The Merits and Demerits of Aid

Back in 2011 I took a trip to Uganda. While there I was again confronted with examples of well-intentioned charity that, at the least, did little to address the issues facing Africa and at worst only exacerbated the issues of poverty. Of course, I also witness effective and innovative ways of dealing with these same issues.  I have had similar experiences while visiting Rwanda and Guatemala as well. Upon return, I read a book called Dead Aid, which discussed the limitations and even harm of celebrity campaigns to help Africa and the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in general. One quote in particular was telling:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

That last line was, of course, a subtle dig at the well-intentioned efforts from the likes of USA for Africa to Bob Geldof to Bono. Now Bono is one of my favorite artists and it is always tricky to criticize the charitable efforts of others.  So it was refreshing that in a recent interview Bono acknowledged how much he has learned about tackling issues of aid and poverty, and how charity comes in many different forms:

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

Bono further reveals lessons learned such as the dangers of political corruption in the flow of aid and the role of entrepreneurs in tackling issues of poverty in Africa.  It’s refreshing to see someone of Bono’s celebrity status willing to grow and learn in regards to his philanthropic efforts.

As I have stated before, these are the same lessons I hope the church can also learn as it tackles the social issues of the day.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  We must be wise as serpents, being willing to learn from all perspectives as we grapple with these issues both at home and abroad.

Advertisements

What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

While in Uganda, I noticed something that I wanted to look further into.  In one of the more avant garde bookstores in Kampala, I saw a number of books by Africans questioning the value of all the international aid pouring into the continent every year.  It was an intriguing idea: the recipients of so much aid were beginning to ask difficult questions as to the effectiveness of it all.  As mentioned in a follow-up post, on my way back to the States passing through the Amsterdam airport, I saw a book that summarized this restlessness and ordered it upon arriving home.

In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, who is from Zambia and a former consultant for the World Bank, tackles these questions head on.  The implications of her conclusions are controversial; for some they are a breath of fresh air, while for others they are outright rejected.  But the facts cannot be avoided.  Consider just a few:

  • Since 1970, sub-Saharan Africa has received over $300 billion in development assistance, yet remains the poorest region in the world.
  • The poverty rate in Africa has actually risen during the periods of peak aid flows.
  • A World Bank study found that as much as 85 percent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended.
  • Many of the civil wars and conflicts on the African continent in recent decades can be tied to who controls the large aid disbursements made to African countries.

This only scratches the surface of the problems associated with the large amount of aid flowing to Africa on an ongoing basis.  However, one of Moyo’s biggest points that jumped out at me has little to do with quantifiable data.  It has to do with the voices behind the cries for even more aid:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

We are so busy figuring out how to help Africa that we forgot to include Africans in on the conversation!  Much more could be said, but rather than go through the entire book, I’ll simply encourage you to read it – or something similar – on your own.

While most of us will not find ourselves on the front line of shaping aid policy, we are faced with choices everyday regarding charity, whether donating time to a cause, serving on a church missions board, or sparing some change for the guy on the corner.  Regardless of scope, a key issue is that of intentions versus outcomes.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  There is a line of thinking that I have seen in the church, which essentially holds that good intentions are what God wants from us; leave the outcome in God’s hands.  While this may sound spiritual, I believe God wants wise stewardship as well.  Are the causes we are promoting actually solving problems or might they actually be contributing to the problem?  After my time in Uganda and reading this book, I continue to wrestle through this issue.  I believe we are in need of fresh theology on the subject of missions and social action.  Maybe I’ll be bold enough one day to collect my thoughts on the subject and post them!