The real problem with aid for Nigeria

The only thing UK aid to Africa supports is British politicians’ sense of moral worth.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Politics

The announcement from the UK Department for International Development (DfID) that it is to give £300million in aid to Nigeria has been met with ridicule. Why? Because it was also revealed that Nigeria is spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a space programme. The critics scoff: does a nation which can fund a space programme really need aid from the UK?

Yet the suggestion that the UK should cut its aid budget because Nigeria – a country producing nearly a billion barrels of oil a year – doesn’t seem to need it, misses the point. And that’s because British aid, in this case to Nigeria, has never really had anything to do with the needs of the country to which it is sent.

For a start, overseas aid is often spent on projects that have little positive effect on recipient countries’ development. Last year, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact said that massive aid spending on education in Nigeria had had no discernible impact on the standard of schooling. Other aid money is spent on schemes teaching African men that it’s not alright to beat their wives, or teaching African women not to have so many children. And any cash left over is spent on small-scale eco-projects which DfID believes constitute economic development. None of which are particularly helpful.

So, given the ineffectiveness of aid, why is the British state so keen to dish it out? The quick answer is that it allows politicians to portray themselves as a caring bunch who help those who can’t help themselves. Africans appear here as a stage army of the helpless and ignorant, subject to the exploitation of corrupt politicians and multinational corporations. And so, following this old colonial tale, it falls upon enlightened Westerners to create an environment where Africans can live out the simple lives for which they were born.

A Nigerian space programme does not fit this narrative; it shatters the illusion of helpless Africans in need of helpful Westerners. And it is this that has upset advocates of overseas aid. The idea of the space-age Nigerian is a far cry from the image of the helpless African, destined for poverty. This is also what is so cheering about the story. The space programme symbolises Nigeria’s ambition to be an equal of the West, not one of its chosen objects of pity.

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Topics Politics


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