German diplomat: Three of four development projects in Africa fail

Volker Seitz.jpg

Experience gained over the years shows that development cannot be governed from the outside, and this is why three out of four development projects in Africa fail, Volker Seitz, a German diplomat with a 17-years of experience in Africa, tells EURACTIV Germany.

From 1965 to 2008 Volker Seitz served in various positions within the German Federal Foreign Office, including at the EU in Brussels and in several African countries. From 2004 until his retirement in 2008, he was head of the German Embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He is the author of  Afrika wird armregiert oder Wie man Afrika wirklich helfen kann (Africa is Poorly Governed or How Africa can Really be Helped). He spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Daniel Tost.

Through its “Agenda for Change”, the EU aims to improve its development policy by setting up a more strategic approach towards poverty reduction. Development aid will be "more strategic, more targeted, and more results-oriented," says EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. How do you feel about this approach?

It is not only due to lack of success that I am critical of development aid, particularly in Africa, but also because aid money, for example intended for budget support, has often been used to maintain systems of favouritism and cronyism within a country.

A genuinely new approach would be to make information about every single project accessible on the internet, including the economic purpose and costs as well as accomplishments of the country. Private local media, which to this day have no access to this type of information, would be able to carefully monitor these projects, while at the same time all stakeholders would have an opportunity to share their observations and opinions. This would ensure that public authorities address the wishes, needs, initiatives and ideas of the population and do their best to fulfil them. This again would be a key to self-determination and participation.

Aid organisations and governments could significantly improve accountability and transparency. Only then would it be possible to speak of development cooperation and not development aid.

"Nowadays development aid tends to be harmful where it restrains independent action and encourages people to wait for external help," says Professor [Franz] Nuscheler. Moreover, in such cases governments are no longer required to make solemn promises to fight corruption and donor countries no longer have to pretend they believe the governments to keep their promises. However, development aid can only be convincing if it is motivated by conviction or at least genuine insight. Those who truly want to help Africa should support the development of human potential resulting from Africa's rich diversity.

Given the tight budgets and the difficult negotiations on the EU budget for 2014-2020, do you think the debate on development aid policy is currently focused too much on the demand for more and more funds?

There is no point in negotiating funds first and then discussing the projects these funds are to be spent for afterwards. The worst thing about this debate is that it revolves around financial quantities which spur on the disastrous notion that more money leads to better results and more development.

The experience gained in the last decades shows that development cannot be governed from the outside. However, this is not acknowledged at all. There are no convincing arguments for providing ever more money, if the impetus for development is not coming from the country itself. Instead of asking for more and more money, it would seem sensible to sincerely and independently assess the suitability and accuracy of the numerous support funds (Germany alone spends €6.5 billion in bilateral aid each year) which are already in place.

Wouldn't it be important to know why three out of four development projects in Africa fail? If it is not possible to finally assess this objectively, a passive mindset and a small financial elite will continue to prevail. In many parts of Africa, there is a lack of action to the benefit of society and real supervisory bodies monitoring representative democratic structures. There is no fundamental review of concepts and there are no adjustments being made to the contents due to the lack of studies on the impact of development aid that has been delivered for decades. There is a tendency to overlook the fact that almost all projects which have been initiated with the help of external state aid or private funds are not continued when foreign subsidies dry up.

You basically say that quality management is unheard of in the development aid sector. Why?

The way I understand it, quality management involves carrying out error analyses and impact assessments in order to increase aid efficiency. Using an "archive of failure", as I put it in my book, such an analysis must, among other things, result in a change of methods. Greater emphasis than has previously been the case should be placed on introducing intermediate stages that can be monitored and which are linked to fixed targets in German and European development aid programmes. At any rate, there have to be obvious consequences with states pulling out of development programmes as a last resort if targets are not met.

Instruments which do not provide for such controls should be avoided. It is important to develop and constantly question our own approaches and methods. Charity does not get rid of the root causes of poverty. Aid organisations concentrate too much on social support and take an anti-growth and anti-business stance. Before actually talking about raising development aid, we should concentrate on measures which have real effects. 

How do you assess the role and the work of aid organisations?

