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Anything on Africa > Debating Foreign Aid to Africa

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message 1: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Dear all,
What do you think about aid to Africa--does it work? did it ever work? should it stop? should it change? what is good about aid and what is bad? which thinkers (African or not) have the most compelling arguments for and against?

message 2: by Alex (last edited Mar 18, 2010 10:55PM) (new)

Alex Oh hey, cool topic Marieke. :)

I first heard the argument that aid's not helping in Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown; he's firmly against aid, at least in its current form. The book that currently serves as the face of the argument is Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. I haven't read it, which is why I'm not advancing an opinion myself.

Here's a quote I found on Wikipedia's page about Dead Aid: "Limitless development assistance to African governments, she argues, has fostered dependency, encouraged corruption and ultimately perpetuated poor governance and poverty." That page also briefly summarizes the other side.

As I told Marieke, both sides appear to have valid points and I'm glad no one's asked me to make a decision.

message 3: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments This is definitely a topic I can get into! Actually, this is an internal battle I have just about every day. I see some projects that really have an impact (say providing support to coffee farmers who then are able to sell to Starbucks and the impact that has on everyone involved along that value chain in-country, including families that can send their children to school for the first time or that can add meat to their diets) and it confirms for me why I am in this business. Unfortunately, development assistance goes through "flavors" of the month or year, so things may get started but before sustainability is really achievable the aid community has moved on. There have been many fantastic individual projects that never got built on, meaning that the full potential impact that could have been made was squandered. But, everyone in the development community knows the system is broken (or at least does not work right) and the US is currently taking a look at how to reform US development assistance. But, it is not an easy endeavor when every developed country (including the up-and-coming such as China) have a different way of delivering development aid and apply a different philosophy.

I believe Africa has everything it needs to succeed in this world resource-wise but individuals, organizations, and governments need help in terms of figuring out how to organize themselves and develop the requisite knowledge to best make use of those resources. Of course, then corruption, conflict, disease, and natural disasters all get in the way...

I could continue but I will leave it at that for now.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

I have The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, 5th Anniversary Edition: Revised and Updated: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits on my to read pile. I'm very interested in village and urban development, though my focus is on Cambodia and includes the issues of corruption and accountability.

message 5: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments I don't have either of those books but am interested in reading them. I have an interesting mix of "for" and "against" development books. For those against the big bad development system currently in place, The End of Poverty looks at development at a more micro (village) level. While an interesting concept, I felt that Sachs's approach was too much of a band-aid -- yes, giving bed nets covered in anti-malarial stuff can help save lives but it is a short-term measure - they don't last forever; helping the village develop the capacity to build the nets themselves or source them nationally, regionally or internationally would better provide the true development impact being sought, but Sachs doesn't go that far.

If you want a scary look at the big bad development consultants, read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. I would love to say development consulting doesn't look like this book portrays it as, but I am afraid to say it did look hauntingly familiar in some ways... (but it isn't all like that!).

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, I'm scared to read Perkins!

message 7: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
interesting...i have "the end of poverty" but never managed to get around to reading it. and i started "confessions of an economic hit man" but couldn't finish it because his tone was off-putting and a lot of it simply wasn't believable to me (the things he claimed to do). maybe i should give it another try. i need to check out those books shoshana linked to.

i'm glad you mentioned all the other players involved in aid work in africa. i think americans tend to forget that europeans, saudis, chinese, even iran (to some degree), among others, are involved in africa. and i like your point that the focus should be on helping africans find a way to organize themselves and build the systems they need to implement their programs. it just seems like there has been an awful lot of throwing money at the problems, which often cannot be absorbed by the recipient institutions, leading to the problems associated with least that is the sense i have gotten.

i am so glad to hear that about's something i watch and have wondered about. :D

message 8: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Shoshanapnw wrote: "Oh, I'm scared to read Perkins!"
lol--should we make that a group read at some point? i had a lot of problems with it and couldn't finish it when i tried to read it. i think it would be helpful to read it with others.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I'll read it if you do (*shudder*).

message 10: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Okay, you guys are making reading Perkins sound just plain funny now. Shame on you (smile). But seriously, I too have been really conflicted about this. In theory, helping people get organized, providing a little "seed money" maybe technical expertise, it all sounds so good. But so often it seems to just reinforce the "aided" people's sense that they need somebody else to change their lives and circumstances when that's not necessarily true or even possible.

