Let’s Talk About Aid

by Claire Burrus

On Saturday, September 10, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the region of Kagera in Northwest Tanzania, killing 20 and injuring 269, according to the Tanzania Red Cross Society. The quake’s tremors stretched all the way into bordering countries and caused a tremendous amount of devastation and damage in their paths. As many as 2,063 houses were reported to have been fully destroyed and 14,081 houses damaged in the region closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. Hundreds of affected individuals and families were left lost, distressed and traumatized following the destruction of their homes. Additionally, there is a potential that the quake also led to small-scale damage in the region, such as shallow cracks in houses and infrastructure that will become problematic for local home and business owners long-term. Persisting problems such as these are common with earthquakes and can be anticipated in the months to come.


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Despite Tanzania’s geographic situation in the Great Rift Valley, along an enormous fault line, earthquakes are rare in this area of east Africa, and the Tanzanian people and government were completely unprepared to handle the problems that arose and that continue to arise in the aftermath of the earthquake.

It is safe to assume that many of The Contemporary’s readers are just now reading about this tragedy for the first time, especially considering the American presidential race, international refugee crisis, and international terrorism threats that are saturating the political media on our screens and in our newspapers. As a result, this single event may be dismissed as insignificant in the grand scheme of global news and public affairs.

The disaster and the events that followed play a part of a vital narrative that is frequently overlooked in political discourse, despite the billions of dollars and thousands of organizations that contribute to it and the countless ways that it contributes to corrupt and greedy political systems in the developing world.

Let’s talk about aid.

In the days that followed the disaster this September, millions of dollars worth of aid from countries all over the world flooded into the northwest corner of Tanzania. These funds contributed to medical and rebuilding projects, led by governmental organizations as well as non-governmental organizations. The national government of the United Republic of Tanzania sent immediate relief following the quake and has continued to work with affected neighborhoods to rebuild, including infrastructure development and school repair projects essential to the rebound of the communities. The Kenyan national government also contributed to the relief effort by airlifting materials such as mattresses and building supplies over the border to their suffering Tanzanian neighbors. Tanzanian Red Cross Society, a branch of the American Red Cross organization, sent aid to the victims in the form of first aid staff and volunteers. Other foreign organizations and national governments from Europe to Asia contributed funds, goods and labor to the effort as well. The Tanzanian national government was having trouble raising funds to contribute to its relief projects and was largely dependent on external aid for its efforts.

Many relief projects were effective. Kagera is rebuilding and is beginning to bounce back from the events of September 10. Much of the recovery that has occurred in the past two months likely never would have happened without the international response to the disaster, and many victims’ lives were undoubtedly improved by the medical, development and monetary aid flows that Kagera received.

It would be easy to stop at this point and celebrate the improvements that have been made in wake of this tragic event and to congratulate the contributing individuals, organizations and government officials for their charitable donations and efforts. However, the aid narrative is not so simple.

Aid sent to Tanzania contributes to a system filled with poor management, corruption and cyclical dependency reminiscent of the colonial era.

The international response to the aforementioned quake is a single example of an ever-flowing stream of aid from the developed world to developing countries, many of which are in Africa. Tanzania has proven to be an especially hot spot for aid flow, even when the nation is not in crisis over a natural disaster or tragedy of any kind. This is true for a variety of reasons. For one, the nation’s status as a developing country, high poverty rate and low literacy rate cause it to be widely viewed as in need of development projects or other assistance from more wealthy states. Second, it is much more politically stable than many of its neighbors, like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which makes donors more optimistic about the results of their development projects than they might be if they were implemented elsewhere. Therefore, donors are more likely to invest in Tanzanian development projects.

Although the nation is relatively stable in comparison to its neighboring counterparts, this is not to say that the Tanzanian government has not encountered a fair share of its own issues. In fact, the national government of Tanzania has historically been notorious for corruption. This leads to issues with the implementation of aid projects. As previously mentioned with regards to the recent earthquake, the central government’s attempts at development projects often fall short and depend on external funding. This funding often comes from foreign or international organizations. According to locals who have experienced the results of these projects firsthand, the results almost never reflect the sums allegedly placed toward their completion. Cash flows seem to grow smaller and smaller as they pass through the hands of government project leaders.

