Foreign Aid Works Best when it’s Self-Limiting: Isaias Afwerki (1997)

“While the Eritrean government welcomes properly focused aid programs, it is inclined to discourage the proliferation of fragmented aid programs that do a better job of meeting the needs of donor, rather than recipient, nations.” – President Afwerki.

Foreign Aid President Isaias
Foreign aid may work when properly promoted in the economic growth through investment

By President Isaias Afwerki,

Early in 1992, only a few months after Eritrea’s long war of liberation from Ethiopia ended, we received a high-level mission from a friendly country determined to help us make the difficult political and social transition to peace and salvage our devastated economy.

Although the offer was well-intentioned, the package of food and commodity aid was woefully inadequate for addressing our huge needs. Yet that was not the reason we felt compelled to politely decline the offer. The real problem was that the aid package arrived with an appalling number of strings attached, chiefly those associated with privatization of Eritrea’s public enterprises. In fact, the donor nation stipulated that the $17 million in commodity aid would be disbursed in several stages, over a three-year period. Each disbursement would be contingent on Eritrea’s success in selling a strict number of public enterprises.

The most troubling aspect of this proposed arrangement was that the donor nation didn’t even bother to conduct a cursory analysis to determine whether there were potential buyers -either foreign or domestic-who might be interested in purchasing these businesses. Nor did it investigate the government’s official policy regarding privatization efforts.

In January 1997, we received a mission from another country that expressed interest in supporting Eritrea’s energy and education programs. I was amazed to learn that this support would hinged on whether the “government had taken quantifiable measures in various sectors to meet women empowerment targets” recommended at the Beijing Conference on Women held in 1995.



The mission went further and requested proof from the National Union of Eritrean Women that government restructuring of the civil service, which had been largely implemented in three phases since 1994, had made :special provisions for women on the grounds of gender equality.”

This condition, which would have contradicted the policies of other donors, including the International Monetary Fund, was apparently made without any knowledge or scrutiny of our nation’s overall policy of affirmative action aimed at promoting the long term equality of both genders.

Though these two instances do not necessarily reflect the overall status of international aid programs, they do underscore the policy fragmentation and chaos that would ensure if nations were to comply with such heavy-handed prescriptions. They are also useful in informing the debate on the very objectives of foreign aid and the necessity of fostering sustainable, economic development.

Indeed, the only yardstick for measuring the viability, effectiveness, and desirability of foreign aid, in the form of grants or concessions, is the extent to which it enables the beneficiaries to gradually reach the point where they no longer need it. Indeed, foreign aid works best when it becomes obsolete, rather than self-perpetuating.

Evidence suggests that aid may be having the opposite effect. In fact, aid’s overall has been substantially eroded by the flaws in its structure and by the innumerable conditions, rules, and procedures imposed by donor nations.

In short, if foreign aid is expected to inject much-needed financial capital, facilitate the transfer of skill and knowledge, introduce innovative production techniques, and build local capacity in the recipient countries, the pattern on the ground suggests that aid is falling short of these ambitious goals.

Handouts vs. Helping Hands

In many instances, excessive “donor” involvement in aid management has not only reduced the effectiveness and efficiency of aid by delaying timely implementation, but it has also limited local involvement and capacity building because foreign consultants and experts tend to take on the majority of the administrative work.

Consider, for instance, that conservative estimates place the number of foreign experts administering aid in Africa today in excess of 100,000. This figure says much about the tendency of aid programs to create self-perpetuating circumstances.



Moreover, the seemingly endless number of missions to assess project feasibility before projects are launched, not to mention costly mid-term reviews, often entail considerable expenses that could have been funneled into productive activities to benefit the recipient nations.

Though international aid programs show tremendous room for improvement, my intention is not to reinforce isolationist pundits in Washington and other Western capitals who think “foreign aid has become a rat hole” that should be plugged. But how can we reconcile that jaundiced view of international aid with trends toward increased globalization and interdependence?

The pitfalls of isolationism are obvious; the idea one can live safely and comfortably within the confines of one’s territory while a substantial portion of humanity remains in the grips of endemic poverty is an illusion. Indeed, growing affluence and consumerism in one part of the globe cannot coexist for long with extreme deprivation in another part of the same planet without threatening world peace and security.

Historically, foreign aid has not always been predicted on a sense of altruism and human solidarity but instead focused on concerns over national interest. The threat of instability caused by increased poverty is much more pronounced in the context of the global village of the 21st century, where national borders come to mean less and less.

The threat to international peace and security posed by terrorism, which in the final analysis is fueled by deprivation and economic frustration, serves as a lesson in this regard.

But how can we strike a balance between focused, self-limiting aid intended to help recipient nations rise to their feet versus the disabling and self-perpetuating assistance intended to boost the donor nations’ sense of security?

