when help becomes hurt, or dependence incorporated

It’s been quite some time since I gave African aid and the issues surrounding it much thought; perhaps too long, really. I used to be all too happy to debate the benefits and downfalls of giving financial aid to the world’s poorest countries, and I was, at one time, completely dedicated to spreading the word amongst my friends and relatives. This, of course, was before I realized that most people didn’t care about it nearly as much as I did.

The reason that I became aware of these issues in the first place was Bono. I’ve been a U2 fan for most of my life, and so when Bono started speaking up about aid to Africa in a serious way, and helped found DATA (Debt Aid Trade for Africa) back in the early years of this decade, I was all over it. I did a high school project on DATA, and aid stats, and (apparently) intimidated the Hell out of my classmates with my knowledge and passion. If asked about it today, I will still become fairly impassioned, but I am not up on the current stats, nor do I have enough money to truly give to the cause. Still, I am aware of a lot of the persistent issues surrounding aid, and I have Bono to thank for that. I would rather be in the know than not.

Given my history of interest in aid to African countries (specifically — I realize that there are many countries receiving/requiring aid), I couldn’t help but read The Anti-Bono when I came across it on the New York Times website, this afternoon. The interview is short but concise, and I’d really like to get my hands on Dambisa Moyo’s book “Dead Aid”, in order to really sink my teeth into what she’s got to say. As much as I was for aid and debt cancellation in Africa (and other countries) when I was younger, she makes some simple and pertinent points. And she seems to know what she’s talking about, given the education she’s got.

In her interview, Dambisa Moyo makes a few comments that I’d like to weigh in on, the first of which is her comment on celebrities:

I’ll make a general comment about this whole dependence on “celebrities.” I object to this situation as it is right now where they have inadvertently or manipulatively become the spokespeople for the African continent.

I agree with her that it’s quite unfortunate that celebrities have become the spokespeople of the African continent. That’s just backward really, since it’s the African people (or their representatives) who should be their own spokespeople, not trumped-up Western rock stars. I do, however, think that rock stars, actors, directors, and all other manner of the Hollywood populous are in a unique position to help raise awareness amongst the Western public, and it is good that they do so. As I said, without Bono and his high horse, I wouldn’t know anything about these things. Without the influence of people like Bono, it’s not likely that many of the people who he and his cohorts reach would care, or even be informed. In our “democratic” situations, the governments are supposed to listen to (as they are elected by) the people, so if the people are not informed, the government may not necessarily debate the issue as much as they should, given that the health of the planet and its people is dependent upon a healthy public debate and informed action (or inaction, as it were).

Moyo goes on to say:

Forty years ago, China was poorer than many African countries. Yes, they have money today, but where did that money come from? They built that, they worked very hard to create a situation where they are not dependent on aid.

And when asked about what has held back Africans from a success similar to China’s:

I believe it’s largely aid. You get the corruption — historically, leaders have stolen the money without penalty — and you get the dependency, which kills entrepreneurship. You also disenfranchise African citizens, because the government is beholden to foreign donors and not accountable to its people.

I think Ms. Moyo’s got a good point, there. While I think that some giving is good, and some cancellation of debt is good, I think that too much giving can create a truly consistent dependence on the giver, and it then becomes a situation that is beneficial to neither side, prolonging corruption and greed, and failing to provide the well-meant support that was the intent. I think about it as if it were a friend who was asking for money, repeatedly, so that they might get their business off the ground, only to use the money irresponsibly and foster a false sense of security in being able to simply ask for more money. One could also compare it to a similar situation between a child and parent, the parent feeling generous and attached to the child, and not seeing that too much help actually becomes hurt, after a time.

Beside that, there is not as much room for education and entrepreneurship when one is receiving too much help from others. If a person (or a group) is told “no”, they will find other avenues to succeed if it is a cause to which they are dedicated. Helping by giving is one thing, but the best thing to give is hope, which fosters a sense that there is an attainable goal ahead. Being given the tools with which one can succeed is far more important than being given a false sense of success. I think a reward-based system might be a promising way to approach foreign aid — giving or cancelling, tempered by education and tough love. The governments of developed countries need to become sagely teachers, leaving the underdeveloped countries to benefit from being receptive to well-meaning lessons. That is, of course, if these countries want to model themselves after developed Western countries, which — to a certain extent — we’ve been taught to assume.

I have written about some world issues before, though that was some time ago, and I always try and make comparisons that I hope are easily understood so that anyone who doesn’t know a whole lot about what I’m saying can relate. A lot of the time though, I make those comparisons as much for myself as I do for anyone else. Issues are more easily understood and appreciated when couched in terms of one’s own world and experience, and trying to understand something like the economics of African aid is not something I’m going to pretend is easy — it’s not. I do, however, think it’s important to be able to conceptualize, which is where metaphors come in handy.

That said, I can theorize and conceptualize all I want, and there may be no one who hears me, but I’ll still do it. That’s the benefit of living in a country in which freedom of expression is still pretty high on the priority list. It occurs to me that there are problems with every Jack and Jane weighing in on things: it sometimes develops into a situation where there are so many opinions, and versions of opinions, that people sometimes end up spending too much time talking and less time doing. While I’m all for discussion and intelligent debate, there comes a point at which too much talk is a bad thing, too.

Really, the end point here is: too much is a bad thing — too much giving, too much money, too much talk. It boils down to the old adage: give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Moyo says that the African people should be put to work, and I think that’s true, but they should also be taught to do good work for themselves, and taught how to problem-solve within their own economic situations. Sometimes, the best teacher has to say no in order that the student discover their own potential.

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