Saturday, June 07, 2008

How Foreign Aid brings Sushi Bars to Failed States...

I was talking with a friend who works with one of the big international consultancy firms. He was working on a large “privatization”/ “public-private partnership” project in one of the SAARC countries….

“This must be quite an exciting job”, I said. “I mean, you are giving advice to the big businesses on their projects.”

He smiled wryly, “Not really!... there is a lot of CCP (cut-copy-paste) from the net in our reports.”

“But obviously, businessmen are not dumb. They will not pay you if you merely do what b-school students do for their term projects.”

“Of course, they are shrewd people”, he said. “…that is why they pay us.”

Seeing me slightly confused, he went on to elaborate candidly, “You know, this is actually quite simple. We are part of the package. Our client is getting a huge aid from the international funding agency for this project. One pre-requisite to get that aid is that they take us as the consultant. So, it really does not make much difference to them, as long as we are on the roll… it is a win-win partnership.”

It took some time for this “win-win” logic to sink in… till my “reality-check” mechanism made one more attempt…

“hey, hold on! Isn’t it the Government – not your private-sector client - who is getting this foreign aid?... wouldn’t it be for the government to decide on the consultant, and not the private partner?”

He laughed. “oh, both are the same. The aid comes through the government”, then he became serious. ”Let me try to explain. See, the “foreign aid” is not actually a “free” aid. It comes in a package of “Grant” and “Loan” – on average, the free “Grant” is about 1/3rd of the Aid. The other 2/3rd comes as a loan, and has “conditions” attached to it… the “conditions” are what we are part of. If the government needs that aid, then it has to accept us… in a way, the “aid” is given on the condition that it flows back to the donors - or one of their chosen ones.”

He paused for some time and then continued, ”Frankly, I am much too low in the hierarchy, so don’t know how it works, but this dynamics of foreign “aid” is same whether it is about the privatization projects we take up in SAARC countries, or in Africa – or any other disaster-hit needy country, e.g., China/Mynammar now – or during Tsunami earlier.”

“Frankly, I feel bad about all this,” he said. “But well, this is a job, isn’t it?”….

…Which made me remember this Washington Post article which Yawar had sent me recently – about How Japanese Sushi Bar reached the War Ravaged Liberia.

Some excerpts:
Monrovia, Liberia: The second sushi bar to open in ragged postwar Liberia did not settle for having its chefs wear simple T-shirts, or for serving $25 worth of sliced fish on plain white plates.

Instead, the Barracuda Bar -- the new favorite hangout of ambassadors, UN officials and legions of aid workers whose shiny white SUVs jam the parking lot most nights - opted to dress its staff in Japanese-style robes and red bandannas….
As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

A UN-maintained list from 2005, the most recent available, catalogued more than 600 nongovernmental organizations, donor groups and agencies of the world body working in Liberia. Their missions included tending to nearly every facet of national life: food, health, education, forestry, farming, religion and rebuilding the electrical grid, water systems and roads.Yet whatever the accomplishments of these groups, Liberians say the benefits of this massive international investment are far more obvious in the parts of town inhabited by the foreigners themselves. The number of swimming pools is burgeoning. Casinos are opening. Beach-side bars are springing up and sprucing up.

At the Abi-Jaoudi supermarket, ground coffee can be bought from Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and Seattle's Best. There are eight types of Chi-Chi's salsa and 90 types of cereal, including six varieties of Special K. Pop-Tart lovers have 16 options; if they can't decide between strawberry and blueberry, they can get a 'Splitz' Pop-Tart, with both.”

A bag of these expensive imports can easily exceed the monthly salary of a Liberian lucky enough to have a job. A dinner for two at either of the sushi bars is much more - especially if the meal is augmented with a few $8 caipirinhas or mojitos, as is possible at the Living Room, Monrovia's original, and somewhat less fancy, sushi spot.

(According to) Eliane Van De Velde, 35, a Belgian public information officer for the U.N. mission here, now on maternity leave,… “It's completely insane. The whole city doesn't have electricity. There's not a water plant. And it has two sushi bars, air-conditioned sushi bars. You wouldn't think you were in an African country.”…”


As one would have guessed, Liberia is not a stand-alone exception. In the present-day world, there is an ever-present and pervasive need for such “pre-emptive reconstruction” efforts, consciously and continuously created by either pre-emptive wars or economic reforms – or both…

Some Related Posts:
1. Preemptive Reconstruction: The New Capitalist Doctrine

2. A Lesson in War Capitalism

3. Wharton Study: IMF/WB Bad for Infrastructural "Reforms"

4. Economic Hit Man: Globalisation as Neo-Colonialism

5. SAP ("Structural Adjustment Program") - the Un(?)intended Consequences

1 comment: said...

Its funny that those who love to criticize the UN and other development partners do it from the comfort of their homes in developed countries. For those of those who work in Liberia and other post conflict countries find amusing that these people are rarely seen on the ground and can assess the value of the UN's presence in keeping peace, stability and bring economic and social development.

Buying coffee at Abi Jaoudi may also be supporting the creation of jobs? Also one should also note that Liberian's who have lived abroad and are coming back, find it easier to come back. Its not easy leaving a country where you have some comforts, like America, to come back to Liberia where there are so few. Whats wrong with people creating a few comforts that all enjoy and also create jobs..

I am sure those who are critics are probably reading this in some coffee shop in a nice neighbourhood? Whilst those who are referenced in this piece are making do with little internet services and depending upon bottled water, not because its fashionable but for health reasons..

From Liberia!