By Tamika Du-Pont

Since the 1950s, Africa has received large sums of money in foreign aid.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2016) reports that Africa received approximately US$50 211 million from OECD member states alone. Between 2014 and 2016, approximately E4.854 billion (US$321m) made its way into Eswatini from the OECD.

Over the past decades, donor interest in funding community-driven development projects has intensified. For example, the World Bank’s Rural Sectoral Board has reported to allocating about 45% of its budget to such projects. Ideally, this form of aid aims to provide disadvantaged communities with the necessary capacities and resources to contribute towards poverty alleviation and foster economic development that is both inclusive and sustainable.

However, despite increasing amounts of foreign aid received annually, Africa has very little to show for it. Today, poverty levels and income inequalities in Sub-Saharan Africa are at their highest ever. Research shows that many donor-funded projects have been unable to achieve longevity. Such findings have contributed to the growing scepticism surrounding the ability of donor-funded projects to contribute meaningfully to economic growth and the lives of their intended beneficiaries.

Although foreign aid has a role to play in bridging funding gaps that often exist in developing countries, the risks and weaknesses associated with the aid landscape need to be considered. As recipients of foreign aid, it is important that the Government of Eswatini asks pertinent questions relating to whether or not the way in which donor-funded projects are implemented yield the best possible outcomes for emaSwati.

Donor-funded projects in Eswatini

According to the Eswatini Household Income and Expenditure Survey (2018), a majority (70.5%) of emaSwati living below the poverty line reside in rural areas. Consequently, rural communities often receive funding prioritisation and therefore host a plethora of donor-funded projects. For example, around the early 2000s, the European Union (EU) funded community-based eco-tourism (CBET) projects in rural communities around the country.

A 2019 study conducted by the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) finds that community-run projects experience many challenges and as a result, face financial difficulties. Only a small proportion of community members were found to realise direct financial benefits. In addition, a lack of consensus regarding issues of ownership, the responsibilities and roles of community members, and how projects function was observed.

For example, even though CBET projects should ideally be owned and run by the communities, some members feel it is the responsibility of government to provide assistance and maintain the now dilapidating infrastructure. Additionally, community members trained to occupy positions, such as tour guides, often leave in search of greener pastures due to the inability of projects to provide stable sources of income. This has ultimately resulted in fruitless capacity building efforts.

Since the inception of these projects, there has been little to no monitoring. This of course is startling because without monitoring it is almost impossible to determine whether or not these projects meet their objectives, or if the set objectives are appropriate for the context in which the projects exist.

Recognising that most donor-funded projects are conceptualised externally, the lack of monitoring and evaluation increases the risk of running projects that are unsuitable for the context in which they exist and prevents the opportunity for identifying and correcting aspects of projects that are weak and destructive.

The challenges experienced highlight the tendency of donor-funded projects collapsing shortly after donor assistance ends. The lack of ownership and low participation threaten the ability of these projects in meeting their basic objective to ensure meaningful local participation in economic activity and inclusive growth.

Making donor-funded projects sustainable

Although the responsibility of ensuring that projects are successful and sustainable falls on both donors and recipients of aid, the actions of recipients should not be underestimated as they can ultimately determine the fate of their projects.

However, it is also important that development specialists ensure that the projects are viable, and the financial returns outweigh the costs of running the project. By doing so, the outcome should surpass the provision of infrastructure and result in real sustained benefits for the communities.

A starting point is changing the way we view aid. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the ultimate goal of aid is self-sustenance. Although the funds provided by donors cover the necessary initial inputs such as infrastructure and training, they are insufficient for the long-term sustenance of projects.

Ideally, reliance on foreign aid should decline overtime, meaning projects should be self-sustaining. This can be ensured by seeking funds with long-term subsidy plans and ensuring that project budgets cover long-term operational costs. Furthermore, local institutions have an important role to play in investing in domestic capacities so that these projects are sustained.

Secondly, implementing policy and laws that require monitoring and evaluation of the progress and impact of projects is critical. Monitoring and evaluation allows for an appreciation and deep understanding of the internal dynamics of host communities, it sheds light on the challenges experienced on the ground and informs appropriate interventions necessary for improved performance.

Rural landscapes are complex and consist of different value chains as highlighted by the case of CBET projects in Eswatini. For example, Shewula Mountain Camp makes use of produce from farmers in the Shewula community. Although this provides a great opportunity for the farmers, the ESEPARC study finds that they face many challenges, such as insufficient irrigation and unaffordable agricultural inputs.

This highlights the opportunity for a collaborative effort by the relevant government departments to contribute towards ensuring the success of CBET projects. For instance, through engagements and the formulation of action plans that require a collaborative effort to providing solutions to the issues communities face. This has the potential not only to ease budget burdens on ministries but also provides an opportunity for individual projects to tackle numerous problems simultaneously.

The use of ICTs in the operations of CBET projects can drastically improve their advertising, thereby expanding their market and increasing income earnings. However, the ESEPARC study finds that issues of poor mobile phone signal and lack of internet access exist in all sites. As a result, with the exception of Shewula Mountain Camp, CBET sites in Eswatini do not use online booking tools and they experience difficulties making telephonic bookings.

This proves to be a serious threat to the ability of CBET projects to attract both domestic and international tourists. Additionally, weak internet connectivity makes it impossible for CBET sites to use it, which highlights the need for the country to increase its broadband width, speed and internet coverage in remote areas where most CBETs are located.

Lastly, the most effective solutions are those that are based on a deep understanding of the local context. The idea that externally conceptualised textbook solutions are enough to address complex local issues needs to be done away with. As stated by Dambisa Moyo, “to deal with the development issue demands a new level of consciousness, greater degree of innovation, and analysis of honesty about what works and what doesn’t”.

This cannot be achieved without local inputs and knowledge. Therefore, concerted efforts to implement locally conceptualised projects that have engaged all stakeholders, including potential beneficiaries are key. This will allow for the implementation of projects that are suitable for local socio-economic conditions and which serve the needs of the communities in which they exist.