I'm not completely decided on this, but I'm beginning to feel that at least in many instances, underdevelopment grows out of bad governance, and nobody but the people themselves can truly change how their govt. works. I know it sounds very naive to suggest that "powerless" people can stand up to a ruthless, corrupt govt., but in many cases the same people who are being abused and exploited more or less freely re-elect the jerks at each go round.

What did our most righteous Bob Marley say,
"None but ourselves can free our minds."

message 11: by Judd (new)

Judd Evans (judd1) | 11 comments These posts are quite interesting. I feel that the underdeveloped and less privileged are merely systemic. We need the bottom billion so the next couple billion will be willing to abandon tradition and their local economy to enter the world economy scared s#$!less so they will pretty much work for less than nothing, as well as chase the American Dream of sorts, and in the end of course with our consumerism mode of living pull the strings, each and every day. My only hope lies in transparency and empathy and a favorite mantra among many Bob Marley lines is 'Politik Kills' by Manu Chao...

I read and enjoyed Perkin's second book . And am glad to be reminded how much I anticipated picking up his first one.

message 12: by Alex (new)

Alex We were trekking through the highlands in Ethiopia, hadn't seen electricity or a group of more than three tukuls (huts) for days, and suddenly walked smack into a huge construction project. Gigantic warehouse, tons of heavy machinery, people all over the was the Chinese, building a highway right through the highlands. No one we talked to had any idea why, although everyone seemed pleased it was happening.

It was a strange episode. I don't know what to make of it. But I've heard that that's not an isolated event; China is all over Africa.

I was also pleased to hear that Starbucks makes a difference. My local coffee shop also serves fair trade coffee. I have only the vaguest idea what that means.

Perkins sounds interesting. I think.

message 13: by Wendy (new)

Wendy (wendywoo) | 82 comments I wanted to preface my comments by confessing to the fact that I suffer from lactase persistence (thank you Marieke for diagnosing me) ;)

I've been kind of wanting to read the Perkins book for a while, but have not yet gotten to it, so I would definitely be up for it. The Sachs book has also been on my radar, but it was good to hear LDB's perspective on that book.

I am really interested in this topic, though am by no means an expert. Peter Godwin touches on this issue in his memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa but I haven't really read any scholarly tomes on the issue thus far.

Based on my rather limited knowledge though, it seems that the issue w/ aid is that it lacks a self sustainability component. I also found the aid issue interesting when examined in the context of aid in conflict zones. This was discussed in Emma's War where the author talks about how the warlords would station themselves in areas where there were significant civilian populations (i.e. aid recipients) and would then appropriate that aid to supply their troops. Even though all involved knew it was wrong and that the aid was not going to the intended recipients, no one was really able to do anything to change this practice.

I know I don't have all the answers (far from it), but generally speaking, I am leaning toward the theory that developing trade is a better way to go than just sending over aid. That being said, I'm certainly open to hearing and learning from the others in this group. The posts so far have been really interesting and I have no idea how I will ever get around to reading all the great book suggestions that have been given!

message 14: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
i'm so sorry about your lactase persistence problem, wendy. 8-)

everyone is posting such interesting comments on the aid question and it does seem like we should think about reading (at least) perkins as a group. as usual, i feel overwhelmed. i want to read all the books. i read Emma's War several years ago and it was a lot to digest. i'd like to reread that...that would make for a good group read as well. i haven't read Godwin's book but want to.

i don't know enough about how trade works...gosh i feel ignorant. i like andrea's comments about governance...i think that's an excellent point that should also be explored. it's not like the west is dropping aid all over the continent. i think it's also disturbing how aid is sometimes attached to carrot-and-stick methods of getting what we want from a country, which feeds into the poor governance problems, in part.

message 15: by Wendy (new)

