On gift horses, football and aid: Rwanda, Arsenal and British gammon-coloured outrage

As the Trojans know, gifts can be somewhat problematic. When they’re not hiding an invading army in their belly, gifts come with a whole set of obligations and expectations from the giver, the beneficiary required to use the gift in a way that the giver deems acceptable, limiting and setting boundaries around behaviour (this is why academics who work on gift economies are rarely invited to parties). That act of apparent generosity requires gratitude (expressed through appropriate behaviour of the recipient), and in doing so sets up and sustains a particular set of unequal power relations, all tied up with ribbons and pretty paper.

I was reminded of the obligations that come with gifts both as I was reminding one of my children to respond appropriately to all his birthday presents, whether he liked them or not, and also as the story about Rwanda’s decision to sponsor the Arsenal football team caused consternation and spluttering over the nation’s cornflake bowls. The usual newspapers decried the decision to spend “our aid money” on a north London football club; the usual politicians used the ‘scandal’ to once again seek to undermine UK aid budget commitments; and Radio 4 Today Programme’s John Humphries moved into full outrage-mode in his interview with CEO of the Rwandan Development Board, Clare Akamanzi (in what was a profoundly uncomfortable interview to listen to but that encapsulated perfectly the sense of British entitlement over the obligations of aid recipient governments).

I don’t know whether sponsoring a football team is a good marketing strategy or not. Nor, I expect, do many of the critics of Kagame and his government. But for me, what is more interesting is what the whole story tells us about the continuing neo-colonial and paternalistic assumptions that lie behind aid, often simmering quietly below the surface before occasionally bubbling over. Because more than the fault of a potentially frivolous expenditure, what Rwanda is clearly much more guilty of, is the sin of not behaving the way donors think it should as a recipient of their largesse.

In the 1990s and 2000s, aid relationships, and specifically the conditions attached to aid (where aid was provided in return for governments agreeing to implement a particular set of policies) were the subject of growing criticism within the donor community itself. Donors started to acknowledge the need for governments to be able to set their own priorities and be less subject to donor fiat. Conditionality was out(-ish), ‘recipient countries’ were to be re-labelled as ‘partners’, and ‘ownership’ of aid by these new partners was deemed to be central to how aid relationships should, and would in future, function. As part of the 2005 Paris Declaration donors committed to “respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it”, in order that recipient countries might “exercise effective leadership over their development policies”. The 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, building on the Paris principles, called on donors to respect priorities established by parliaments and citizens in those countries, rather than impose their own agendas (ironically, this at the height of the MDGs which possibly did even more to undermine sovereign power to set priorities than aid regimes).

But as events like Rwanda’s football team sponsorship story show us, this commitment to ownership  (slippery and problematic though that concept is), to the right of nations to set their own agendas whether they are aid recipients or not, to building up the capacity of states to make their own, independent decisions, was little more than rhetoric. The transactional nature of aid, bound by clearly defined conditions and expectations, was replaced with the gift of aid, with unstated, but fully understood and no less onerous obligations. The space in which aid recipient countries are to be allowed to spend is limited. Decisions are tolerated only as much as they fit with what donors think is acceptable. And seeking to act as a fully sovereign nation is permissible only to the extent that those boundaries are not crossed. Set up a space programme, as India did, or try to promote an economic sector with potential for huge growth in the wrong way, and you will be condemned and your aid receipts threatened. The ‘gift of aid’ (as opposed to the transactional relationship of aid) has effectively restored Victorian notions of not only responsible giving, but responsible receipt.

Of course, this paternalism is not just found in international aid relationships. It suffuses ideas around charity and giving in donor countries themselves. In the UK, we are encouraged by some charities not to give directly to the homeless, as they will make poor decisions with that money. Far better, we are told, to give to a charity which will make the right decisions for them. The ‘respectable’ and responsible poor are those who either do as expected, or are grateful for others who make decisions for them. Of course, it is completely different when the UK – a recipient of European Union funding for some of its poorer regions (Cornwall and West Wales in particular) – decides to spend around £50 billion on a very fast railway. Some countries are more able to spend on prestige projects whilst in receipt of aid than others, it appears.

The British government, much of its media, and many of its citizens, see ‘aid’ as a marker for generosity of spirit, rather than an obligation of rich countries, especially those which have built their economies on the back of many of those countries and world regions now in receipt of that aid. We are happy, it seems, to provide aid to the respectable poor, who use that gift responsibly and appropriately (in other words, doing things we think they should, even if we are no longer quite so direct and explicit in setting out the precise terms of what it is they should do). But if a country decides to move outside of that limited imaginary – whether on space programmes, presidential jets, or football shirts – then our (donor) gasp of outrage counts for more than any rhetorical commitment to more equal relationships.

As I said earlier, I have no idea whether Rwanda’s idea is genius or madness. Did it come from super Arsenal-fan Kagame himself, or from a team of marketing experts? If it is such a bad idea, why do companies and organisations sponsor football teams at all? A much more interesting story may have been to think about what the reaction was inside Rwanda itself. But I do wonder whether the outrage would have been quite so vociferous if Rwanda had spent a similar amount on a campaign of posters on the tube or London buses. A much more respectable way for a poor nation to demonstrate gratitude to its benefactors.

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About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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