What is the goal of foreign aid? Oh sure, we say it is about emergency relief from natural disasters, such as tsunamis and droughts. Or we claim it’s about helping the world’s poor lift themselves out of poverty and despair. But as often as not, I think it is about assuaging our Western guilt. We give money to rotting, fetid hellholes because doing so cleanses our consciences. It makes it possible for us to turn on the TV, see reports from disaster areas or squalid shantytowns and give ourselves permission not to mourn because we’ve done our bit.
But more often than not, we are merely tossing hard-earned tax dollars into a swirling, downward drain. Our aid does little good because it goes to the wrong people or the wrong solutions.
According to a new book by international development expert Samantha Nutt, the old adage that foreign aid amounts to transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries is truer than most aid advocates care to admit. Dr. Nutt, who is a physician at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, as well as being co-founder and executive director or War Child Canada, and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto med school, released Damned Nations–Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid on Tuesday.
In it, she explains that aid goes mostly to two kinds of organizations. There are large aid providers that are top-heavy with bureaucracy and often run by expatriate experts whose image of their former country and its needs is out-of-date (or who have political agendas and use Western aid to buy favour rather than solve problems). Then there are well-meaning, but naive smaller organizations run by celebrities, students or church groups. These latter organizations often has lots of energy and plenty of good intentions, but are kept from being truly effective by their inexperience.
The key, according to Dr. Nutt, who has worked on aid projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Ethiopia, among other places, is a middle ground between large and small aid groups. Emergency relief must evolve into long-term projects that address broad social problems, but always with respect for local needs and customs.
The ultimate goal of aid should be to make itself redundant. We need to make an investment in development programming that gives local communities the tools and resources they need to be their own architects of change.
That’s remarkably like another old adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
But that’s a lot easier said than down.
Naivety or political correctness, or both, permeate most Western nation’s aid efforts. Corrupt governors in receiving nations siphon off billions in aid dollars and redirect it to their personal banks account. Often very little aid ever makes it down as far as those who truly need it.
In other cases, aid workers’ reluctance to admit that receiving communities lack the basics required for sustaining self-government means that what money does make it to local programs, is often ultimately wasted. Local officials–to the extent there are any–lack even the most basic governance skills, so after a project is complete there is little understanding that it must be maintained, so it is quickly broken or abandoned.
Dr. Nutt argues that Western nations have to become more serious about aid. They must spend more money and they must do so more consistently. Rather than only showing up after an earthquake or typhoon, Western governments and private donors must commit to being there for the long haul and live up to that promise. Then they must direct their funds and hands-on help through smaller, low-profile organizations with strong links to the communities they serve.
The prevailing view on this side of the world is that the suffering of those living beyond our borders is the domain of charity; an optional concern. We respond only when the raw images of those who are starving, dying or being otherwise brutalized are so persistent and extreme that they can no longer be ignored.
But the problems in places such as Somalia and Darfur go far beyond starvation or sectarian warfare. The problems arise because basic societal infrastructure has broken down. Unless Western organizations and governments are in for years–even decades–they may alleviate the odd symptom, but they will cure few diseases–literally and figuratively.