Andrew on Aid (Again)

In his excellent new blog, Aid Watch, William Easterly has posted a video of Andrew Mwenda speaking at a recent conference at NYU. Sadly, my Internet connection is currently too slow to watch it, but I have spent enough time with Andrew at The Independent and around town that I am pretty sure I know what he is saying…essentially that foreign aid makes governments accountable (if at all) to donors instead of their own people, which has damaging consequences for many young and emerging democracies.

I generally agree. In some cases, there is little evidence that governments need to be accountable even to the donors, who seem to keep throwing money at programs and government coffers without following up to see that the money translates into measurable outcomes. Domestic taxes are a good (if obvious) solution. When people are coughing up their hard earned money to pay for public services, for example, they are much more likely to make sure that government actually delivers these services.

Tax collection is not easy, however, especially when the richest businessmen are often top government officials themselves, or have close ties to the government. Studies from the Economic Policy Research Centre in Uganda have found that tax evasion in the country is widespread (an altogether expected finding). I am sure we would be shocked to know the real amount that is owed to the Uganda Revenue Authority. It is also hard to tax the informal sector, which constitutes a large and largely undocumented portion of the economies of many developing countries. Nevertheless, improved tax collection should be a high priority for those looking to create real systems of accountability in countries like Uganda. But who are these people exactly? Politicians? Government officials? The most powerful people in the land? Mmmm, methinks not…

Not the First Lady I wanted in the news

Last week I noted the seemingly unusually frequent news stories related to First (and former First) Ladies around the world. I almost added at the end, “Who’s next, Mugabe’s wife?” Close, as it turns out. But instead it was Susan Tsvangirai, wife of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe (Morgan Tsvangirai) who died in a car crash in Zimbabwe last Friday, March 6.

There has been some speculation that the crash was not an accident but a malicious attempt to oust the PM, but given the decrepit roads, poor driving and sky high car accident rates in the region, I would not be surprised if the official story (that the driver of the truck that plowed into the Tsvangirai’s car) was true. In any case, it is a great loss and tragedy for the Tsvangirai family (which includes 6 children and two grandchildren).

There have been a number of high profile road traffic deaths in Uganda as well, which has one of the highest road accident/death rates in the region. Yet despite the fact that nearly everyone I know has lost a loved one to the roads, there is little to nothing being done to improve the condition of roads or people’s driving. I don’t understand why. It wouldn’t seem to be a collective action problem, because everyone is suffering and I don’t think one group is disproportionately affected. Perhaps it is a fatalistic mentality when it comes to the roads? I have heard multiple people explain these deaths as “God’s will.” Others have told me they do not wear seatbelts because they would rather be killed than maimed for life.

While I do not consider myself very religious, I do generally understand the “God’s will” sentiment. I do not think it applies here however. It is not God’s will that people within the Ministry of Transportation are not doing their job. It is not God’s will that corruption eats up money meant for road construction so that in the end you have roads that have developed potholes before they are even completed (ahem! Northern Bypass). Submission to incompetence gets you nowhere at best and, evidently, killed at worst.

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