In my view, nothing less that a total overhaul of the existing aid system will do. The endless conditions, provisions, and inflexible rules that are part of most current aid packages must give way to initiatives based on partnerships and shared ownership. To that end, we must replace the very words “donor” and “recipient” by new terms that reflect a sense of symmetric partnership.

Some might argue, with a certain degree of justification, that there is no novelty in this approach, as the concept is becoming increasingly common in the vocabulary of many Western nations. To the extent that partnerships are pursued in good faith, it is an auspicious beginning. But they will require much encouragement; old habits die hard, and the resistance to change engendered by the forces of inertial will be significant.

Sustainable Aid Policy

Even if all partners in aid were to fully adopt these reforms, the changes will be worthless if they fail to create an environment in which aid brings recipient nations to a point where they can fend for themselves and the aid becomes redundant. The most crucial issue that must be addressed, therefore, is the extent to which it is structurally embedded in the development policy of the country on the receiving end.

In this regard, foreign aid must be carefully designed to be focused and non-permantnt. In my view, a symmetric partnership can never be built on the basis of an exchange that is permanently skewed. The goal of foreign aid must be to create and environment that will transform the relationship into a mutually beneficial interaction of trade and investment.

I do not believe this is an impossible task, even in situations of great adversity. Indeed, there have been cases in the past which massive and purposeful intervention was successful. One example that comes to mind is the United States’ support of Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Whether Africa can summon geopolitical considerations of this magnitude amidst the political realities of the 21st century is, of course, a different matter.

And while the Eritrean government welcomes properly focused aid programs, it is inclined to discourage the proliferation of fragmented aid programs that do a better job meeting the needs of donor, rather than recipient, nations.

While the milieu of foreign aid suffers countless problems, its structural flaws, crippling preconditions, and self- perpetuating tendencies remain the most significant. These deficiencies must be corrected if, through foreign aid, we hope to address economic imbalances and promote a more egalitarian global village.


(Source: Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Winter 1997; 12, 4; ProQuest )



28 thoughts on “Foreign Aid Works Best when it’s Self-Limiting: Isaias Afwerki (1997)

  1. PIA is a hero who is refined by fire in 30 years war of independence; Ask any fighter who fought during the Derg's 6th offensive (Red Start offensive) – he visited every trench that streches hundreds of miles to personally encourage the fighters to stand their ground and fight. The bark from enemies of Eritrea that comes in different colors and forms will never scare him. God is with him because he is honest and selfless leader who cares about his country more than his life or his family.

    Moses, USA

  2. THE LION OF NAKIFA WEDI AFOM felasafa god bless Eritrea hade hzbi hade lbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

  3. It is a great privilege for us Eritrean such an intelligent and self-President. What he has written is really is really prescription for curing all of Africa.

    Saying no to the use of an AID as a crippling instrument; AID may be god indeed to the donors and corrupt officials from recipient country.

    A reform to the usage of AID in constructive way as Prescribe from the honourable president is something this, certainly Africa could use.

  4. A great Men is born ones inwild
    our president is the men of word
    loyal and fearful he believe in God
    not in person, he is avisionary he can
    see like eagle, that’s whay chicken head
    person they don’t like him ..!!!!!
    But we love u ..!!

    Viva wedi afom
    awet nhafashe
    zekhri nsewatenna ..!!

  5. He is simply magnificent. He is very knowledgeable about how the world functions today. We are fortunate to have him as our president.

    Awet N'hafash!

  6. A great men is born ones inwild
    this president is the loin of nakfa
    he is the man of word,loyal and fearful
    he believe in god not in person ..!!
    He is visionary he can see from far
    like eagle that’s whay chicken head
    person never like him ..!
    We are behind you wedi afom real Eritrean
    we love you ..!!!
    Ps. Ask your self r u chicken or eagle ??

    Viva wedi afom
    awet nehafash
    zekeri nsematatena ..!!

  7. hecu according to your prefrence ill suggest website such as agamino.com awate or ASSana. ill even be nice and add VOA and meskerem just as a refrence

  8. It may be new information for some of the Hassusat or the sellouts but we knew who PIA is , thats why we say LONGLIVE PIA.

    Deki Ere N'kid T'ry N'kidmit.

  9. Lol they erased my comment and it was a big one too…with questions about human rights and stuff :((((
    Well at least i dont live in a country where you can beat me up or put me in jail for asking about human rights.

    1. Everything in this world is “Relative” for your info my dude bro, Democracy too is relative. You can not compare democracy in US with Russia or Canada with any other African country. However, you can do so between Kenya and Uganda or Ethiopia with Sudan.

      In Eritrean case, we have our own state of democracy (which is still relatively speaking) setting aside the no-war, no-peace situation and its unintended aftermaths that befallen on the ppl. Better yet, you can not compare Eritrean present state democracy with that of Saudi Arabia for instance.

