The Role of Aid Theft in Africa: A Development Question

Across Africa more than a trillion of dollars of aid and investment remains unaccounted for due to corruption and theft, leaving doubts about the success of development programs, and raising questions about the future of aid in Africa.

Between the year 1980 and 2009, an estimated $1.4 trillion dollars in illicit outflows of funds left Africa, an amount much greater than the total combination of aid and investment that was received during the same period. This disparity has had a severe impact on the health of the continent, and has significantly hampered its development projects.

With the rise in predation of resources throughout the region, one of the largest obstacles faced by development organisations is the theft of aid. Across Africa, there have been countless cases of both the direct capture of resources, such as food and medical supplies, as well as government fraud involving the misappropriation of monetary aid.

Somalia, perhaps more so than any other nation, has experienced the consequences of aid theft. Dating back to 1992, and listed as a driving force behind American military intervention in the country during the same year, the theft of famine assistance has plagued Somali relief efforts.

During a 2011 drought in which an estimated 3.2 million Somalis required aid, an Associated Press investigation found that a significant amount of assistance in the form of food sacks had been stolen and was later sold in local markets. Done so largely by businessmen within the state, some estimate that half of all aid allocated to Somalia during the crisis had been stolen. This widespread theft ultimately raises larger questions concerning the effectiveness of aid agency’s ability to battle corruption, as well as recipient country’s desire to do so.

While the direct theft of aid has had a significant impact on assistance programs in Africa, corruption and the embezzlement of financial resources brings additional problems to African development. In many cases, development aid is appropriated by political elites, often for their own personal use. In Sierra Leone and Kenya respectively, officials have stolen a total of 1.2 million and 800,000 GBP in recent years, and in Uganda, education ministers embezzled a staggering 16.5 million GBP in 2010.

1960s All People's Congress (APC) Political Rally in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa) 1968 | John Atherton - Flickr

1960s All People’s Congress (APC) Political Rally in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa) 1968 | John Atherton

While these figures are concerning, they are hardly uncommon. In 2010 and 2006, Uganda was rocked with further scandal, as it was reported 45 and 12 million USD was stolen from the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations respectively. In 2013, an additional 4 million Euros in aid funding donated from Ireland was also stolen, causing Ireland and the United Kingdom to reexamine the provision of aid directly to the Ugandan government.

Equally troubling is the lack of effort to punish those involved. In a number of cases, particularly the theft of Irish aid, Uganda has been either unable or has refused to prosecute those who have been connected to these significant instances of corruption. The Ugandan government has also been quick to arrest anti-corruption advocates who have tried to shed light on the estimated 258.6 million USD lost per year to fraud.

The consequences of the theft of this development have been severe. In many cases, conditional repayment of development aid is attached to its receipt, making the strategic investment of said aid critical in order for repayment to occur. With African countries having to repay 20 Billion USD per year for previous aid programs, there is little room for the improvement of education or infrastructure. With a significant amount of funds being siphoned off by corrupt leaders, many nations are left paying off debts while not reaping many of the programs intended benefits.

An anti-corruption sign in Uganda | futureatlas.com - Flickr

An anti-corruption sign in Uganda | futureatlas.com

While aid flows from the global North to Africa have been significant, the funds and physical resources that have been stolen may be too large to overcome. As we have observed, this gap in resource allocation has crippled a number of development programs and diverted potential sources of income and assistance for a number of states.

Looking towards the future, it is crucial that steps are taken by both donor and recipient states to eliminate this theft of aid. Only then will the successful implementation of development programs occur, and will the needs of those countries involved be sufficiently met.

Featured image: Michael Sale | Flickr


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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