Thursday, 3 April 2014

Let's ditch liberal guilt about aid to Uganda

In response to the nightmare of homophobia rampaging through Africa with new and Draconian laws against same-sex behavior and lynchings reported in Uganda and Nigeria, there has been some guilt-ridden moaning about the dangers of “over-reacting” or suggesting that foreign aid money to these thug regimes should not be tampered with. Those making these arguments often are trying to avoid colonialist attitudes of knowing what’s best for Africans from the comforts of American suburbs, and they’re also sensitive to the possible harms to innocent beneficiaries of aid programs were international assistance to dry up.

That’s what’s reflected in articles like this one from Irin News, that describes its product as “humanitarian news and analysis,” entitled “Briefing: Punitive aid cuts disrupts healthcare in Uganda.” The piece mentions the anti-gay crusade and then quotes an anonymous “senior government official” that the aid cutoffs are producing “dire” consequences for the nation’s health.

There are a lot of problems with this type of report. First of all, many of the agencies that have reacted with alarm and dismay at the anti-gay laws (inspired, incidentally, by American evangelical Christians) have been careful to describe their actions as “reprogramming” of aid monies away from governmental entities to the independent sector. This does not preclude outright suspensions at some point, but so far all the accounts that I’ve seen of withheld aid money have stated that the commitments could still be honored if no funds will flow to discriminatory entities. This is not only eminently reasonable (why should Swedish taxpayers have to contribute to homophobic bullshit if they don’t want to?), but it seems to me the only defensibly ethical approach.

But there’s a deeper problem with the narrow focus on Uganda’s health needs, which is outlined in a devastating article in the latest New York Review of Books entitled, “Murder in Uganda” by Helen Epstein. It notes that the Uganda health system was once considered very advanced, and then says the following:

Today, this system is a shambles. Bats, snakes, and other wildlife have taken up residence in once-functioning rural clinics. I have seen fecal material rain down from the crumbling ceilings of operating theaters. Power cuts and water shortages in hospitals kill thousands of patients each year, and emergency operations on pregnant women are sometimes carried out by the light of torches made from burning grass. A decade ago, the UK government funded the construction of scores of new hospitals, but the Ugandan government neglected to staff them, and some are now hideouts for thieves.

In 2012, women were seven times more likely to die in childbirth at Mulago Hospital than when Idi Amin was president forty years earlier. Uganda loses one child to malaria every seven minutes, the highest death rate from that disease in the world, and in 2013, scores of people died of famine in this lush, fertile country for the first time in living memory, not because of food shortages, but because the government failed to provide the resources to send food where it was needed. The notorious Ebola virus, which spreads to human beings from monkeys and causes massive internal bleeding, kills scores of people every year or two. The outbreaks could be prevented with simple surveillance of animal populations, but the government doesn’t bother to maintain such a system. “Villages can be strewn with dead monkeys for months,” Margaret Mungherera, head of the Uganda Medical Association, told me. “No one does anything.”

The cause of this mess is no mystery. Ever since Uganda began receiving generous amounts of foreign aid two decades ago, senior Ugandan politicians and civil servants have been stealing virtually every shilling they can get their hands on. In 1995, the World Bank recapitalized the defunct Uganda Commercial Bank with a loan of $72 million. Museveni then sold it to a consortium that included his own brother for $11 million. The remaining $61 million has never been accounted for. A year later, the World Bank provided Uganda with a multimillion-dollar loan to construct fifteen irrigation dams. Museveni’s agriculture minister reported to Parliament that the dams were nearly complete, but a few weeks later, an investigative team confirmed that they did not exist. A Nigerian contractor was blamed for having stolen the money, but most Ugandans believe their own leaders took it. Nevertheless, despite these and other scandals, the World Bank lent Uganda ever more money, and even praised it as a model of development from which other poor countries could learn.

The US, Japan, and Europe also poured in aid, and as they did, ever more outrageous scandals ensued. Money intended for children’s vaccines ended up in the First Lady’s office; millions intended for forestry projects, AIDS and malaria sufferers, road building, and assistance to victims of the notorious warlord Joseph Kony turned up under ministers’ beds, in flower pots in the prime minister’s office, in Las Vegas casinos, in personal bank accounts, and in heaps on the floor in President Museveni’s official residence. Millions more disappeared into the accounts of nonexistent schools and hospitals, “ghost” soldiers and pensioners, and such initiatives as the “Rabbit Multiplication” project that perform no activities at all.

The author then describes the story of a parliamentarian who attempted to denounce corrupt practices and her sudden death in 2013 under suspicious circumstances. I recommend the full article, which is the first of two parts, here.

I am in no position to judge the accuracy of this account. However, if even a portion of it is true, it certainly gives us food for thought about how much a reprogramming of international aid away from government-controlled entities in Uganda is really responsible for the “dire” situation of public health in that country.

Furthermore, it should raise serious questions about the relationship of the U.S. government with the Ugandan military given fears of armed Islamic groups in Somalia, Kenya and perhaps elsewhere. While Obama and his spokespeople will surely make all the right noises about the awful homophobic laws, nothing will stand in the way of further coziness between the two countries when geopolitical goals are at stake. Anyone thinking that the fate of a few Ugandan homos will trump the U.S. security state’s machinations in East Africa is delusional.

No comments: