Africa asks itself: Where is the aid money?

African nations pledged five months ago to do more to help each other when famine and disaster strike. But so far, they haven't come up with the promised cash.

Five months ago, in a grand auditorium and beneath a cinema-sized screen scrolling images of starving children, Africa’s leaders gathered to promise an end to a growing food crisis.

Aid appeals were being revised upwards weekly, highlighting just how severe the situation had gotten: By the time of that meeting, the first ever famine fund-raising conference by Africa for Africa, the amount needed to keep 12 million people from dying for a lack of food was nearing $1.5 billion.

What aid agencies call “traditional donors” – among them the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, The World Bank – were, belatedly, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the United Nations’ appeal account. By the close of the meeting, at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Ethiopia in August, more than $350 million had been pledged from the governments of a third of the continent’s countries and the African Development Bank. Until then Africa’s own contribution to keep its starving citizens alive had been paltry.

Jerry Rawlings, Ghana’s former president and the AU’s envoy to famine-hit Somalia, had talked of giving a “convincing response to the rest of the world that we're not incapable of supporting our own when the need arises.”

Yet according to figures obtained by the Monitor this week and confirmed by the United Nations, less than 15 percent of the promised money has turned up, from only seven countries.

The delays have caused outrage and frustration among activists who hoped that, finally, Africa’s leaders would take more responsibility for the continent's welfare instead of waiting for others to come in to clean up messes on their doorsteps.

Where's the aid money?

Anne Mitaru, coordinator of the grassroots continental campaign Africans Act 4 Africa, says it was a “great lapse on the part of our leaders.”

“I don’t want to say they don’t care, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she says.

“But we have to say that the seriousness of how they are responding does reflect on their grasp of the gravity of the situation, and it’s not giving a good indication that they have an urgent commitment to respond.”

She listed the “good guys”: Angola ($2 million), Equatorial Guinea ($2 million), Gabon ($2.5 million), Mauritania ($1 million), Mauritius ($400,000), South Africa ($284,500), and Rwanda ($100,000).

However that total, with a variety of smaller non-state donations, adds up to $8.5 million sent by Africa’s 54 governments to the United Nations appeal.

That’s barely 15 percent of the $51 million promised at the August summit. (The largest pledge, $300 million, was from the African Development Bank and will be spent separately to the UN-channeled funds).

“It’s disappointing, when this was a call for Africa to respond to an African food crisis that has already caused tens of thousands of deaths,” adds Ms. Mitaru.

Look at the aid role models

But is it a surprise, that donors who stand up at so-called pledging conferences to brandish their checkbooks for the television cameras later fail to put that check in the post?

“We see this again and again, governments, and I’m talking about all governments, not just in Africa, pledge in haste and deliver at leisure,” says Ian Bray, a spokesman for Oxfam.

Figures are notoriously difficult to come by that show how much of a promised chunk of money eventually makes it onto the ground, whether in the Horn of Africa, Haiti, Burma, Pakistan, or any other crisis.

But the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) keeps score on who has paid up to its major global appeals, and who still owes what.

Run an eye down the list for the UN’s appeal to help Sudan last year, for example, and some usually highly-respected donor nations jump out on the late-payer column. Britain still owes $4.8 million (having sent $78 million), and Australia and Switzerland are behind on their promises too.

For the appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory for 2011, Belgium and Denmark together still owe more than $2 million. Only a little over 60 percent of the $579 million pledged to the Haiti Reconstruction Fund has so far been paid. 

Even for the Horn of Africa appeal, the one for which Africa’s governments are being accused of dragging their heels, more than $940 million is still outstanding.

Among the laggards are Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation ($350 million), India and the Ikea Foundation – which promised $62 million that the UN says has yet to hit its account.

The US, by contrast, has contributed all of the money it pledged, to all of the above appeals, according to the UNOCHA and Haiti Reconstruction Fund figures.

“This is the point, this happens with so many other organisations, there are pledges, there are delays, we chase them, they pay,” says Noureddine al-Mesni, spokesman for the African Union Commission, which is collecting the money its members promised at the August summit.

“There is nothing to worry about. The members have pledged and we will follow up. There are mechanisms to do that. But do not worry, the commitments are there, and we hope that we will get this money, it is a very noble cause.”

But delays sending money to the Horn of Africa drought appeals made a bad situation worse, according to a study released last week by Oxfam and Save The Children.

“It’s shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively,” Oxfam’s Chief Executive, Barbara Stocking, said at the report’s launch.

“We know that acting early saves lives but collective risk aversion meant aid agencies were reluctant to spend money until they were certain there was a crisis.”

Greater clarity?

There are an increasing number of initiatives recently established to work to bring greater clarity to how promised aid is delivered.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative, born out of commitments made at summits in Paris in 2005 and Accra in 2008, has already gathered 40 countries and many major aid agencies to work toward clearer presentation of data on how aid is spent.

Many pledges are presented for their cash value, but are in fact delivered “in kind” – ships offered to move food aid across oceans, experts flown out to help run clinics, or tools, parts or medicines donated from domestic supplies.

"Donors’ funding decisions are influenced by the decisions of others, so a pledge that is not honoured could have been fulfilled by another donor," says Jan Kellett, program leader for Global Humanitarian Assistance, which helps donors report how they spend their aid. "From the recipients’ perspective, pledges that are not honored or are delayed can ultimately be the difference between life and death."

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