Thursday, 10 July 2008

Should we call for an end to aid in Africa?

I have written about the problems of foreign aid on many occasions, and am going to develop the theme I first put forward on 28/06/07. Does aid wipe out poverty? Thinking about it, raised another question in my mind. Does aid actually encourage poverty? I don't know the answer, and would welcome feedback, particularly from the agencies which promote it. But surely if aid agencies pump in millions of dollars worth of aid into a country, they are really taking away the responsibility for carrying out those vital humanitarian actions from the government of the country concerned. Many of the recipient countries have significant natural resources

Take Uganda, for example -- a country universally accepted as being fairly corrupt. In the most recent budget I could find (2007-2008) income of $3000 million was projected, of which 10.2 million was to be spent on anti-corruption -- an indictment in itself. But $19 million was spent import of arms -- the most recent figures according to:

According to this latter website Uganda spends 2.2% of GDP on military, but only 1.9%on health. Could it be that pumping foreign charitable aid into a country on a longterm basis is actually a cause of ongoing poverty? It certainly does not seem to be solving the problem. Finding out how much aid the NGOs etc were pumping into Uganda proved beyond my resources.

And is charitable aid, just another form of colonialism? Again, I don't know. But I I know huge quantities of western-manufactured medicines and equipment are purchased, and I see images of relief operations unloading vast packages of plastic bottles containing water. I do wonder if the bottled water industry is benefitting more than the aid recipients, and I am certain the pharmaceutical companies are profitting. Surely a lot of aid is simply encouraging the sort of consumerism that dominates our own societies? It certainly is not encouraging 'sustainable development' (what ever that is, if it's not an oxymoron).

There are other even more difficult questions that need to be answered: for instance, is it morally right to prevent the traditional forms of population limitation, to increase survival rates, but without introducing alternative forms of population control? I think it was Spike Milligan who once said that every loaf of bread sent to Africa should be inside a condom... or words to that effect.

These sorts of issues are swept under the carpet by aid agencies and politicians alike. But I think it is high time they were addressed. The quality of life is certainly not improving for the majority of Africans, and in the 40 years I have been taking an interest in it, the negative impacts on the natural environment and wildlife have spiralled out of control. And while putting more and more (often marginal)land under intensive agriculture may well make aid agencies feel happy, and will almost certainly line the pockets of agri-business, but is unlikely to help the starving of Africa. Anymore than increasing the out-of-control goat population of the continent will benefit the people living in marginal habitats.

It does seem that countries in South America and Asia, once just as poverty stricken as much of Africa, have fared much better. Why?

I wrote most of the above several weeks ago, and now I am on a sabbatical in Paraguay where I happened to watch a spokesperson for Oxfam on the BBC World News, justifying their activities in Africa. The problem was that nothing she said gave me any confidence that the aid agencies had thought through their activities properly. It was still full of the hyperbole of 'wiping out poverty' and worse too, almost everything the aid agencies say smacks of social Darwinism. That there is "progress" towards a "better" , more "advanced" society. As any biologist knows, that is not what evolution is about, though Soapy Sam Wilberforce tried to portray it as such. Organisms evolve to be fitter for their environment. They do not progress to a higher plane -- that was/is an anthropocentric view, based on the premise that there was/is God, them humans, then the rest of creation. Aid agencies are very little different to 19th century Christian missionaries. Convinced they know better, convinced that theirs is a better way of life. And what does long term aid actually achieve? One thing I do know it achieves: absolution of the governments concerned of their responsibilities -- those government invariably have the resources needed; they just choose to use them on lavish lifestyles, grandiose western-inspired 'development' schemes, or worst of all, armaments.

Finally, I would add that I am not discussing emergency aid, in the wake of disasters -- that, as recent events in Burma, China and elsewhere have demonstrated is an entirely separate issue.

And I am not coming to any conclusions, yet. But the more I see of the world, the more I doubt that most long-term international humanitarian aid has significant long-term benefits other than to the donors, and the economies of the donor countries. Clearly a controversial view, and one I would be happy to modify, should evidence present itself. Just as if aid agencies were to carry out environmental impact assessments before carrying out projects that impact the natural environment, I would have more respect for them. But at present I am more of the opinion that the majority modern the foreign aid programmes carried out by NGOs are far too similar to nineteenth century missionaries in both outlook and objectives. Of course this is a personal view, but I wonder how many people think this, even if they don't admit it? The world has become so politically correct, that it is often considered wrong to even question the staus quo.

Facts and figures contradicting some of my assertions would be welcome. Opinions are easy to find, but facts much more difficult.

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