The Failure of Contemporary Western Aid

Kate Wilson-Woolley, Narrabundah College, 2009.

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The power to help is just as dangerous as hard [raw] power.
Binyavanga Wainaina[1]

In 2005 a documentary by Bob Geldof, a man who rose to fame as the lead singer in the Boomtown Rats, was shown in association with the Live 8 concert. He painted a desperate picture of Ethiopia as a country that greatly needed our help. Geldof reported that since the Live Aid concert in 1985 the situation in the country had worsened, inferring that the Live 8 concert in 2005 would garner enough public awareness and support to pressure the members of the G8 summit to significantly increase international aid. I wondered why poverty had increased in Ethiopia following the undoubtedly successful Live Aid concert, which raised £150 million. The worldwide attention attracted by the event was partly responsible for the peak of international monetary aid to Africa through the 1980s and 1990s. At the time I ascribed the contradiction to some unknown factor, perhaps a drought. I have, however, since come to understand that there is perhaps a positive correlation between contemporary Western economic aid and poverty. During the highest aid influx to Africa, 1970-1998, the poverty rate rose from 11% to 66%. How could this be?

International aid from Western countries to poorer nations began after World War Two (1939 - 1945). Enormous sums of money are made available to many developing nations every year, and many well-intentioned people argue for these figures to be raised further. However there is little public debate in the West regarding the value and utility of aid, even though on closer inspection the detrimental effects of long term government-to-government aid are undeniable.[2] The refusal of the West to acknowledge the damaging results of the existing delivery and management of aid is easier to understand when placed in historical context. By means of a post-colonial critique of the West it can be seen that there remains in the management of aid some of the colonial attitude of the Modern era. Paradoxically, coupled with this is a serious sense of postmodern guilt about exploitative and disempowering colonial practises. The result is detrimental as this attitude causes the West to approach a country with zeal and inattention to the effects of its actions. If the ultimate aim of aid is the empowerment of its recipients, changes in approach and methodology are necessary to ensure that those aided are at the centre of the enterprise. An ethical approach to aid requires scrutiny and subsequent transformation of both the public and private aspects of aid.

Aid has worked on occasions, such as the case of the Marshall Plan which helped Europe revive itself after World War Two with aid from the USA. Such economic aid was, however, short, finite and targeted.[3] It was also relatively low, being no more than 5% of a country’s GDP. Monetary aid played a significant role in the Cold War (1945- 1989), with both America and Russia competing for support from countries of the Third World. Since then government-to-government aid has evolved to become the humanitarian answer to the crisis of the world’s poorest countries. Many African nations,[4] have been receiving aid since they were granted independence and in some countries aid accounts for more than 80% of their yearly GDP.[5] It is therefore highly doubtful that the contemporary form of long-term international aid offered by the West does in fact benefit the recipient.

Government-to-government aid accounted for USD$119.8 billion flowing into Africa alone in 2008 from the member countries of the Development Assistance Committee,[6] and this amount is not unusual. Instead of helping to nourish a nation, as is so often believed, long term aid, according to Dambisa Moyo, progressively cripples it. Moyo notes that concessional loans and grants are equivalent to having a natural resource; it encourages corruption and conflict and discourages free enterprise.[7]

Africa is a convincing example of the detrimental effects of aid. In Africa civil unrest and corruption are commonly rife with the delivery of aid. With great sums of money going to the government, leadership not only means power, but also means great wealth, possibly the highest attainable wealth in the country. Moyo notes that, with international aid, most African governments have abdicated their responsibility to the people because the services a government is presumed to provide, namely infrastructure, education, health care and security, are provided by the international community through aid. Moreover, Moyo argues, aid has debilitating effects on an economy fuelling inflation, leaving an immense debt burden and often destroying the viability of export as foreign aid makes the local currency too strong.[8]

Aid also deters entrepreneurship and industry. A well-meaning aid organisation might donate mosquito nets to prevent malaria; yet in doing so the local market is flooded, undermining the small businesses that had previously sold the product.[9] The consequence is learned dependence on the donor country which perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Given the unpredictable nature of aid, reliance on it is dangerous. In a crisis or with the change of public opinion, donor countries can cease aid delivery at any time.