Wendy (wendywoo) | 82 comments Oh -- one more thing I wanted to add -- and also relates I think to what LBD mentioned, and that is the issue of infrastructure (or lack thereof) in many areas. It does no good to produce a good if you have no means of effectively transporting it and distributing it, etc., especially if the goods or products have a limited shelf-life. I think it is really hard to develop meaningful and sustainable trading partners when you don't have access to reliable communication, transportation, distribution and retail systems. I would also be interested in trying to develop a better understanding as to how you can try to develop meaningful trade when you don't have access to capital markets and venture capital, etc. I know that micro financing has attempted to address this issue to some degree, but it would seem that lack of access to venture capital by a large number of potential entrepreneurs also contributes to the difficulty in coming up w/ the "right" answer to how to fix it. And is it really arrogant (and ethnocentric) of me to even suggest that it is a "problem" we need to think about "fixing"? My guess is that many of the solutions that exist are not going to be ones that would be obvious to me w/ my limited and Western POV.

message 16: by Alex (new)

Alex Wendy wrote: "micro financing"

I love :)

message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm a member of an organization that helps set up women's savings collectives. They receive training and seed money from an international/local partnership, which also provides ongoing accountability and oversight. The collective may make internal loans to members at no interest, outside loans at low interest, and invest. This means it's not an outsider making the microloans. One group I visited recently had invested in mushroom growing as well as making loans. As they've worked as a collective, they've begun to engage in political activism on behalf of their community, protesting corrupt deals that threaten the community (e.g., the selling of port rights to a developer when the proposed port damages local fishing grounds and compromises access).

message 18: by Katy (new)

Katy | 81 comments Lactase persistence here, too. :)

I did aid work briefly in Zimbabwe (US Peace Corps volunteer). Like Andrea, I'm not decided on the issue, but one thing that Theroux points out that makes me lean toward pessismism about aid in Africa -- it's been going on for 40+ years and has had damn little impact. The point about fostering dependency has a lot of truth in it, I think.

message 19: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments I agree that one of the bad side effects of bad development aid is aid dependence. But, if a project is done right, it doesn't have to be that way. I also agree that a focus should not be on aid itself but rather on helping developing countries to reach a level where they can effectively trade regionally and globally -- i.e., become part of the global economy (or course, with the financial crisis, they may be happy not being fully integrated into it...). Of course, this may need to start by simply replacing imports by starting to produce some items in country (such as basic food commodities like wheat or corn), then regional trade, and then global trade. Trading with Europe and the US has such high obstacles for many countries, all of the food regulations and standards that keep us from being poisoned by, say, milk, as has happened recently in China ;) But, this doesn't always happen on its own. While we Americans learned a lot on our own, we also brought a lot of knowledge over from Europe. So, we can't expect Africans to find all the answers on their own either. But, we can't do it for them. One approach is a community-driven development approach where we empower and teach communities to resolve their own issues with their local governments. Especially when government isn't strong, it is a way to help rebuild trust between citizens and governments and help ensure that services are available (such as school, potable water, etc.). This is the problem I had with The End of Poverty, it gave aid instead of using aid monies to help strengthen the abilities of citizens and institutions to identify and solve their own development problems.

message 20: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments Back on a bookier topic, one more pessimistic book that has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for some time is The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Has anyone read it? Another book I have that is screaming to be read is The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which seems to be a bit more optimistic. As you can tell, my bookshelves reflect my inner turmoil on this subject.

message 21: by Alex (new)

Alex Well said, LDB.

message 22: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
this is indirectly related to this discussion but i thought it was really interesting and that those participating in this discussion would also find it interesting:

message 23: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Alex wrote: "We were trekking through the highlands in Ethiopia, hadn't seen electricity or a group of more than three tukuls (huts) for days, and suddenly walked smack into a huge construction project. Gigant..."

Might be interested in the bookChina Safari: On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africawhich deals with Chinese economic interests in Africa.

message 24: by Alex (new)

Alex Thanks Andrea, that's a cool recommendation.

message 25: by Christina (new)

Christina | 17 comments I think that pure "aid" is pretty much a thing in the past.
Most organisations and institution focus on supporting local initiatives and strengthening local capacity. There are two major problems though as I see it.

