Foreign aid is not at the top of anyone’s agenda at the moment. If anything, it is probably toward the bottom of the list since the American economy has feverishly imploded. However, now is as good a time as any to evaluate foreign aid and its impact. When money is short, necessity dictates that every dollar is spent wisely.
Here in South Africa, where I am currently living and studying at the University of Cape Town (UCT), it is impossible to ignore aid. On campus, foreign aid funds my professors’ research and supports numerous campus enterprises. Just last month, UCT and the United States Agency for International Development signed a $2.9 million agreement to develop the university’s ability to respond to disasters. Off campus, foreign aid casts a similarly large shadow. It is present in almost every facet of life: health, education, even politics—no sector escapes.
According to William Easterly, the former World Bank economist and author of several books on foreign aid, approximately $2.3 trillion in aid has been sent to Africa over the last 50 years. More continues to arrive every day. Despite this influx, the results have been mixed at best. Africa is still the most underdeveloped continent, known for its famines, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, poor governance and poverty.
Explanations for the lack of progress vary widely. Some say not enough aid has been given. Others point to the fact that most aid is in the form of short-term emergency disaster relief and not long-term development aid.
Still, others see aid as part of the problem instead of the solution. They point to the creation of a permanent aid economy, which may impede growth. The range and scope of explanations is inexhaustible. The truth is likely a combination of everything, but underlying it all is a strong current of indifference.
Many donors have given up hope of achieving lasting and significant progress. Africa is just a black hole into which money goes and disappears. Aid is just a release for the guilt of former colonizers. Whether it works or not is almost irrelevant.
It is easy to become cynical and indifferent about aid here in Africa. Even I, raised on notions of social responsibility and filled with the brash optimism of youth, have felt my ideas about aid become tarnished and less rosy in the short time that I have been here. There is no way to ignore the shortcomings of aid, no matter how well-meaning.
I am not suggesting that foreign aid is unnecessary or bad. I still fall firmly on the side of those who believe aid is moral and necessary. I still believe that aid can make a difference here in South Africa and elsewhere. I am only saying that donors need to be more aware and more strategic in the way they distribute aid. There is a fatal temptation when talking about aid to assume that any aid is better than no aid. That could not be further from the truth. Done right, aid has a huge but not a limitless ability to help. Done wrong, aid will have the opposite effect.
To me, the biggest problem with foreign aid is that it is almost always more about the donor than about the recipient. With every donation, there are dozens if not more conditions. Donors will stipulate how and where the money can be spent. For example, in Eritrea, American aid for the construction of a railway system included the stipulation that the money had to be spent on foreign consultants, engineers and architects from Western countries. Not only does this mean that local professionals go unemployed, but it also turns out to be much more expensive than it would have been to use cheaper, local expertise.
Similar conditions are applied to grants for antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS sufferers. Instead of buying generics, aid recipients are obliged to purchase more expensive name-brand drugs from pharmaceutical companies that are based in the donor country. Ultimately, this means less medicine and more suffering.
While donors have the right to expect some sort of oversight on their money, this goes too far. Aid is for the benefit of the recipient, not the donor. Thus, the needs of the recipient come before those of the donor. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work and in lean times like these, it’s just a waste of money.
Mengfei Chen is a fourth-year international studies major. She can be reached at email@example.com.