The potentially damaging nature of Western aid, with its echoes of colonial zeal is illustrated by a well meaning incident regarding an orphan in Nepal. Prasanth is 12 years old with a speech impediment. Neither the local doctor nor an Australian speech pathologist[10] could identify a physiological cause. Organisers involved in an orphanage fundraiser, however, misguidedly assumed Prasanth did in fact need an operation. They raised enough money to fly him out to Australia, have the operation and be rehabilitated.[11] This account demonstrates that prospective donors[12] are drawn to the notion of changing someone’s life and of bringing about a miracle even if it is unnecessary.

It is commonly held that any criticism of such a project might diminish the dedicated enthusiasm and energetic passion to help. It may be argued that such enthusiasm is necessary to keep individuals inspired to help, even if the charity is misdirected and does not indeed benefit the recipient. Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan writer and journalist disagrees. When interviewed on an American radio program, Speaking of Faith,[13] regarding the ethics of aid Wainaina identified the Western zeal that desires to fix everything. Instead of seeing this as energy to be protected and cultivated, he could see no difference between this zealous attitude and that of colonisers. Wainaina asserted that the West approaches Africa as if it were a blank, empty space that good will, desire and guilt can fix, much like the assumption of terra nullius[14] in the colonisation of Australia. Wainaina wrote in a British newspaper satirising the West:

We can save you from yourselves. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. No one can empower you except us.[15]

The Western attitude assumes the problems lie with African countries that must be rescued. The feverish idea of saving others is not sensible however, and Wainaina states that effective solutions that have worked in Africa are always sensible. The enthusiasm and zeal of the West commonly undermines and overrides the efforts of the country being aided.

The arrogance of colonial attitudes has been further described by Edward Said in his classic work entitled Orientalism.[16] In this postmodern critique of colonialism, Said highlighted the assumption of superiority in skill and knowledge often present in the dominant culture,

Human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism for dealing with ‘other’ cultures.[17]

It was only at the turn of the twentieth century that Rudyard Kipling wrote of the ‘White Man’s Burden’, some lines reminiscent of the current goals of contemporary Western aid:

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease[18]

Western attitudes may be well intentioned; however the fault lies with the ownership of the answer. Just as Edward Said exposes the ridiculous notion of being an ‘expert’ on another culture after a few years of reading and possible observation,[19] Moyo remarks on the absurdity of unqualified celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono being sought for their opinions. Consequently celebrities are making the economic policy for Africa even though there are political structures, however shaky, already in place. She explains;

People are not going be bothered to stand in the hot sun and vote if ultimately the decision is going to be made by a rock star.[20]

Evidently residual colonial attitudes must be addressed.

The Western method to prompt the public to action is to present ever more horrifying photos, such as the quintessential photo of a starving Sudanese child, that stir our emotions. Wainaina said that if the Western audience is so inattentive to suffering that they must see horrific and dehumanising pictures of children dying in Darfur to motivate them to act, ‘then don’t do anything. Leave us alone.’[21] In the postcolonial climate, pictures of starving children commonly cause action due to feelings of guilt, yet things done to satisfy guilt are often quick fixes.[22] There is a mad rush of attention with food drops, planes, cameras and adopting children to be loved elsewhere. After the therapeutic sentimentality of doing good the donors can return to their privileged lives, but the reality of those assisted is unlikely to be improved other than by sensible and long term projects.[23]

Another aspect of the common Western attitude holds that something is better than nothing. This flawed theory is, however, based on the assumption that poor people have nothing. Westerners often think that their old clothes, technology they cannot use, doctors with no equipment, or a building with no teacher is at least a step in the right direction. Yet poor people do not have ‘nothing’. They have families, friends, social networks and bonds, responsibilities and possessions, however meagre. They have lives no matter what those lives look like to us as Westerners. From a distance[24] the West offers pity, detached and abstracted from the lived experience of those who suffer. Flawed action, lacking recognition of what already exists, is no better than inaction.

The lack of positive recognition of these poorer countries by the West, particularly in Africa, hinders their development. Kenya, for example, often conjures images for Westerners of a starving and desperate people. Yet, as Wainaina says, Kenyan life has never been a monolithic story of poverty, need and despair. Too often this is the meta-narrative that donors assume and cultivate. Charles Taylor, a contemporary philosopher, discusses the harmful effects of misrecognition. He proposed that the development of identity is partly shaped by recognition offered by others.

