African Studies Quarterly

AID TO AFRICA: SO MUCH TO DO, SO LITTLE DONE. Carol Lancaster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. pp. 272. Cloth: $ 55.00, Paper: $22.00.

In a time when Overseas Development Aid (ODA) is under threat throughout the industrialized west, Carol Lancaster's Aid to Africa contributes a measure of reason and empiricism to a debate that is otherwise driven by competing commercial, ideological and political interests. With this book, Lancaster, a former deputy administrator of USAID, addresses "why, with so much aid, has there been so little development in sub-Saharan Africa?" Her effort includes both an explanation for past failures and suggestions meant to improve future performance. Using a wealth of economic indicators, her response begins by comparing the achievements of six donor countries (the US, Britain, France, Japan, Sweden, and Italy) and two multilaterals (the World Bank and the European Union) whose contributions together account for 60 percent of the "concessional" aid to sub-Saharan Africa.

Lancaster's generally negative assessment should not surprise even the undergraduate development studies audience for which this text is best suited. But the focus on aid agencies' political/institutional characteristics provides an unusual perspective with real payoffs for those not attuned to aid debates or organization theory/analysis as applied to development assistance. Through her country case studies, Lancaster concludes that it is not the general misallocation of aid, nor the ineptitude of African leaders and bureaucracies that bear primary responsibility for continued failures. Rather, political and bureaucratic interests combine with ineffective organizational structures and institutionalized dysfunctions to prevent donors from effectively evaluating, improving and coordinating their development initiatives. It is neither the level of aid nor the recipients that are to blame, but the way aid is delivered.

The author's assertion-that it is primarily the entrenched "bureaupathologies'' of donors that lead to failure-can be taken to two logical conclusions. The first is Lancaster's: since the donors are at fault, western lobbyists can do something to ameliorate deplorable levels of waste and corruption, and, in the process help eliminate poverty, illiteracy, and injustice. This is a refreshing position that self-consciously distances Lancaster from the fevered deconstructionist/hypercritical pitch adopted by many current students of development. This departure also affords her the freedom to put forth a set of concrete recommendations: that aid agencies be given more autonomy from political pressures (as in the British model); that they be encouraged to coordinate to avoid working at cross-purposes; and that standardized measures for gauging success be developed and employed. All of this, Lancaster argues, will allow better evaluation of past efforts so that future campaigns will be more effective. While her case studies are well (albeit unevenly) substantiated, in making such recommendations Lancaster breaks from the logic of her analysis. Although she has definitely contributed to an understanding of the problems associated with ODA to Africa, her attempt to procure a solution is itself problematic.

Considering her second conclusion brings the pitfalls of Lancaster's analysis into relief. This position holds that because the environment (politicians, other government and non-governmental actors, and agency staff) is responsible for aid agencies' pathologies, there is little latitude for improvement. As Lancaster's own analysis suggests, donor agencies are embedded within an intrinsically political system encompassing deep-seated forces unlikely to be dislodged by something as uncompelling as "aid to Africa". The hard-liners of this camp, many already wishing to cut ODA, will publicly conclude that aid must cease and desist all together. On the other hand, those content merely to reduce and reform the system will seize quickly on Lancaster's suggestion that aid be dedicated entirely to "effective" programs. However, the demand for "effectiveness" will likely direct funds only to those areas in which progress is easily quantified. Not only will this eliminate support for many "softer" social programs, but the poorest of the poor-the ostensible targets of ODA-are likely to be excluded all together. Rather than fruitless spending on the deeply impoverished, experience suggests that those on the upper margins of poverty will be offered just enough so that a given initiative might be considered a success. One can take an example from with the text itself. Lancaster suggests that US aid to South African civic groups during the 1980s and early 1990s counts as a rare American success. While such assistance may indeed have helped expand the diversity and impact of these organizations, arguing that it is responsible for an already burgeoning civil society is something of a fancy, as shown by Robert Price in his 1991 book, The Apartheid State in Crisis. Even with this plethora of groups, post-apartheid South Africa must still provide social services to its impoverished, many of whom remain unrepresented by these civic organizations.

It is unfortunate that Lancaster detracts from her valuable and generally insightful organizational analysis with a set of untenable and potentially delusional recommendations. The review of the terminology and major themes of development discourse provides a welcome entrance into the theory of economic and political development. Her comparative analysis, influenced by work in economics, political science and public management, introduces an analytical dimension many development economists and consultants would be wise to heed. Perhaps the greatest irony of this book is that while suggesting that politics and organizational pathologies are the problem, Lancaster then ignores these realities in proffering her solutions.

Loren B. Landau
Department of Political Science
University of California - Berkeley