The Aid Conundrum

I think there are a lot of us who scratch our heads over foreign aid.  While open to helping starving kids, its not always clear how to do so without simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening despotic regimes and dysfunctional cultures that caused the problems in the first place.  At least not without sending in the US military along with a trillion dollars or so for a decade or more.

This question could lead to a fairly interesting discourse, but in reality it does not.  Expressing the above quandary merely gets one labeled as unfeeling and insensitive.  One of the problems with having a reasonable debate is that the people and groups in the West who most support aid also are philosophical supporters of many of the failed leftish regimes that caused the aid to be needed in the first place, or else they are strong advocates for cultural relativism that feel that it is wrong to criticize any non-western culture for any reason.

While he does not offer any answers to this question, it is nice to see Kevin Myers at least try to raise these complexities, especially at a time when Barack Obama is trying to make all these questions seem easy:

I am not innocent in all this. The people of Ireland remained in
ignorance of the reality of Africa because of cowardly journalists like
me. When I went to Ethiopia just over 20 years ago, I saw many things I
never reported -- such as the menacing effect of gangs of young men
with Kalashnikovs everywhere, while women did all the work. In the very
middle of starvation and death, men spent their time drinking the local
hooch in the boonabate shebeens. Alongside the boonabates were
shanty-brothels, to which drinkers would casually repair, to briefly
relieve themselves in the scarred orifice of some wretched prostitute
(whom God preserve and protect). I saw all this and did not report it,
nor the anger of the Irish aid workers at the sexual incontinence and
fecklessness of Ethiopian men. Why? Because I wanted to write
much-acclaimed, tear-jerkingly purple prose about wide-eyed,
fly-infested children -- not cold, unpopular and even "racist"
accusations about African male culpability.

Am I able to rebut good and honourable people like John O'Shea,
who are now warning us that once again, we must feed the starving
Ethiopian children? No, of course I'm not. But I am lost in awe at the
dreadful options open to us. This is the greatest moral quandary facing
the world. We cannot allow the starving children of Ethiopia to die.

the wide-eyed children of 1984-86, who were saved by western medicines
and foodstuffs, helped begin the greatest population explosion in human
history, which will bring Ethiopia's population to 170 million by 2050.
By that time, Nigeria's population will be 340 million, (up from just 19 million in 1930). The same is true over much of Africa.

we are heading towards a demographic holocaust, with a potential
premature loss of life far exceeding that of all the wars of the 20th
Century. This terrible truth cannot be ignored.

But back in
Ireland, there are sanctimonious ginger-groups, which yearn to prevent
discussion, and even to imprison those of us who try, however
imperfectly, to expose the truth about Africa. And of that saccharine,
sickly shower, more tomorrow.

via Maggies Farm.

By the way, does it seem odd to anyone else that we in America get accused of having "unsustainable" lifestyles and we are urged to return to simpler, less technological, less energy-intensive lives like those in Africa?  I would have argued that "sustainable" means to be able to support your own people with their own effort.  By this definition, the US is the most sustainable country in the world.  Our prospective efforts not only sustain us so well that even our poorest 20% live better than the upper middle class in African nations, but we also help sustain the rest of the world.  We create so much wealth that we are able to consistently import more than we export, creating jobs around the world.  And we send more aid to other countries than most of the rest of the world combined.


  1. dave smith:

    I recommend that everyone read Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion." He lays out circumstances by which and when aid should be given to African countries.

  2. Ian Random:

    The world bank had a great site called, except that it underestimated the time it took to open a business. Pretty much all the third worlders invest pretty heavily in bureaucracy and other barriers to entry. An example from a professor was Peru where it took 2+ years to open a laundry while it took 12 hours to open in Miami. I think it takes 6 months for escrow to clear in Uganda versus 2 weeks in the US. Basically, most in the third world are squatters, so they can't borrow against their land to improve it. If you did have something to borrow against, the banks don't work as well as here, so you can wait forever for your money.

  3. mahtso:

    I recall an essay in the WSJ a few years back in which the president of one nation in Africa (sorry I don't recall who or where) was asserting that if the US and Europe were not subsidizing our respective agricultural industries, those in Africa could be competitive and aid would not be required.

  4. dave smith:

    Mahtso, Not very many people in who study that question agree with that conclusion. While our ag subsidies distort the comparative advanatage, and should be stopped at once (for many reasons), they are not the cause of Africa's poverty. The three leading thinkers about Africa (Sachs from the left, Collier from the center, and Easterly from the right) agree that ag subs. should be stopped but that it wouldn't help Africa enough.

    In terms of Africa's problem, stopping ag subsidies would be like fertilizing your petunias while your house is on fire.

    "The key to Africa's prosperity is the stopping of Western farm subsidies" is an easy solution.

    Beware of any solutions from the left or the right, or anywhere else that are easy. Africa's problems are not easy.

  5. rxc:

    The need for compassion never drops. Attempts that are made to satisfy "needs" just generate new "needs". This is a truly unsustainable course of action that can only end in significant suffering. Suffer now or suffer later, except that compounding ensures that future suffering will be quite a bit greater.

    But then, future time orientation like this is a racist concept...

  6. bbartlog:

    I recommend the book 'Breakfast in Hell' by Myles Harris, for anyone interested specifically in the Ethiopian situation. Quite aside from the destructive behavior of many of the Ethiopians, it outlines the incentives that the Ethiopian government had to prolong the crisis.
    Africa will not be saved until we have genetic engineering (as in, easy, cheap germline engineering of humans). Even then it may be hard, but at least there will be a path.

  7. David Zetland:

    I've been thinking about aid for 5-6 years now. Aid *does* subsidize many harmful things (food dependence, terrible regimes, etc.). Trade is much better for Africa, but it's not "quick enough" for many. (Note that these people are interested in Africa but unwilling to send boxes of $$ -- they want THEIR programs implemented -- they do nottrust Africans to spend the $$).

    The number one problem in development (in Africa, as elsewhere) is corruption, and aid -- as a concentrated source of $$ -- makes that problem worse, in the same way that diamonds or oil does.

    Bottom Line: End aid; support institutions. If famine is 'round the corner, buy food from local farmers and distribute it to people (not militias).

  8. Anonymous:

    Hm - has some data that indicates that the US doesn't in fact contribute so much. We are 21st in terms of contributions relative to GNI and Germany, France and the UK together contribute more than the US in absolute terms.