Friday, May 29, 2009

When aid becomes deadly

I have been reading the controversial new book by Zambia economist Dambiso Moyo, Dead Aid in which she argues convincingly that the billions of dollars of aid that have been poured into Africa over the past fifty years has, instead of improving the lives of Africans, made it far worse. Aid, she contends, has significantly increased poverty and stifled economic growth throughout Africa.  Take the following case in point, taken from pages 44-45:

There's a mosquito net maker in Africa. He manufactures around 500 nets a week. He employs ten people, who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of fifteen relatives. However hard they work, they can't make enough nets to combat the malaria-carrying mosquito.

Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses, and goads Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the afflicted region, at a cost of a million dollars. The nets arrive, the nets are distributed, and a 'good' deed is done.

With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly put out of business. His ten workers can no longer support their 150 dependants (who are now forced to depend on handouts), and one mustn't forget that in a maximum of five years the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use.

This is the micro-macro paradox. A short-term efficacious intervention may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits. Worse still, it can unintentionally undermine whatever fragile chance for sustainable development may already be in play. Certainly when viewed in close-up, aid appears to have worked.

But viewed in its entirety it is obvious that the overall situation has not improved, and is indeed worse in the long run. In nearly all cases, short-term aid evaluations give the erroneous impression of aid's success. But short-term evaluations are scarcely relevant when trying to tackle Africa's long-term problems. Aid effectiveness should be measured against its contribution to long-term sustainable growth, and whether it moves the greatest number of people out of poverty in a sustainable way. When seen through this lens, aid is found wanting.

Instead of giving malaria nets, Moyo argues (quite rightly) donors could buy from local producers of malaria nets then sell the nets on or donate them locally.  For the lives of Africans to really improve, she says, “there needs to be much more of this type of thinking.”

I could not agree more.  I am convinced, even at a smaller level, that simply providing aid to those in need does not solve their long term (macro) problem.  Dependency on outside aid stifles not only the economic growth of countries but (on a smaller level), I believe, the economic growth of families and churches.  The time has long since passed when organizations like our own need to look beyond the short-term needs to long-term solutions and recognize that simply addressing short-term problems (micro) leads to inevitable long-term dilemmas like the one referred to above. It is time to reconsider, for example, the wisdom of shipping blankets and clothing from the West to nations where local Christians, in particular, could be benefitted by doing business with them. If Bibles and books can be printed in-country, then they should be. If local churches can be enabled through microcredit projects to support their own pastors and evangelists, then they should be rather than paying them out of Western coffers.  Yes, I know that donors in the West like to get involved in practical ways like donating clothing, sponsoring national pastors, and other such things.  But isn’t it time that we thought beyond donor relations when it comes to program planning? Isn’t it time we started educating the Western church to understand that money is not the solution to every problem in the developing world and that local problems should be solved using local resources as much as possible? 

This calls for an entirely new way of doing ministry. 

  • One that moves us beyond treating the poor like dependents and more like partners. 
  • One that reduces the temptation that even persecuted Christians are prone to of misusing the huge influx of cash which aid inevitably creates.
  • One that stops the cycle of dependency that robs Christians of the privilege of biblical stewardship and trusting God to meet each other’s needs.
  • One that helps Western Christians to realize that we have more to contribute to the purposes of God than just giving money and sees organizations like The Voice of the Martyrs as more than primarily grant-giving foundations. 
  • One that calls for us to train and hire staff who can serve the persecuted church in ways that go beyond funding projects. 
  • One that educates the Western donor to the need of supporting organizations who are more concerned about finding long-term solutions than sending short-term influxes of funding to those in need that may or may not really solve anything.
  • One that really tries to do good by doing what is right rather than by doing what will raise money or get attention.

Will this change come easily over quickly? No, of course not. Simply giving aid is much easier.  It’s also popular. But change must come if we are to be truly faithful to our calling of serving the God’s persecuted church.


Anonymous said...

Great piece, I just crossposted it at the blog.

Anonymous said...

An example is the situation among the first nations where millions of dollars were spend in areas where there is no possibility for industry or farming and where people live from handouts of the government.It has devastated all that makes a community thrive.I know,i lived there and it broke my heart.Suzanna

Rex George said...

Classic example of: "If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish, he will eat forever." I agree with the author's assessment of aid; it is the prevelant thought of our ever liberal society and the Church has bought into it for decades. Throwing money at a problem, even in the the U.S. is only a short-term band-aid. To be truly effective people must have the opportunity to stand on their own two feet with the right assistance - then and only then will individual and community problems be resolved and people flourish.