Opinion: Against the architecture of foreign aid

by James Inedu George

The architecture of AID, from foreign NGOs and a host of international donors, was intended to serve as a catalyst to boost life in Africa. This aid was designed to fill in the gaps where the then short arms of the government could not reach. Like subsidy to products, it was a short-term measure to save lives. For a long time, it had worked perfectly, but as usual, complacency set in and the recipients became static.

A kind of architecture developed through this aid. It is a kind of basic architecture without any frills in all ways, an incomplete architecture (see appendix for much_more manifesto). It is a bare box and a very basic shed. This architecture first started far from the cities, as the cities were close to the eyes of both donor and government. In the cities, another kind of architecture was produced, and almost all the donor money was put to use. The donors would choose the architect and with them, the kind of building, and these became the showpieces of the organisation. A lot of universities and schools benefited from these, and as such there are at present almost museums of modern architecture. But in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the drums of war were beating all over Africa, and these AID workers started to work remotely. This was the beginning of the problems.

The success of the philanthropy was now based, instead of on the quality of the product, on the number of these buildings that were built and the time it took to build them. While the budgets were being increased to record numbers, the products were in a constant state of retrogression, until the shed, born in the backwaters of the villages, became the leading typology for the response to foreign aid. This is how the school in Africa lost its form and became a bare box and a big pitched roof. It became cardboard paper module, punched with windows and covered in a roof.

In the 1990’s, the rape started. The size of the built school reduced and the soccer fields entered the equation. These fields became a big deal in the plans of the AID architects. By now, these architects had become specialists in the design and construction of schools and had moved from AID to the average clients who wanted schools designed. By the mid-1990’s, the form of school buildings was a fixed typology. It was a simple pitched roof with a veranda in front of it. This veranda was usually about a meter and a half deep, housing round steel pipes spaced at equal intervals at the end of the veranda to hold up the roof.  The school itself was a collection of these blocks to form a square courtyard, in the centre of which was a soccer pitch. This was the school without fail. Whatever grade of school was housed in it, the answer was always the same. A ring of buildings and a field. This is the Architecture of AID and indeed the formula for making schools as we know it.

Today’s Africa is in a paradoxical situation. It is no secret that there are six of the world’s fastest-growing economies here. There seem to be great amounts of business occurring daily, and the 21st richest man in the world is an African. Yet, to build basic infrastructure and schools for the people, there is a total dependence on foreign philanthropy. This AID money, while helpful, is proliferating a kind of architecture in our cities that has no place in the world. A kind of architecture that should not have existed in any of the millennia since we left the caves.

Side by side with these sheds, African Business is building daily its edifices. Buildings that are a lot of times built to appease the ego of the businesses that build them. Most of the spaces in these buildings, which are usually neighbours with these UNDP and AID architecture schools, are empty. The businesses do not have enough staff to fill these humongous buildings. But they are a show of the fact that Africa is rising. It is rising, but it depends on the kindness of others to make the schools that educate its children. It is rising! This is what we tell to the unsuspecting world that only see the spreadsheets and count the quantities.

For a place so poor, a lot of large buildings are being attempted in Africa. Some of these buildings even attempt at bringing to life diluted versions of great western designs. But they are never schools or homes. They are always businesses. In a way, we believe that we have solved the issue of the home and school… by the grace of AID and the UNDP, we have overcome! This is absolute rubbish, however. Utter arrant nonsense. The narrative of Africa on a global scale, with all the aid that has been poured into it, remains the exact same. A poor dark place where education is below par and most people cannot find their next meal. A place in dire need of help and AID… It wasn’t always like this. The 1960’s were a bright light in our lives.

By all means, AID is good, but in large doses, it weakens its recipients. This is the story of Africa. There seem to be enough riches in the land to drag the continent out of this aid quagmire, but as we seem to get richer as people, the continent itself is in need of much more aid. It is indeed a paradoxical situation. The unfortunate situation, however, is that the output of the AID, the hospitals, schools, soccer fields and churches, over time, make it impossible to do any kind of architecture that works properly, out of Africa. This is why we stand squarely against all form of AID that leads to the making of architecture, except in times of natural disasters and the makeshift architecture that comes with that… all hail Shigeru Ban!

We stand squarely against the sheds that AID has built and the destruction they have done to our cities and indeed continent. We stand against all the opportunities lost to the wind due to this AID architecture. Africa deserves Much_More…. (See appendix for much more manifesto).

We thank you for all the AID. We are grateful for all the soccer pitches and schools. We are thankful for all the churches proliferated in our landscape. Now we are educated and we know the Lord. We know how to play soccer too. But at this point in our history, we want, no, need to take our destiny in our hand and attempt to determine our future. Please stop the aid. Please stop building these sheds without identity in the name of schools and churches. Please keep the soccer fields. They were useful a few years ago, but like all excesses, we are beginning to choke on it. Because of this, we cannot determine our own architecture and this is destroying our youth and any possibility for real innovation from them… please only give aid to war-torn areas…. It is time for us to stand!

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija



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