Monday, May 2, 2011

Quiet diplomacy

Have you ever wondered what our diplomatic service does for its living?  I thought I sort of knew, raking out memories of things like formal receptions on the Queen's birthday, nannying the Royal Family when they visit and working with big business to smooth negotiations on British export deals.  Beyond that I was a bit hazy.

We registered with the British High Commission when we arrived in Kampala, as one should.  As a result, we have received timely, frequent and helpful emails and text messages whenever there are security issues, for example, during the elections and over the last two or three weeks during the walk-to-work protests. These alerts are always sensible and contain enough detail to enable us to avoid the worst trouble spots.  So far we have not been shot, overpowered by teargas or pelted with stones.  We hope to keep it that way.  We also receive interesting updates on what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing through their UK in Uganda Facebook updates.  And, of course, other embassies do exactly the same, so VSO colleagues get security alerts from the Irish embassy, Netherlands embassy and so on.  Unlike the Irish and the Dutch, we have not yet been entertained by our High Commission, but I'm sure the invitation is in the post.

Different western governments support Uganda in different ways.  Some countries (the UK, Netherlands and Ireland, for example) provide budget support.  That means that they pay money directly into Uganda's exchequer, which is essentially quite a good approach as it means that donor countries support really important public services and improvements to infrastructure, while leaving the recipient country with accountability for decisions about how to allocate specific funds.  Globally only 5-10% of aid is delivered through budget support. However, the UK provides more than a third of its bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa through this mechanism.  At one time, about 70% of Uganda's national budget came from international donors, though that has now fallen to 40%.  Indeed, it may even have fallen as low as 25%, as a number of countries (for example the UK and Netherlands) have reduced their aid as a result of Uganda's reluctance/inability/bloodymindedness in failing to deal with corruption, particularly in relation to the CHOGM thefts, but also more generally.

No western country just gives their taxpayers' money away, of course.  International donors have set up a Joint Assessment Framework for Uganda which contains a number of indicators on which they wish to see improvement in the areas to which they are directing their funding, for example, education, health, justice and poverty.  Every year they track Uganda's progress against these indicators in order to evaluate the impact of their aid on the population generally.  Sadly, progress on the education indicators is modest at best, and static or retrogressive at worst, so lots of food for thought for everyone involved in the aid business.  International donors include Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, the World Bank and the African Development Bank.  Given all the money provided by the UN, these development partners and (beyond budget support) thousands of NGOs, why is education not improving?  Indeed, why, in the view of some people, is it getting worse?

The trouble with budget support is that donor countries have relatively little control over where the money actually ends up.  In countries like Uganda, it may easily be syphoned off into people's pockets at a number of different levels: Ministerial, local government and school.  Funds for school furniture allegedly disappear into the pockets of district education officers.  Ghost schools, teachers and pupils also require significant financial support which diverts crucial funding from real schools, teachers and pupils.  And of course, there is also 'facilitation', one of the biggest sources of corruption in the country and evident at every level within the system, in every national and local government department and in every area of public services.

United States of America International Development (USAID) does not give budget support to Uganda, Americans will be pleased to know.  USAID directs its financial support towards projects, usually through Unity, their development arm.  Worthwhile Unity projects we have come across recently are the training programmes for teachers and education managers delivered through core primary teaching centres and Kymbogo University, which we wrote about some months ago (Celebrations etc).  However, other donor nations also provide project funding in addition to their budget funding.  The UK's Department for International Development (DfID) helps fund the Youth Development Centre in Gulu which we wrote about recently (Rebuilding Northern Uganda).  Indeed, we arrived to see the centre a day after the DfID team had visited to monitor the quality of its work.  Diplomats from the various donor countries facilitate (in the British use of the term!) this kind of support and oversee this kind of monitoring to ensure that their taxpayers' money is not being used by unscrupulous politicians or civil servants to fund villas in the south of France or even villas by Lake Victoria.

So, what have the diplomatic corps here in Kampala been doing recently?  Well, they've actually been quite busy, so it seems.  We've known for some time that the US keeps an eye on what is going on here, with Hillary Clinton charged with providing regular reports on human rights issues to Congress. Unsurprisingly her reports have not been overly positive.  In the last couple of weeks, diplomatic activities have become quite intense.  You see, if a western country provides aid to a developing country, it also has some responsibility not only to see that that aid is being used appropriately (not being used to help a longstanding president achieve re-election, for example) but also to ensure that the policies adopted in that country are of the kind which people back home would wish to support.  This kind of 'interference' can make some Ugandan politicians quite cross.

European Union diplomats have met to discuss the current situation, as one would expect them to.  In addition, the head of the International Criminal Court is apparently due to fly in to monitor the human rights situation.  On April 24, Sunday Monitor reported 'The British High Commission, the European Union mission, and the United States embassy as well as the United Nations Office for Human Rights have all condemned the use of excessive force against the opposition and the three embassies asserted the opposition's right to express their views.'

America's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, has spoken to Uganda's foreign minister to express his concern 'about what appears to be the harassment of Dr Besigye.'  He urged the Ugandan government 'to act both in a responsible and civil fashion in dealing with the arrest of individuals attempting to carry out peaceful protests.'

The US Embassy was also concerned about 'reports that the Ugandan government has sought to restrict media coverage of the protests, including on Internet networking sites.'  The US State Department deputy spokesman said 'Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights and a critical component of functioning democracies.'

The Ugandan government, however, has its own concerns.  The Ugandan government intends to summon the Dutch and Irish ambassadors who visited Nakasongola Prison and apparently held four hours of discussions with Besigye (before the latest assault and subsequent medical treatment in Kenya).  The Norwegian and French ambassadors have also been to the prison to talk to officials.  It was reported that 'a western diplomat' drove to Entebbe airport to help smooth Besigye's flight to Kenya after he had been barred four times from travelling .

In the words of the Daily Monitor (1 May), 'Foreign diplomats had been expressing their displeasure with the way the police have handled the demonstrations which have claimed close to 10 lives with over 700 arrests.'  What the west can threaten to do is to cut off aid if the current regime does not demonstrate more flexibility and agree to work with the opposition to achieve some kind of national  unity.  They have done it before and they can do it again.  If you are paying the piper, you do have some right to call the tune.

So, diplomats do do more than hold garden parties, celebrate St Patrick's Day and hustle for orders for warships.  They also try to save lives, promote democracy and make sure your hard-earned taxes are spent appropriately.

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