Locals, although aware of the corruption at hand within the government leadership, seem to be surprisingly understanding of the issue. A few Tanzanian locals explained the issue to the author in a profound way. A member of Ngaramtoni, a small community in Northern Tanzania, succinctly explained why corruption occurs in the management of aid projects: “Everyone is hungry.” He went on to state that if an individual is placed in charge of an aid-funded project, they will take what they need for themselves and their family first, and then will put the rest of the funds toward their original intention of helping the rest of the community. This does not make that leader bad or evil, for they are only acting as any desperate person would when given the opportunity to help themselves get out of a dire situation.

Corruption in leadership is common knowledge to nearly everyone in Tanzania, but the national government has been turning a blind eye to it for many years, possibly because the individuals in power were also benefiting from the system. However, the current president, John Magufuli, elected in 2015, has proven to be different. A large part of Magufuli’s platform involves defeating corruption once and for all throughout all levels of government institutions in an effort to expedite development and decrease national poverty. This, of course, is an extremely ambitious effort, and it will likely be far from finished by the end of his term. Shockingly enough, however, Tanzania has already seen the results of his efforts so far. The president is viewed very highly by locals, and many are able to cite several examples of his hard work on this major issue offhand when asked.

For example, the President arrested officials working on earthquake relief projects who were funneling funds for the project through fake bank accounts. Just over a year ago, these officials would have gotten away with such an act scot-free. Today, they are facing the repercussions for their actions, and aid is going toward the communities it was intended for. Tanzania is in for some major changes, potentially resulting in a more complete implementation of foreign aid on projects that will encourage development and the long-term growth of the nation.

When external aid funds continue to flow into projects that are often never completed and are racked with corruption, the organizations that send them are indirectly paying for this flawed system to continue.

This is not so much an issue of money being wasted as it is an issue of money encouraging officials to put less into their jobs and to leave their nation developmentally behind as a result. This establishes a toxic cycle of economic dependency of developing nations on developed nations. The Tanzanian government becomes disincentivized to establish economic sovereignty, and the state becomes more and more dependent on wealthier nations, which throw money blindly at projects without supervising their completion or ensuring that any established contracts have been upheld.

Even if the issue of corruption is alleviated, the cyclical dependency will not be entirely broken. Many foreign organizations that contribute to development in Tanzania send their own staff to work on projects, rather than hiring locals to perform the jobs. Therefore, potential economic growth is lost in the process. In addition, outsiders often do not have local expertise on the issues they intend to address, and because of this, their efforts have the potential to be wildly misdirected. Often, in the locals’ eyes, development funds could have been put to much better use on a different project than the one chosen by the leaders of the given initiative. These phenomena cause the Tanzanian government to continue to depend on outside help for development, never becoming independent as a truly sovereign state.

There are a few key strategies to effectively implement a development project with foreign aid. These projects are most successful when donors contribute to projects with local labor forces, so that money can be recycled back into the local economy and further economic growth. They are even more successful when donors also insist on specific objective contracts with the leaders of these projects to avoid the disappearing of funds and to avoid incentivizing corruption. The proper implementation and oversight of these projects is essential to their success.

Looking forward, the future looks bright for the Tanzanian development projects to come. There is hope that soon the nation will be free of its dependency on other nations, as it develops and becomes increasingly economically sovereign and stable. With the help of President Magufuli, and with more supervision and stricter contracts from aid donors, these changes are sure to come. The next time disaster strikes, the nation will be much more capable of handling aid than it was following the earthquake of September 10. Further down the line, Tanzania may not need to rely on foreign aid at all whatsoever.

Claire Burrus is a junior at Trinity University majoring in Environmental Studies. She is studying abroad this semester in Tanzania.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.

Andy Acevedo, The Contemporary’s Art Director, created the image.


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