Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is Aid Killing Africa?

This is a controversial topic that was brought to my attention during my time at Ol Malo and I want to bring it up to see what you all think.

There is a rumor going around that different types of humanitarian aid are doing more damage to countries in Africa than they are actually helping. This is not a new idea, but it was brought to attention at an international level with the release of a book called "Dead Aid" written by an African economist Dambisa Moyo. Her opinion has indeed ruffled a few feathers on the political level and economic level (NGO's, etc.) and raises an important question for people who provide different types of donations to third world countries.

I would like to preface this blog by saying I am not an economist, and I know very little about the structure within African governments that controls the distribution of aid, but I want to share what I've learned from seeing it first hand at Ol Malo with the Samburu tribe and talking with people who were born and grew up here.

Basically, foreign aid is an unstable phenomenon in Africa. People usually give in spurts; during times of drought or the recognition of extreme hunger and poverty. Everyone in the western world believes that giving giving giving as much money or clothes or to funds that send food is the best possible way to support these suffering people. The reality is that for individual groups of people in Africa, the aid is fleeting. The governments receive the aid and either tax it before distributing it to the different groups, or they distribute in large amounts at the wrong time! The result is, for example, a village who has become dependent on rice/grains, and when the money stops flowing (like when there's an economic crisis!) the grains stop coming and they are left with no skills to help them make money and get more food. There is a well known adage that explains this concept: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

This is a very simple truth that when you look at aid in Africa seems to apply in a startlingly sound way. The corrupt governments in place here seem to live off of the idea that Africa needs pitying. This has crippled their industrious spirits and allowed room for complacency. Of course this isn't true in every case of foreign aid, and there are millions who have been saved by medical aid, clean water, etc. but even things like this have killed more than they have helped.

A few real examples:
There was an organization that donated thousands of pounds of corn meal to a Massai village in northern Kenya. The Massai's entire way of life is based on the condition and number of cattle they maintain, and they do not typically rely on grains to survive. They eat a diet that consists mainly of meat and blood which is obvious due to their cash crops of cows. In 2009 there was a horrible drought and the people in this particular area began to eat the grains and not their cattle because this cattle was a symbol of status and they wanted to do everything they could to keep up their high numbers. What happens as a result is that the high number of cows eat the depleting amount of grass because there has been no water. The cows end up dying anyway because they have no more land to graze and the Massai end up going hungry. What should have happened was they selectively kill their cattle which in turn eat less grass and when the drought ends, there is not a lot of cattle, but there is enough to sustain the smaller herd. Very basically, you can see how in this situation aid wasn't the right answer for these people. They needed someone to teach them about sustainable grazing rotation, etc. The fact is, had the aid not been there the people would have just eaten the cows as usual and been more careful about the impact the herd had on the grazing lands instead of being preoccupied with the status of many cows.

The Samburu tribe who live near Ol Malo have also come across a problem with this same type of food-aid. They receive a type of aid that they don't actually consume as food. The Samburu eat a similar diet to the Massai which is meat, milk, blood. They receive this grain and end up getting bored and brewing it into a type of alcohol. Now, they're diet consists of meat, milk, blood, and alcohol. You can imagine the types of problems which stem from this: alcoholism, violence, death, etc. It sounds grim and maybe a little far fetched since everyone thinks all aid has to be good, but it isn't!

The fact is that when some of these organizations (who do mean well) come in to "save these poor people" who seemingly live this 3rd world lifestyle they aren't examining what might actually help them in the LONG TERM. A very simple way of looking at this is that if you give a young girl who normally wears a kikoy and beads (and nothing else) a dress from the U.S. and she wears this dress everyday and tears it all up on the acacia trees because its made of a different material, or it gets worn by the process in which they wash their clothes, or faded by the sun on the equator because she's outside all day long-then of course this girl is going to look horribly disheveled. In reality she doesn't NEED the dress, or shoes, or shampoo, or whatever else westerners think she needs because culturally it was never needed. She is also happier wearing her traditional kikoy and beads because she feels more comfortable in them.

Over the past few weeks it is clear to me that certain types of aid for certain types of people is completely unnecessary because their culture just doesn't call for it. You and I might think that giving money for someone to have certain types of food or clothes is a great thing because we can't imagine living without those things but they just don't need them! It causes more problems than it solves.

I am not saying that all types of aid are bad, nor that anyone should stop wanting to give or find ways to better the quality of life for others around the world. All I am suggesting is that people need to be more aware of what their money is really going toward. It might help to actually research some of these places that are legitimately helping in the long term, and aren't just a temporary fix for a larger ongoing problem. I can suggest you pick up the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo just as a starting point to understanding the different types of aid. I don't think her solutions outlined in the book are necessarily correct, but I definitely got a different perspective about aid in general by listening to her talk about the book itself. You can also look up "Aid is Killing Africa" on YouTube and it comes up with some videos of this author talking about aid in Africa.

There are many people in Kenya who believe certain types of help are completely useless, and it has been interesting for me (as someone who's here mainly to VOLUNTEER) to talk with them about what I am doing here and why it may or may not be the best thing. There are many churches, for example, who are set up to help "save" people and then they leave about two years later a small town built around an abandoned church that houses thieves, prostitutes, and no more resources. Again, I don't want anyone to think I am suggesting that their donations aren't legitimate, but you all need to be thinking about how to help others in a way that is going to build on their skills and create opportunities for them, not just allow them to rely on foreign assistance that may or may not come in the future.

*You can also check out I know my immediate family knows about this but it's a website you can go to and you basically loan small amounts of money to entrepreneurs in developing countries for them to buy, say, a cow or something small to get their milk-selling-business up and running. So you "loan" this $50 to a man in South America and he gets this cow and starts his business and makes money, and pays the loan back to you. Kiva sends you a message that says, "You have KIVA credit..would you like to donate the money to someone else? Would you like to cash out and get your money? Or Would you like to make that $50 a donation that the man in SA can just keep? It is an awesome system, and it's a great example of the right type of aid. Having hospital floors tiled is another good one...

Sorry this blog isn't so "exciting" but it's been on my mind an incredible amount. Kenya is a country full of creative minds and it's horrible when the guy who makes and sells me my sandals at the coast goes out of business because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt just sent a truck load of FREE sandals to Watamu and now no one will buy them from this guy because there's free sandals everywhere. He's now going to take his extra corn meal and brew a batch of bubbly to drowned his unemployed sorrows.

Okay maybe that's a bit much but seriously guys, just think about it.


  1. I have felt this way for years, but because most of the time it is missionaries that go to Africa and try to change the people, and people think it's a wonderful thing, which I don't, I never said much. I do believe it hurts the people there, like Ciara said in her blog...they are waiting for the rich American's to come and help them. No, they should be learning how to help themselves.
    Most of the government is corrupt and most of the aid money is not given to the people, but ends up in some fat cat's pocket..we all know that.
    Cacey: This is a wonderful should be very proud of yourself for stepping up and writing it. Thank you. I for one, appreciate that finally someone has said something, and I plan to read the book "Dead Aid" and watch the video that you suggested.
    I agree that some type of aid is needed everywhere in 3rd world countries, and its appreciated, and necessary, but like you said, some is so completely unnecessary and so uncalled for and causes more problems than it helps.
    You are amazing. I love you.....Gram

  2. You need to go around to churches, schools ect. and share all your knowledge of Africa to make everyone aware.