One is the issue of governance, We can strengthen and empower women as much as we like but as long as we have people like Mugabe or Zuma in power the countries wealth on a larger scale will not create better lives for the people. Here we can get in long discussion about why African leaders seem to become corrupt as soon as they secure a political position and why people don't vote them off but I do think that we have expectation on Africa and solutions that are based on our cultures that aren't necessary working for "Africa". I think we tend to underestimate the strength of a tribe and a chief which might make democracy difficult....Also we almost always condition our aid - the Chinese don't do this.

The second problem is that I don't believe that the US or Europe really want to get Africa out of its aid dependency. Every year more money flown out of Africa to Europe than to Africa from Europe....Are we willing to let Africa trade on equal terms with us? No. We subsidise our farmed products and dump the world prices....If Nigeria was allowed to sell their crops to the rest of the world on equal terms they would be self sufficient. They are not. This is a issue where we as individuals must take responsibility. Would we vote for a president/government, who took away farm subsidies and risked hundreds of jobs in our countries so that a farmer in Africa can make a living?

message 26: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments Kiki, I agree about the governance issue. This is one of the most frustrating issues related to international development for me. It is true that what development assistance can do when there is no political will at the top is limited. However, international and domestic pressures have led more countries closer to a democratic path. Of course, the slog toward democracy is a slow and painful one, and the losers in the process rarely retreat quietly. But, little by little, right?

But even in a place like the DRC (since that is our book focus this month) that has a looong way to go before really being considered a democratic country, there are decentralization processes going on that can lead to local government officials slowly realizing they have constituencies that can keep them in power if they serve their communities adequately. Of course they are struggling to really put decentralized government into practice but now all of the provinces have government officials they didn't have before and greater authority to do things they couldn't before. So, with some assistance to help them learn what their jobs are and how to serve the population, there may be some hope. Of course, there is that darn budget allocation process to work out...

message 27: by Friederike (last edited Apr 11, 2010 07:20PM) (new)

Friederike Knabe (fknabe) | 162 comments LDB wrote: "Back on a bookier topic, one more pessimistic book that has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for some time is [book:The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Hav..."

Hi LDB, I have White Man's Burden on my shelf as well! Together with a few others on the topic. I have read The World's Banker - not nessarily more optimistic at all. Have to look up my amazon review again to remind me. It was not quite what I had expected. I just posted the review on GoodReads.

message 28: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments Friederike - Interesting to hear that the World's Banker is not any more optimistic. The blurb on the back of the book sounds a bit more optimistic but my hunch had been that it was more in line with my skeptical side than my idealist side. Would you recommend reading it?

message 29: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I read the worlds banker a few years ago. I remember it being worthwhile and easy enough to read quickly. As for optimism barometer, I can't recall. I do think it helped me get a better grasp of so-called neoliberal policies that seem to have done a lot of damage rather than creat sound maybe not so optimistic. Perhaps one for me to revisit.

message 30: by Friederike (new)

Friederike Knabe (fknabe) | 162 comments LDB wrote: "Friederike - Interesting to hear that the World's Banker is not any more optimistic. The blurb on the back of the book sounds a bit more optimistic but my hunch had been that it was more in line wi..."

Well. LBD, worth reading? It depends. In terms of depth regarding WB politics and development policies - not really. In terms of understanding the person in his role and what he stood for - more likely. I posted my amazon review on Goodreads... It depends also how interested you are in international development policies at the time. I was (and am) working in the field so I appreciated it to put some dots together.

message 31: by LDB (new)

LDB | 66 comments I am also in development so it is of interest to me. I also worked at the World Bank for eight years, so am quite familiar with the politics involved and thought this might be an interesting book to see someone's experience within a context I am familiar with. One of these days I will get around to reading it!

message 32: by Friederike (new)

Friederike Knabe (fknabe) | 162 comments In this case, LDB, definitively of interest I would have thought.

message 33: by Wendy (new)

Wendy (wendywoo) | 82 comments In case anyone is interested, here is an op-ed piece by Bono regarding his recent visit to Africa and the issue of aid --

message 34: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (last edited Apr 21, 2010 01:44PM) (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
disclaimer: i have not read this yet. but i did read french's memoir of his time reporting from africa. this looks interesting:

oh, the memoir:A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

message 35: by Alex (new)

