It’s the elites, stupid

by David Week on 08 August 2011



I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the Pacific and Asia, and have only recently been invited to participate in a couple of projects in Africa. As a result, I’ve started to pay more attention to what’s happening in Africa, and I’m astonished to see the aid-bashing seems to be a popular continental sport. A recent example, which prompted this post, is an article in the East African by Rasna Warah: “The unholy alliance in Somalia: Media, donors and aid agencies”.

The argument is that in Somalia, the media can’t afford or doesn’t have access to the story on the ground, so they depend as a source on aid agency field staff, who, having a clear vested interest, will beat up the story in order to get more aid. The UN, too, is criticised for portraying Africans as “starving”, because only such depictions will generate funds.

All this seems probably true, but hardly unholy. I’m more interested in the backstory—Warah’s assumptions behind this article.

In the article itself, Warah says:

Donor aid also reduces countries’ sovereignty. Aid is the most effective (and cost-effective) way in which foreign donor countries control other countries without being labelled as colonialists. It leads to bizarre situations where a donor country — and even more alarmingly, an international aid agency — sets government policy for a poor country, while presidents, ministers and permanent secretaries look on helplessly. Donors have a keen vested interest, therefore, in keeping the aid industry well-oiled.

This is a recurrent theme in Warah’s writings. Elsewhere, she writes:

When they speak of the failures of the development industry, many of the authors in the anthology are referring to the fact that despite billions of dollars in donor aid, poverty in Africa remains a constant problem, and in some cases, has actually worsened. The fact that the development industry — comprising donors, NGOs, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions, governments and the whole gamut of humanitarian agencies –  has failed to eradicate poverty on the continent suggests that there must be something wrong in the way aid is used or in the way “development” is practised.

Aid is but a fragment

I was once told by a magician that if you want to see how a magic trick works, direct your attention away from where the magician is pointing.

I have also written in an earlier post of my realisation — on watching Dili transform from ghost town to living city, post-emergency, while we development workers were still shuffling our papers — that the activities of the other 800,000 people in East Timor were far more important to what happens in a country, than are the activities of we 5,000 aid workers.

In Africa, the proportion of GDP represented by foreign aid is 3.2%. In the East African article, Warah writes that in Kenya, where she is based, “…there are more than 6,000 registered international and local NGOs that contribute more than $1 billion to the Kenyan economy”. Sounds like a big number, doesn’t it? But in fact the total economy of Kenya is $29 billion, so that number is again around three percent.

If we want to understand poverty in a country, in any part of the world, we need to look not at the 3%, but the 97%. Aid is nothing more than a transfer payment from the developed world middle class, via taxes and donations, to the poor in the developing world. And it constitutes a small fragment of the total picture.

The take away:

  • Politicians are not held hostage by aid agencies: they are much in thrall to the elites that control most of the 97%.
  • Aid is not a failure because it does not eliminate poverty: the elimination of poverty depends much more on how management of the 97% affects the poor.

The role of the elite

Every country has its elites. Power is not distributed equally. Some people have more power than others.

For purposes of analysis, there are three elites:

  • The political elite: who hold the levers of governmental power
  • The business elite: who control capital, finance, and the big firms
  • The educated elite: who run the professional and technical systems upon which the political and business elites depend.
These three elites are not one and the same. Many business people and political leaders do not have high levels of education. But the three elites are deeply intertwined and interdependent. In particular, the educated elite are very likely to come from the families of the political and business elite.

Since the elites hold the real levers of power in developing countries, they are to whom you should look as responsible for the state of development. Like my magician friend, they in turn will attempt to draw attention away from themselves by pointing to external enemies, internal enemies, a demonized West, or an historical past. These accusations all may have some truth in them: they wouldn’t function credibly if they didn’t. But it’s the 97% that matters: not the 3%.

The bottom line here:

  • A country’s elite is responsible for the state of the country: not the poor, and not foreign aid.


I want to distinguish between holding an elite accountable for development of a country, and portraying them as some kind of evil that needs to be done away with. Countries have elites, because countries need people who know how to run businesses, manage technical and professional systems, and rally and align people through the political system.

These elites will expect to be rewarded for their talents at better than the average wage. But there is a difference between:

  • Good elites, who work for the benefit of the whole society, and moderate their own level of reward, and
  • Bad elites, who work solely in their own self or class interest, and extract more than a pound of flesh.

“Elite capture” is when the elite use the system of governance or business solely to benefit themselves. Elite capture is what bad elites do.

Unfortunately, just as there’s aid-bashing, there’s also elite-bashing. Elite bashing is the view that all elites are corrupt, self-interested, and greedy, and therefore should be avoided. Some NGOs hold this view, and try to bypass all the elites to deal “directly” with the poor. This is not sustainable, because it fails to recognise the necessary role of the local elites in development; it’s also untenable, because those same NGOs end up employing members of the elite.

Watch the 97%

  • Hold elites accountable.
  • When you meet a member of the elite — especially the educated elite, who should know better than to deflect responsibility — ask them what they are doing to develop their country. If the answer is “nothing”, find the ones that are doing something.
  • Above all, remember the magician’s advice. Look not at what the elite will direct your attention to; but at what they are deflecting your attention from.

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