a tactic to bring about regime change, I don’t think it’s the complete story in this case. I believe it is most likely a response to abhorrent behaviour by government officials to siphon such funds into re-election campaigns or personal accounts as they see their time in office ending.

But to be fair let us examine his argument and see what lies there. Can donor countries withhold aid to bring about regime change? Yes, absolutely, they can! If a country’s national budget is artificially propped up by funds from other countries, and it is deemed that the money is being or has been misappropriated it is not unreasonable to expect some to demand changes. These changes would typically be personnel related (ministers, permanent secretaries and even presidents).

If Mulongoti and others expect this aid money to come without strings attached or that accountability will not be demanded they are greatly mistaken. To put it bluntly, we give up ownership in some matters when we accept aid and quite rightfully so. Always read the fine print!

Personally, I am happy that there is increased scrutiny on how aid money is spent. It sends a strong message to government leaders that they cannot continue to loot indiscriminately, and that the money will not pour in non-stop ‘til kingdom come. And for us citizens, this presents an opportunity to ask pointed questions about accountability of resources entrusted to government (local and central). If we are dissatisfied with the answers, we can start calling for regime change and taking ownership of critical decisions (such as how money is sought and allocated).

It’s unfortunate that Mulongoti chooses to mislead Zambians by pretending that the government he represents is an innocent victim of outside bullying by donor countries, when in fact they have been at the epicentre of some very egregious acts of corruption and waste, and are simply being “called out”. 

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