With misrecognition the person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if mirrored back to them is a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves... Misrecognition can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted and reduced mode of being.[25]

Rwanda was recently declared the most improved country by the OECD.[26] The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has reduced aid dependency from 70% to 50%. Yet when we consider this country, the genocide of 1994 immediately comes to mind. Recognition should be fair and charitable in the stage of development acknowledging Rwanda’s progress and aims. As Charles Taylor said ‘[d]ue recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.’[27] While the lack of appropriate recognition of a people leads to their unfair representation, there are undeniable problems in Africa, such as famines. Yet despite a more positive economic image, there are more poor people in India and China than in Africa.[28] Both Dambisa Moyo and Binyavanga Wainaina hold that the negative imagery of Africa is one of the main reasons for the lack of economic success. Wainaina says that ‘for each dollar given after seeing a horrific photo, how many dollars have been lost that people might have invested?’[29] A country’s economic viability is severely affected by the well meaning but negative representation offered by the West.

It can be argued that contemporary international aid from the West is a form of oppression. According to Paulo Freire oppression occurs when one party exploits or hinders the pursuit of self-affirmation and autonomy of another because it diminishes the confidence of the oppressed to think, to want and to know. Contemporary Western aid does not empower, nor does it offer hope which is a vital asset to happiness and survival. The aim of many aid organisations, particularly NGOs, is to empower the people, or ‘build capacity’,[30] but often this does not happen because of the zealous attitude of the donor. Clearly we need to change.

The most necessary shift is within the private and interior landscape of each individual donor. Freire says to rid ourselves of the dynamic of oppressor and oppressed, coloniser and colonised, the donor must become a co-learner.[31] Each issue must be approached with critical reflection and an understanding of the need for dialogue. The assistor must cultivate genuine honesty regarding their motivation for offering aid.

The public issues should address the responsibility of the donor to the assisted. The needs of the assisted should come first as they must be the protagonist of their own story. Transparency and accountability for the spending of funds is usually demanded of those receiving aid, but too often they are offered no avenue to give feedback about projects that are affecting them. For example, in the aftermath of the tsunami in Bandeh Aceh, Indonesia, an Indonesian medical centre had no way to report that the Danish clinic nearby, set up to aid the Indonesians, was in fact inadvertently diverting all the patients away from the permanent local facility.[32]

The contemporary model of Western aid is severely flawed. International economic aid does not assist developing countries, but in fact further cripples them. The countries have come to rely on government-to-government aid causing a dangerous dependence on donor countries. The governments receiving aid often abdicate their responsibility as all the services traditionally demanded of them are provided by the international community. This oversight can be attributed to the residual colonial attitude still present in the West. The West approaches a struggling country with zeal to fix local problems, without recognising projects and structures already in place, and the talent to manage them. The country is perceived as a 'blank, empty space.'[33] Recognition of the positive aspects of a country and the people’s vision is essential. Negative imagery and representation are a hindrance to economic development and success. For international aid to be successful the current model of government to government aid must change. The persistent and detrimental attitude, driven by zeal reminiscent of colonisers and accompanied by postmodern guilt requires a transformation. The focus must be on truly empowering people to move toward their independence, particularly from the countries that once colonised them.

The stakes for us are very high. You know, you come, you do your three years, you go back. But for us the stakes are really high. It’s our life.
Binyavanga Wainaina

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Bibliography


Boltanski, Luc, Burchell, Graham, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Easthope, Anthony, McGowan, Kate, (eds.) A Critical and Cultural Reader, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, ch. 2.4, Edward Said, from Orientalism (1978).

Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Group, London, 1970.

Kipling, Rudyard, The White Man’s Burden, 1999, [online] at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html, 1998, [accessed: 13/11/09].

Lamb, Winifred Wing Han, Barns, Ian (eds.) God Down Under: Theology in the Antipodes, ATF Press, Adelaide, 2003

Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, available at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/fora/stories/2009/10/09/2709561.htm, Fora ABC radio, [accessed: 28/10/09].

Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009

Rasof, Cary, Tsunami Diary, [unpublished], Bandeh Aceh, 2005.