There is no organisation that can answer the question of when it’s time to stop development aid in a country. Of course, no one wants to ask themselves this question. Neither does the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The overall control of development policy activities is underdeveloped because most of the implementing organisations are still auditing themselves and live of that aid. Development workers have a major interest in remaining in the development aid sector for the rest of their working lives. The jobs of development workers depend on the continuation of aid projects. Consequently, they have no interest in packing up their things and leaving.

In my experience, it is not money that the aid organisations in Africa are lacking. However, there is an increasing lack of possibilities to make constructive use of the influx of money. African governments and the development aid industry should be measured by their track record, not by their promises.

There are still many decision-makers in Africa who are entirely out of touch with the miserable lives of their fellow citizens which are marked by humiliation, deprivation and hard work. Power elites act in their own interests rather than promoting general welfare. That is why the money from raw materials is not invested in decent roads, in power and water supply, in agriculture and clean cities. Even in rich countries such as Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Nigeria, most people live in extreme poverty. The latter tend to be given into the care of industrial countries and we play along with this game.

What role do the Millennium Development Goals play and do they still matter?

The Millennium Development Goals only play an important role when it comes to mobilising the public to donate an ever-increasing amount of money. It would be important to finally admit officially that during the establishment of the Millennium Goals in September 2000, the development goals were not formulated adequately and are therefore insufficient. Neither good governance nor the respect of human rights was established as one of the goals.

But who is going to have a pedantic dispute about the fact that recommendations for the development of a fairer society – out of superior political motives, of course – have been discarded. It was therefore foreseeable for all experts that the 2015 goals will largely not be met. Consequently, there are already suggestions for an "agenda beyond 2015". The issue of water management, for instance, was established as a binding goal in 2000 to reduce the number of people without access to drinking water by half by 2015. This goal is being achieved all over the world, but not in Africa.

Regarding the most basic sanitary facilities the situation is even worse. The water sector is of little political importance almost everywhere in Africa. It is not sufficient to formulate long-term goals without having a plan to achieve them. Foreign aid almost always undermines the efforts of the recipient countries to help themselves. It is not made clear that the aim is to deliver help that enables recipients to help themselves – and that it won’t last forever. There is too little pressure on recipient countries to take matters into their own hands.

What are your proposals to the German government regarding development policy?

Many African governments view the requirement to fight corruption primarily as an intrusion into internal and politically sensitive matters. It is expected from us that we do not to disturb the well-being of the power elites by asking inconvenient questions about the well-being of the people. We do not demand from African governments what we take for granted from our own governments and what we keep a close eye on: good governance means first and foremost that you do not neglect your own people. African governments are regularly agreeing to reforms without ever intending to implement them. Every bit of criticism is regarded as destructive.

Consequently, we are eager to make concessions, maybe because we need their votes in international committees. However, the fact that European governments have tolerated authoritarian regimes in Africa for many years will backfire. It will not be much longer before the dissatisfied, the frustrated and those who want real change will make their voices heard. They are already fed up with heads of state and governments who are responsible for selling out agriculture and the decline of the health and education systems.

The EU countries also remain remarkably reserved in the face of human rights violations in many countries on the African continent. But times have changed, also for African autocrats. Their actions are becoming increasingly visible and controlled – not least because of the new media. Everything will be made public sooner or later. Only countries that have evidently done everything in their power to solve their problems should enjoy foreign solidarity. Only then can paths to temporary aid be pursued.

It is worth being optimistic about Senegal, Niger and Guinea. Especially Macky Sall, who was elected president of Senegal in March 2012, seems to give a sense of objectives and optimism to the Senegalese. Since 17 January 2013 citizens can assess the policies of his government on Sall’s private website, In Niger and Guinea, things could also turn for the better if the many patterns of the political (non-)culture are able to be broken up. These states should receive greater support.

What can we do? The most effective help we can provide is educational and economic support. A greater share of the billions of euros of European and German aid could be turned into venture capital. Helping people to draw up business plans could help to promote entrepreneurship and thus create jobs. Loans could be taken out to build canning, soap or cement factories. Jobs could free people from poverty.

In Cameroon, tonnes of vegetables are exported and then canned in France. Why can’t the vegetables be processed and canned in Africa?

Read the original of this interview in German: Weshalb gehen drei Viertel aller Entwicklungsprojekte in Afrika schief?

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