Aid to Alleviate Poverty: Friend or Foe?

Published on 25th October 2005

“An entire continent has been reduced to a scar on the conscience of the world,” writes Madeleine Bunting, a reporter for the Guardian. She is referring to how the world has treated Africa not only in the past, but also today. In 2005 the G8 Summit and Live 8 Concerts stripped Africa of its dignity, showing pictures of dying children in rural areas in need of help that could presumably only be provided by the West and largely ignoring the booming population of educated, informed young adults that live in the urban areas. The current trend of thought in Western nations is that Africa is moving backwards and needs help in the form of aid. In actuality, all the West needs to do to help Africa is to change its attitude toward the continent so that Africa can help herself.  

The vision of Africa as going nowhere, stagnant economies with no hope for the future, is misguided. Today there are thirty elected leaders on the continent, whereas a mere thirty years ago there were only three. Democracy is rapidly growing; dictatorship and military take-overs are fading into the past. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts an overall economic growth of 5.4% this year. Angola is growing at a rate of almost 14%. South Africa has implemented property rights, Kenya is modernizing, Tanzania is privatizing and Mozambique, strait out of war in 2000, had the world’s fastest growth rate that same year. Africa is recovering on her own, and this is not only an African perspective. After visiting several countries Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president, declared, “Everywhere I found people who had a real willingness to work hard, intelligence, energy and a can do attitude”. This is not the same Africa that is portrayed on television, desperately in need of economic supervision and social aid.

In fact, there is reason to believe that aid has been hindering Africa’s development. Over the last forty years $450 billion of aid has been pumped into Africa. According to the United Nation’s Commission on Africa, there is no evidence that economies that have accepted aid, along with its conditions and structural adjustment programs, are any better off than those who haven’t accepted it. The IMF has reported that large aid flows severely harm the growth of manufacturing sectors, which in today’s global economy reap more profit than raw materials. A large percentage of this aid also ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians. Time that could have been spent on innovative problem-solving techniques is instead spent finding ways to get more aid out of developed nations. If African leaders spent more time solving their own problems and less time searching for answers and help from outside Africa, the continent would be much better off. However, this is unlikely to happen with Western nations dangling a carrot of “free money” in front of corrupt leaders.

The current trend to send money to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gives already fragile governments less responsibility and less of a chance to prove themselves as patrons of their countries. Furthermore, corrupt men and women have ways of finding out where the money is and following it, even into the not-for-profit sector.  Thus, many NGOs are becoming corrupt and aid is going towards large salaries more than towards solutions. There is little incentive for an NGO to fix the problems it was created to fix once the organization becomes institutionalized. At this point people are worried about their jobs and an Africa free of problems is an Africa without a job market for managers and employees of NGOs. So, if aid is not helping Africa in the way the West had hoped it would then how can the West help Africa, and more importantly how can they help Africa to help itself.

While the West has been sending aid overseas, it has also maintained economic policies that negatively effect African economies. One of the most harmful of these policies is agricultural subsidies. While it is somewhat ironic that the Western world would preach liberalization to Africa as an economic policy while retaining illiberal policies itself it is not necessarily surprising. Most countries seek to protect their local industries in order to keep special interest groups at bay and to ensure that they do not become entirely dependant on other country’s economies. However, these subsidies lead to an overproduction of the product. The prices plummet since the supply is much greater than the demand. For African nations, many of which rely on a single crop for their economic development, the results of this are disastrous. Exported crops that were once able to maintain a society are suddenly worth only a small portion of what they had been worth five years earlier. If agricultural subsidies were ended, African economies would be free to compete fairly on the global market. As it is now, Africa may be a first class runner, but its competitors are on steroids, being artificially aided by their governments. One cannot compete under these unjust conditions. Furthermore, with Africa finally working on an even playing field with the West they may not feel so inclined to protect their agricultural industries because they will be capable of competing globally without protectionism policies.

This act of liberalization from the West could also spur a similar revolution in Africa simply by example. The West has been trying to liberalize African economies for some time, to no avail. These reforms are largely donor owned. Africa has not implemented them, does not own them, and does not care for them in any respect other than receiving the money promised upon ‘successful’ reform. This is not the best incentive to build long-lasting, thorough institutions. Rather, Africa needs to own these reforms, believe in the reforms and implement them not because they are told to but because they understand the benefits and are willing to work hard to reap them. This type of dedication will not come into effect through structural adjustment programs or conditional aid, but only through African innovation, desire and ownership. An example of Western liberalization at work and succeeding in America would entice such ideas without forcing them upon the continent. Thus Africans may turn to liberalization of their own free will because they have a concrete example of how it benefits nations, rather than an empty theory that even developed countries neglect to implement.

Another way to ‘help’ Africa is to keep the environmentalists out. National parks and reserves in Africa create a tourism industry. However, this industry is largely profitable for Europeans, not Africans. Furthermore, tribes who used to benefit from the land have been evicted to make room for the industry. Thus, wildlife and greenery is being preserved at the expense of culture and livelihood. While this may be great for tourists who can experience their own little slice of vacation wilderness, it is not a beneficial use of land or resources from an African point of view. Another example of environmentalists getting in the way of African development is in regards to the African elephant. Elephants in Africa are a nuisance. They damage crops and kill many people – over five hundred people died from trampling between 1982 and 1989. It is not only greedy money-hungry poachers who want the elephants dead; it is also the common farmer who wants to protect his family from hunger and death. So how does one provide incentive for Africans to preserve elephants? Make the animal more profitable than they are a nuisance and someone will protect them. In Zimbabwe during colonialism “people were not allowed to benefit from wildlife so they replaced it with crops and domestic animals that did benefit them. The result was a rapid disappearance of wildlife.” (B. Child, 1994) Ivory was a productive African market before the sale of the product was prohibited. It was also helping to protect elephants, especially in Southern Africa where many countries had policies that were actually increasing elephant populations.

The only legitimate help that the West can offer Africa is to stop making disabling policies that harm the continent. Even under current conditions African nations are making progress. Under a more fair economic system and with less interference by non-Africans, who don’t necessarily understand African cultures or issues, Africa would surely be on her way to development and the annihilation of poverty.


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