Four-wheel drives dashing through the streets of any African capital with aid apparatchiks at the wheel often raise eyebrows. Is this how our aid money is spent? Do they need such luxury when people are starving? How much of the money given by a generous church-goer or philanthropist actually reaches the people it was meant for?

All those perks and training seminars and needs assessments and training local staff burn up a lot of cash. Salaries take up a fair amount: the World Bank estimates there are 100,000 "technical experts" funded by donors in Africa. According to Giles Bolton, who has described his experiences with the UK's Department for International Development in Poor Story: An Insider Uncovers How Globalization and Good Intentions Have Failed the World’s Poor (Ebury Press, 2007), charity is spent as follows. About 15 to 20 per cent goes on fund-raising. Another 15 to 20 per cent goes towards administration and program support. Between 60 and 70 per cent is left to help the poor.

Bolton is speaking of "reputable charities" which try to create long-term change that may require training, regular visits, adaptation and evaluation. Often, he writes, the "raw materials" of a project — such as cows or goats for poor families or money paid directly sponsored children — are a relatively small expense, although the fund-raising brochures understandably imply that your pounds, dollars or euros will purchase something highly specific. It’s good design, management and monitoring of project aid that matter most, he concludes. And these are not easy to guarantee.

As an example of this, he mentions school classrooms in Uganda. In the 1990s when Uganda was emerging from years of civil strife and the country was beginning to rebuild, funds in many districts were stolen by officials. The locals were used to such treatment and felt helpless to intervene. Then someone had a bright idea. Only after the communities themselves built the first four feet of the school walls would government money arrive. Its contractors would complete the job and put on the roof. Once the locals had invested in a project, there was no way they would allow officials to siphon off the money. Another simple device: forcing officials to pin the construction budgets onto the doors of their offices, where everyone could see how much they had received.

Official pilfering does happen only too often, even in Uganda. Currently there is an investigation into the misuse of 3 billion Uganda shillings (approx US$17,000,000), of Global Fund money to fight malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. More than 300 organisations and two former government ministers are involved, but no one is surprised.

The obstacle course for donations into the national aid kitty before they reach the starving child you see on TV seem endless. In some countries subsidised bed-nets to prevent malaria are bought by wedding-dress makers and condoms are used by children as balloons.

Many donor countries "tie" aid, meaning they employ only their own consultants and materials. About 70 per cent of US aid is tied. Italy is worse, with 92 per cent. Consultants absorb 47 per cent of US aid money (mostly American consultants). For Australia the figure is 46 per cent. This means that practically nothing is spent directly on the people the donor hopes will benefit.

Slow delivery also hampers aid efforts. In Ethiopia the finance ministry has in the past discounted 75 per cent of donor commitments from the European Commission, according to Bolton. It predicts that only 25 per cent will arrive on time. Only 20 per cent of funds from the African Development Bank arrive on time. Governments factor the promises of donors into their budgets for schools, roads or hospitals. In the end, they sometimes have to abandon them.

If you give directly to charity you run even more of a risk. The more established ones, such as Oxfam, Save the Children, the Red Cross, and many, though not at all, of the faith-based ones, are likely to ensure that your money reaches its destination. These and many others are well-run, transparent, and don’t exploit the beneficiaries ethically, although occasionally one gets a nasty shock. Three reputable international agencies are working in northern Uganda, now at peace after 20 years of insurgency, with the ministry of health to distribute medicines and run immunisation programs. But they are also stealthily spreading the gospel of family planning and vasectomies.

It is often the small donor groups — many of them started by tourists or church-groups — that do most direct good to people on the ground: providing a tractor, giving cows or poultry to farmers, or building school classrooms or toilets.

Even so, Bolton estimates that charity aid is grossly insufficient, and works out at roughly $5 per person, and that most Africans will never benefit from a charity project.

Unhappily, bogus charity groups and NGOs abound. An Irish nun told me that in one of the Nairobi slums, home to about 500,000 people, of the 250 NGOs registered as working there, about 25 actually did anything. In the Kibera slum, which was made famous by the movie The Constant Gardener, a deputy district officer once showed me an invitation to an NGO event. She was the only person who showed up. The letter was meant to "prove" to the sponsors that their funds were being properly spent!

Being an aid worker is not necessarily a cushy job. Aid workers sometimes have to dodge bullets and bombs in Africa. This was common in southern Sudan before the 2005 peace agreement. Only last month the officer in charge of the World Food Programme's office in Mogadishu was kidnapped and held for several days. Despite the difficulties in funnelling funds from the developed world, many people put their lives on the line to make a difference with our donations.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.