We’ve all seen the pictures of skinny, dirty African children on TV or internet ads. They’re hungry. They need our help. We know what to do, right?
I’ve been traveling for almost two years now and prefer volunteer work when I travel. But I worry about sustainability. Is the organization funded by the west? Are the organizers and main staff local? If the organizers or donors are western, what happens when they grow complacent? That, of course, would remove the food aid/vocational training program/school plus the people with the abilities to run such programs from the area, meaning the community would be worse off than it was before the white saviors arrived. The library I ran in a rural village, where the fundraising material and name of the charitable organization were in English? It will be gone two years after funding dies. Left in its place will be a crumbling building and a village with a shortage of qualified adults to teach reading or any of the other basic lessons that I gave. Why would they? Someone else did it for them. That’s a small example on a local scale.
Internationally, aid mostly goes to impoverished countries. Since the countries can’t afford their own infrastructure, they often stop paying for hospitals, schools, and agricultural improvements while the doctors, teachers, and bags of rice are coming from abroad. They logically spend the money elsewhere, on roads, or the police, or any number of important projects that may otherwise go unfunded. Then, one day, the aid stops. The donors grow complacent or the foreign government providing the aid decides to shift their focus elsewhere. Now what? The local government now has a severe shortage of capable doctors, teachers, and farmers because they relied on foreigners for these jobs. They also don’t have a program to train doctors, teachers, or farmers. Why spend money training farmers when your roads are falling apart and USAID is feeding your needy? The best intentions of foreign donors and volunteers have now set the local country back a generation of valuable professionals.
My last two jobs in Malawi and Mozamabique have been at weekend retreats. Peace Corps volunteers from around the region arrive every weekend for showers and internet, and to buy supplies that they can’t find in their local villages. Their conversations often end in the same places: “Why don’t the Mozambicans show ambition?” “Why aren’t they sick of barely surviving?” “Their country is covered in unfarmed fertile savannahs, yet they complain of poverty and won’t grow cash crops.” “Why do they put up with overpacked, unsafe, and perpetually late buses that blast music so loud that you can’t talk? Anybody could by a second bus and make tons of money!” The volunteers of course know the local histories of colonialism, dictatorships, and outright slavery. The volunteers don’t expect that after hundreds of years of subservience enforced by the gun that Mozambique will shift overnight to a culture of entrepreneurship and place great value on attaining higher education. The volunteers are realistic. And that’s why they’re so frustrated. They are trying to reconcile their ambitions from when they joined the Peace Corps with what they’ve actually seen. And many are realizing that the Peace Corps hasn’t improved the country in any significant way.
These events are happening all around us and constantly repeat, though the organizations and countries change. They’re depressing, but based on the best of intentions of everyone involved. You can’t fault a doctor for visiting Malawi to work in undeveloped communities. The single mother who still donates to a food fund for Tanzania wants only the best for Tanzanians. Everyone is trying to help, but in the long run the helping hand is holding these countries back. And these are when all groups have the best intentions.
What happens when those receiving aid have other intentions? War, failed states, and tribal killings, among other things. Somalia’s war against Ethiopia, tribal violence, and later civil war were all aided by western aid. USAID and several international charities provided food without stipulations, giving it to “Somalia” and not following up carefully. The food of course ended up in the hands of their former President, Siyad Barre, who built refugee camps in the middle of territory that historically belonged to a rival tribe. Barre then brought ethnic Somalians from Ethiopia into the refugee camp and exaggerated their numbers. This brought in inflated amounts of food aid, which lowered food prices and forced many local farmers into deep poverty and eventually out of the area. President Barre now controlled the area, the food, the economy, and the population of the refugee camps, who he recruited to fight against Ethiopia and rival tribes.
The same food aid provided for war relief had been masterfully used to destabilize a rival tribe and was now being used to fund, recruit, organize, and feed an army. These conditions, of course, led to more conflict and more calls for aid. The aid continued unabated. What heartless person would suggest pulling food aid from the poor Somalis? Five years later the government of Somalia collapsed, but local warlords used the same methods to profit from the food aid and quickly used this money and power to take over the country. This led to the events of Blackhawk Down.
For a somehow more horrific example, look to Rwanda. The Hutu had worked up quite a hunger while systematically killing 800,000 Tutsis with machetes and knives. The Hutu were then pushed into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and set up refugee camps. Food aid was sent of course. The Hutu warlords controlled those refugee camps and naturally controlled the aid and used it for their own purposes. The Hutus were then able to regroup, regain health, and renew fighting.
Rwanda and Somalia are horrific examples of altruism gone awry, but far from isolated cases. Not all international aid is harmful to the intended recipients. But plenty is.
Maybe, and stay with me here because I know this sounds crazy, but maybe we could stop focusing on how we feel and how we want to help and instead consider how it might affect the people who need the help. Maybe Africans know what they need better than we do. Maybe training an African to teach is more helpful than sending a teacher to Africa temporarily. Maybe we don’t know everything.
The incredible picture above was taken by the talented children at Mathare Foundation. Mathare Foundation is a wonderful organization created and run by Eric Omwanda, a native Nairobian. Most funding for Mathare Foundation comes from within Kenya The foundation trains children in photography, soccer, and performing arts, as well as organizing annual festivals for the children to exhibit their skills. The sports and performing arts programs have enabled several children to earn scholarships to continue their education, while the photography classes are part of a vocational program. All programs are free for participants. For more information on Mathare Foundation, please visit their website.