Tuesday, September 2, 2008
When do you stop what you started?? When is it enough?? (photo courtesy: Compound Eye)
There is a controversial article that appeared in Time Magazine on Aug 6, 2008, titled "Why Africa is still Starving." Largely it blames food aid coming into countries like Ethiopia and Niger (the poster famine countries) for creating dependency and messing up food markets.
I think food aid and the starvation epidemic is part of a much larger problem with aid. Aid is increasingly geared towards "giving fish to people" rather than "teaching them to fish." Its an easier way to deal with the situation...feel bad for people, then give them food and money. I must unfortunately put some of the blame on books like Jeffrey Sachs' famous "The End of Poverty," which proclaims aid as the only way! Lots of people will argue with me about this, but from what I've seen over the years, its only getting worse.
In 2005, I really hit my angriest point with aid. I was in Mozambique on a WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) project working with an outstanding team of experts. Most NGOs could only dream of getting a team like this together...because they rarely are in one place at any given time or because it might cost an arm-and-a-leg; but we had lucked out. However, from the minute we got on site, we felt like we were being fleeced. I've never had to deal with this level of blatant begging. Our Mozambiquan counterparts would blatantly ask for money, "give us the money...we'll take care of everything. You can go back. No worries," or they'd say, "you pay for these [meals/rides/pieces of clothing/you-name-it] because you have money." Hands came forward to take accessories, t-shirts, hats, clothes, toiletries I had...they wanted everything ("you give me gift!"). Mozambique, by the way, is the World Bank's poster child for aid. So much aid money and loans have flooded their country in a short period of time, that I'm not surprised to see this level of entitlement from the people.
It was at this point that I wondered if we were doing any good by being there. As a child, I remember what it was like learning how to ride my bike. First my dad ran after me. Then he stopped and waited. The first time I fell down, I hurt myself badly...my knees bruised badly and were bleeding, and I started to cry. My dad just stood by. From a distance, he encouraged me to get up and get on with it. He didn't budge. I did get up. I continued to fall, and my knees still hurt. But I fell better the each time, and also rode better. Soon I was fine. I know it was hard for my dad to see me falter and hurt, but he knew that it was better in the longterm.
So my question is, when's the time to just back off and let these countries falter and make their own mistakes, and learn?? It hurts us to see them suffering...but maybe its best for them in the long run...(???)