      Despite the constitutional crisis we have, I believe Eritreans have no restriction of information at all as there are no website, radios, satellite tvs etc blocked from free access by the ppl. The same is not true for instance in Ethiopia or the U.S. as there are a number of TV stations and radio channels that are banned in the country or they abuse and arrest people in the banner of terrorism for ages.

      For you, may be democracy mean election. As long as you had an election, what ever going on inside doesn’t matter. Well, do not expect a perfect democracy in Africa and we don’t believe on such scenarios and we believe in a relative terms of democracy – in our case an Eritrean owned democracy, and that one my brother, it’ll happen very soon. Just do us a favor: Do not make much noise about it. It sacks man!

  10. Let us not forget Eritreans are the most beautiful human beings in the world. The aid process can bring sexual offenders disguised as aid workers to Eritrea.From experience we know even the dirty animals called Ethiopians could not resist our women and did anything they can to have them by force during the The Ethiopia-Eritrea border war conflict, shaped by its historic complexities received attention from the international community to obvert the two year boundary conflict running from 1998 to 2000. The continued peace negotiations culminated into the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement that is hailed by many as the “comprehensive peace settlement”, governing, among others, the establishment of an independent boundary commission to delimit the contested boundary of the countries. The agreement has also established the Ethiopia-Eritrea claims commission to adjudicate claims for loss, damage and injury resulting from the conflict.

    The Ethiopia Eritrea claims Commission has been vested with passing an arbitration awards on claims relating the Ethio-Eritrean conflict arising from the violation of International Humanitarian Law. Accordingly, among the set of claims presented by both Ethiopia and Eritrea to the commission, there were several cases of rape committed against civilian populations. That is, Eritrea presented a claim to the commission that Ethiopian troops have committed numerous rapes against Eritrean civilian women in Senafe town. Eritrea corroborated its evidence through several eye witnesses, medical professionals including the testimony of Médecins Sans Frontières physicians.

    Despite Ethiopia’s claim that rape allegations were followed up, that soldiers were investigated and arrested to rebut Eritrea’s claims, the commission found Ethiopia liable for failure to take effective measures to prevent rape from occurring against innocent Eritrean civilian women.

    The current case is, therefore, a clear example that perpetrators of violence against women are not held accountable for their acts. Moreover, the fact that sexual violence is committed by state agents, the lack of investigation into the crime and failure to punish violators makes the state the one condoning the act and also perpetrating the same violence.We will not any such action get repeated by aid workers ,tourists or any other diplomats.

  11. @Miriam…..Aid workers disguised as sex offenders???? Any respectable Aid agency has a stringent vetting process for its staff and volunteers. Accusing people that are well intesnsioned to help the poor around the world with a such unfounded accusation and generalization really discredits the efforts and the great work that these organization are doing to help fight poverty, disease and starvation around the world. We Eritreans might not need the help from these agencies but we have to understand other countries need them and thus please stop making accusations with your unfounded facts.

    1. We are talking in Eritrean perespective and for that we don't give a shit about other countries or people well being out of the NGO. Why do you care if NGOs are helpful somewhere else. Point taken: We don't care about NGOs as they were unavailable when we need them most. It's the same with the other NGOs like HRW and Amnesty International. Where were they when our people were dragged and killed, deported and abused by successive Ethiopian regimes? They were good for nothing and are good for nothing. If they are useful for some country, again, we don't give a damn. Why do you give a damn for that matter? Lekbat eka gn.

      1. Ambassador, this "reasonable Eritrean " that person is not Eritrean, he is so idiot, if he is Eritrean, he must been retarded. he got that nickname just to make other naive eritreans to think the way he thinks, which we don't have naives. but i read some of his comments and i can tell he doesn't have any clues about anything what he has been saying. if he reads and watch news about the aid workers beside what they had done in Eritrea, they do all this crazy stuffs around the world. Recently Russia banned all US aid agencies, on the top of that in the 17th and 18th century colonialism started by sending all missioners, so in the 19th , 20th and 21st centuries what they do is send aid agencies to control the the few corrupted leaders in africa and be a tool for the corporate of the western world. so that idiot guy is , his stupidity is beyond measure.

        1. First of all you are the idiot for assuming that im not Eritrean because I disagree with most of what this government does. Look not all NGOs are good, some have bad history. All I was saying on my comment to Miriam was that painting aid agencies/aid workers are repast and sexual deviants is wrong. I believe that Eritrean does not need we are better off with out it. But please don't walk around thinking that people who want to help you are here to rape you. Dumbass!!

  12. Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand a lot approximately this, such as you wrote the book in it or something. I believe that you just can do with a few % to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, that is magnificent blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

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