Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 2: Throwing Money at the Problem and Celebrity Messiah

Having discussed agency and policy level problems in the previous post, one must move on to the problems that stem from the tendency to try to solve problems in Africa and elsewhere by simply throwing money at them and in hoping for the best. This approach has traditionally dominated traditional development strategies instituted by large global development agencies. Macro-scale projects have traditionally been attempted everywhere from West African locales like Lagos, Nigeria to East African ones like Kigali, Kenya and throughout Southern Africa. Of the many large infrastructure and other projects attempted, very few saw completion.

In many places, weak civil societies and corrupt governments simply enabled funds to disappear into Swiss bank accounts while incomplete projects often rotted or were scavenged for scrap materials by the urban poor. This is not to say that large-scale infrastructure projects are not necessary or desirable within Africa – and indeed in countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso, good- governance models and appropriate oversight has helped to see important infrastructure built. What development agencies have increasingly learned it that smaller-scale, incremental projects with tightly controlled budgets and external oversight, frequently implemented in partnership with more transparent governments or local NGOs has frequently resulted in good project completion. Powerhouse development capital organizations like the Gates foundation have frequently also learned from early mistakes and found ways to target funds such that they achieve more desired results.

Despite this, many charities, and especially celebrity driven ones have failed to learn from this process and have simply relied on the old model of throwing money at problems and hoping everyone will do the right thing. These phenomena have been best described by novelist, travel writer and former PCV Paul Theroux in a blistering New York Times editorial a few years ago.

In the appropriately titled, 'The Rock Star’s Burden', Theroux notes that dependence on foreign aid payments (drawing the distinction between those and funds for education, disaster relief, etc) and a glut of foreign aid volunteers have failed to generate meaningful results. Theroux states, using Malawi as an example:

I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state's expense to work in their own countries.

He goes on to state that:

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.

And Theroux is right. Celebrity charities further epitomize that, while also taking on a whole new level of ridiculous waste and egomaniacal banality. Marina Hyde, writing incisively and cogently in The Guardian also targets Bono as the ultimate figure of celebrity Messianic excess. Hyde's piece is worth reading in full, however, her pointing to the paucity of good actually done by organizations like Bono's versus the money that has passed through them, the use of luxury consumerism as a vehicle to advance charity (as Bono's Product RED and most recent African aid tie-ins with Louis Vuitton

Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs has been positively bellicose in his claims that poverty can be ended in our lifetimes if not for want of a few million dollars for mosquito nets in Africa. While mosquito nets are important as a vector for helping to prevent malaria, which kills millions every year across the continent, this it and of itself fails to address problems of urban slum development as a result rapid urbanization, ongoing poor governance and corruption, increased desertification in the Sahel and Sub-Sahara, global climate change, poor agricultural management and ongoing declining agricultural returns as population grows, and increased dependency on the West (and increasingly China).

However, the underlying problem remains that all of these projects create the illusion of helping Africa while also failing to effectively help improve government, services or combat poverty. Theroux would likely agree that specific skills trainings and empowerment of local organizations to more effectively address these problems should be the goal of external aid organizations. These external organizations and agencies should not be leading the charge because doing so prevents them from effectively listening to what local needs really are.

Rather than implementing smaller scale projects, through effective locally based NGOs, (preferably run by Africans who actually speak the local languages and understand local needs and power relationships), the celebrity approach to aid and development is increasingly about giving the appearance that things are being done because money is moving around. This tendency, as we shall see in part three, also is problematic when discussing young people who go to Africa and elsewhere to 'make a difference'.

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