Sachs, Jeffrey D, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, March 30, 2005, [online] at http://www.cceia.org/resources/transcripts/5132.html, [accessed: 27/10/09].

Statistics Portal, OECD: Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, [online] at http://www.oecd.org/statsportal/0,3352,en_2825_293564_1_1_1_1_1,00.html, 2009, [accessed: 29/10/09].

Taylor, Charles, Gutman, Amy, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1994.

Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, available at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/ethicsofaid-kenya/index.shtml, Speaking of Faith, [accessed: 3/11/09].

Wolfson, Julia, Turning myself forward: the personal story that led to the Transform and Empower approach, Turning Forward, Canberra, 2008

References



  1. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, available at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/ethicsofaid-kenya/index.shtml, Speaking of Faith, [accessed: 3/11/09].
  2. ^ Dambisa Moyo, an economist from Zambia defines three types of aid; emergency aid, aid from non-government organisations and government-to-government aid. The latter entails enormous amounts of money transferred to a poorer government, and therefore produces the most harmful effects of aid. Emergency aid and NGO aid are also often flawed due to the common attitude of donors that shall be addressed in this enquiry; however their consequences are not as severe due to lesser funds. For this reason government to government aid will be the focus of this enquiry. Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009.
  3. ^ Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, available at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/fora/stories/2009/10/09/2709561.htm, Fora ABC radio, [accessed: 28/10/09].
  4. ^ Africa is currently the poorest continent in the world. ibid.
  5. ^ ibid.
  6. ^ DAC stands as the ‘venue and voice’ of the world’s major donor countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Statistics Portal, OECD: Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, [online] at http://www.oecd.org/statsportal/0,3352,en_2825_293564_1_1_1_1_1,00.html, 2009, [accessed: 29/10/09].
  7. ^ Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, op. cit.
  8. ^ This is commonly known as Dutch Disease. Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, op. cit.
  9. ^ Free distribution of mosquito nets was one of the strategies Jeffrey Sachs advocated to end world poverty. Sachs, Jeffrey D, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, March 30, 2005, [online] at http://www.cceia.org/resources/transcripts/5132.html, [accessed: 27/10/09].
  10. ^ When shown photographs of the boy’s mouth.
  11. ^ An anecdotal account of a personal experience in 2009.
  12. ^ The term donor shall include those offering money, time and effort.
  13. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, op. cit.
  14. ^ Terra nullius (empty land) was the legal term used to authorize the settlement of Australia asserting that no one already owned it.
  15. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, op. cit.
  16. ^ Said, Edward, from Orientalism (1978), ed. Easthope, Anthony, McGowan, Kate, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992
  17. ^ Easthope, Anthony, McGowan, Kate, (eds.) A Critical and Cultural Reader, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, ch. 2.4, Edward Said, from Orientalism (1978).
  18. ^ Kipling, Rudyard, The White Man’s Burden, 1999, [online] at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html, 1998, [accessed: 13/11/09].
  19. ^ Easthope, Anthony, McGowan, Kate, (eds.) A Critical and Cultural Reader, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, ch. 2.4, Edward Said, from Orientalism (1978).
  20. ^ Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, op. cit.
  21. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, op. cit.
  22. ^ ibid.
  23. ^ ibid.
  24. ^ Elizabeth Speilman proposed that with distance the reaction to suffering is usually with generalising pity rather than compassion. Boltanski, Luc, Burchell, Graham, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
  25. ^ ibid.
  26. ^ Statistics Portal, OECD: Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, [online] at http://www.oecd.org/statsportal/0,3352,en_2825_293564_1_1_1_1_1,00.html, 2009, [accessed: 29/10/09].
  27. ^ Boltanski, Luc, Burchell, Graham, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
  28. ^ Moyo, Dambisa, Dambisa Moyo on Dead Aid, [radio interview], 09 October 2009, op. cit.
  29. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, op. cit
  30. ^ As it is termed in the aid world. Rasof, Cary, Tsunami Diary, [unpublished], Bandeh Aceh, 2005.
  31. ^ To learn with those one is trying to help, as opposed to viewing it as trying to teach the ignorant. Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Group, London, 1970.
  32. ^ Rasof, Cary, Tsunami Diary, [unpublished], Bandeh Aceh, 2005.
  33. ^ Wainaina, Binyavanga, The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective, [radio interview], 27 August 2009, op. cit.