African investigative journalists and development aid workers from the West who work on the continent are strange bedfellows. Both groups feel sadness and outrage when they see Africans starve, work under inhuman conditions, or don’t have access to medicines when sick. Both often work together, for example in protest against polluting multinationals that evade tax, or pharmaceuticals that prioritise ‘western’ diseases in their research. Both want the best for suffering communities.

But with being African, and an investigative journalist at that, comes a different perspective. One is not focused on ‘others’ far away: suffering communities are all around us. We get malaria, sickle cell anaemia and AIDS: during a transnational investigation into access to medication we saw three colleagues die around us.

Maybe even more importantly, we note, next to the injustices in our own countries, also those who commit these. Before we see any wrongdoers from ‘outside,’ we see our own ones. Joseph Kabila presides over one of the most rapacious ruling elites ever in the history in the DRC. Cameroon’s 84-year old ruler Paul Biya’s regime recently embarked on mass persecution of activists, jailings and even murder. Kenyans have protested against their greedy elites with pictures of pigs feeding at the through.

We wanted to do this investigation because we have observed such African rulers, after taking our tax moneys and appropriating our natural resources, often taking development aid money too.
We wanted to do an open-minded investigation. We did not go into this with an “anti-aid” mindset, however important Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid’ may have been in the general discourse around aid for Africa. We agreed with the caution urged by publishers and our own advisory council that we should not attempt to investigate, let alone judge, an entire sector.

We are also aware that many people in our countries in fact do need help.

The question was, then, how to do such an open minded investigation. Clearly, investigating every development aid project in Africa was going to be impossible. And we would be -quite rightly- be accused of ‘cherry-picking’ if we selected some bad projects on purpose and ignored information about good ones. We therefore decided to select several regions in our own countries and look at the predominant projects that were being carried out there with the objective of improving the lives of the communities.

In Uganda, we selected the war ravaged northern Acholi region. The Acholi community, which had suffered for years under the ravage wrought by Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army on their farms and villages, was  -incredibly hurt and traumatised- trying to get back on to their land. “Land is everything here,” all the aid workers we spoke to said. So we looked at those aid projects whose goal was “land resettlement.”

In the DRC, we selected an urban and a forest community. The urban community’s first and foremost need was potable water, which led us to check on a World Bank-aided water delivery project; the Maluku forest community on the shores of the Congo river needed protection of its environment as well as ways to earn a living. It was also the World Bank that aimed to help with that.

In Ivory Coast, Selay Kouassi travelled around the disadvantaged -and like northern Uganda, post-conflict- western regions of Guémon, Tonkpi and Moyen-Cavally and asked citizens and professionals in the cities from Duekoué, Man, Guiglo and Bangolo about their expectations and realities.

In Kenya, Ken Opala went into the slums of Nairobi’s Kibera township to find out what had come of decades of upgrading- and upliftment programmes.
And in Cameroon, Chief Bisong Etahoben used a list from MINTAD (the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation) that governs non-governmental aid projects, combined with a data search on projects that were government-aided, to check what was being done to help the desperately poor communities of the North West region.

Each reporter individually also perused relevant documents, obtained academic and other expertise, and spoke (or attempted to speak) to those in charge of the projects. This exercise was repeated and extended centrally by the coordinating editor, Evelyn Groenink.

Lastly, we attempted to obtain comparable data on poverty levels and chronological trends in those poverty levels per region. Sadly, this turned out to be impossible. Even if national statistics bureaus and the UN provided data on some regions (which was the case in North Uganda and Cameroon), the dates and periods did not compare chronologically; DRC and Ivory Coast data were highly questionable (even the World Bank did not list specific data for the DRC country after 2011) and we could not find data that differed between Nairobi’s rich and the inhabitants of its slums. What we did find, however, was in line with the world-wide trend of the growing wealth gap between rich and poor.

We did find aid projects that actually helped: this was often help given in direct interaction with the target community. Farmers in Cameroon, for example, were happy with money and cattle given directly to them; communities in north Uganda benefited from land advocacy done by NGOs, even if these NGOs were ‘too weak’ to effectively stand up against big land grabbing generals and politicians who still exploit the region.

In conclusion, we do not issue a verdict on development aid as such (nor did we want to.) Helping a person in need is obviously always a good thing. But what we did overwhelmingly find was confirmation of our suspicion that often, those who are helped (or who appropriate the help when the helpers aren’t looking) are those least in need of it: the land grabbing generals, the crooked politicians, slumlords and exploiters. The question that remains is whether this aspect of aid is ‘to some extent deliberate’ and therefore inevitable, as a consultant we spoke to said, or whether it can be avoided.

The donor organisations, including the World Bank, are certainly aware of the risk of elite capture of aid. Any new project’s risk analysis, nowadays, often carries a ‘local elite capture’ note in the risk box. Remarkably though, we haven’t yet come across even one project that was not approved because of this risk. “But that is because of general budget cut backs in aid organisations,’ our development aid consultant told us. ‘The first departments to go are research and analysis.’

If that is the case, then -we wonder, maybe- African investigative journalists could be of help?

We are grateful to Unesco and the Open Society Foundation for their support to this investigative project.