Alex Y'all might get a kick out of this: this weekend I'm headed to the woods to help a friend of mine who runs training programs for NGOs; I'll be playing a refugee at one point and a militia member at another. Guess which one I'm more excited about? Hint: fake machine guns pointed at yuppies.

message 36: by Friederike (new)

Friederike Knabe (fknabe) | 162 comments Marieke wrote: "disclaimer: i have not read this yet. but i did read french's memoir of his time reporting from africa. this looks interesting:"

Very interesting indeed! Thanks for the link. I am sure the book is worth reading and adds to the other China in Africa books...

message 37: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I'm actually not sure that his book discusses china. I think I should revisit his book. I remember that it was well written but now I can't remember any details. I want today he was a war correspondent but I'm not sure...I'll look it up!

message 38: by Friederike (new)

Friederike Knabe (fknabe) | 162 comments Marieke wrote: "I'm actually not sure that his book discusses china. I think I should revisit his book. I remember that it was well written but now I can't remember any details. I want today he was a war correspon..."

Hi Marieke, I realized that the Atlantic reference is for an article by French - his memoir/book is not addressing China. It was written prior to the Chinese interest in Africa. I should write my review on Goodreads too.

message 39: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Right...I wasn't sure about that myself: his book was published prior to china's interest in Africa. In any case the book is good even though I can't remember anything and I also found his article really interesting. I liked that he talked to a variety of Africans about their thoughts on china's investment strategies (if you can even call it investment).

message 40: by Alex (new)

Alex That article was absolutely fascinating. Thanks, Marieke!

message 41: by Alex (new)

Alex I just bought Dead Aid; after that article mentioned it, and my boy Patrick won't stop talking about it, and this whole discussion...sometimes I feel like the whole world is telling me I need to read a certain book. No sense fighting it.

I hope to start it this weekend; if anyone else who's been circling it would like to read with me, I'd be psyched!

message 42: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I've been circling but I'm not ready...

message 43: by Alex (new)

Alex That's okay, I will read it with your cat.'re good at Arabic. I stalked your blog.

message 44: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
My cat would love to read along. He recently read uwem akpan's book. I will try to post my pic.

Haha--thanks for checking out my blog. Notice there are not very many entries! (two?) my intention was to do one every month so that my Arabic *would* get really good...buuuuut...Arabic is super f'in (please excuse my language) hard requiring great outputs of energy. Can you read Arabic?!

message 45: by Alex (new)

Alex Sure I can! ...with the help of Google translator. I did notice it's been a while since you updated it, but my opinion, the ability to write even two entries is pretty impressive.

message 46: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
It takes several drafts and proofreading from a friend to fix grammar problems but I learn a lot that way. I really should get back on top of that. Stupid time management! Haha.

message 47: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments I'm all depressed because my foreign exchange student was asked by a visitor which languages she "knew" She said she spoke French, English and Italian and could understand German and Lingala. I mentioned that her dad spoke Swahili and she said, "Oh, yes, Swahili too, that is an easy one." Now, I've been working my way up to "where's the toilet paper?" in Swahili for years and thought I wasn't doing too badly. Do I feel monolingual or what?

message 48: by Alex (new)

Alex Some Europeans we traveled with a few months ago mentioned their theory that most people in the world won't say they know a language unless they actually know it, but Americans will say they know it if they can say "Hi" and "Check please." Depressing 'cause it's true.

You know more Swahili than me, Andrea.

message 49: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments I'm just figuring people are less likely to tell you where the toilet paper is unless you ask. You'll get the bill eventually even if you don't ask for it. Priorities.

message 50: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
haha...when i went to germany to live, i made sure i knew how to ask for the bathroom. hahaha! indeed, priorities.
i'd love to learn swahili...or hausa...but hausa is tonal...yikes...

so i just ran across this, and it's about ethiopia (Alex! it's about ethiopia!)
and i want to say how happy i am to have a place to share these sorts of things:

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