Friday, July 9, 2010

Foreign Aid-A Debate With the Doctor

OK, I didn't actually debate my doctor. There was no time. However, while vaccinating me, he noticed my copy of William Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. I read this book for my International Development class, alongside Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, and found Easterly's arguments more compelling. He argues that, while foreign aid is a necessity, the West has been donating so much on an agenda that hasn't really proven beneficial to most of the developing world and has prevented a participatory approach for countries to solve their own problems.

Yet, a glance at the title prompted my doctor to ask me the following question.

"What burden?"

"Oh, just a critique on failures with foreign aid."

"You mean, the burden of saving people?"

His question gave me a moment of pause. Though my visit was quick and my doctor was all business, I got the sense that he was a deeply compassionate man who cared enough to make a difference. That's probably what prompted him to enter medical school and make health care his life. Yet I notice the argument constantly, that we need more aid, that we can save so many people from poverty if we just give more, that it's our nation's duty to give more in aid.

That's not Easterly's argument at all. While he is not against foreign aid in general (and, when asked, said he absolutely supported emergency aid to Haiti and other countries), he's finding that our policies with aid have pushed nations deeper into a cycle of poverty and dependence. For example, one policy the U.S. holds is that governments must use aid vouchers to purchase supplies from U.S. companies. While it may provide technology and food in the short run, this prevents countries from developing industries in those areas and keeps them dependent on coupons. Another example is the free bed nets for malaria. He said that what usually happened was they ended up on the black market or used as fishing nets and wedding veils. However, when sold at health clinics for modest prices in small villages and more expensive prices for richer folks in the cities, it assured that they would not only be used properly, but that they'd be in stock and that people could generate income for other needs. He said that we need to invest in A) simple, cheap preventative measures against widespread diseases, B) participatory measures that allow communities to prioritize needs, and C) investments in countries' markets rather than keeping them and their governments (benevolent and not) in a cycle of dependency reminiscent of colonialism.

I find myself agreeing with Easterly's premise, simply because it allows people to have a hand in their own destinies. I shouldn't be telling another country, "You have to spend money on this," rather, if a country asks for assistance, we should be asking, "What are the needs here?", "What do the people want?", "What actually works?" We need to keep in mind that money does not necessarily solve problems, that their are political, cultural, and historical contexts we need to keep in mind. Finally, we should not go in with the attempt to save people, building on a Messiah complex that has plagued the aid industry for so long. We should work on helping each other to build our own societies and design our destinies. Will it be a quick fix? Absolutely not. Will it be difficult? Yes. Will failures and mistakes happen? Yes, but we're all human and we learn through trial and error. All I know is that the parent-child model of foreign aid has to stop if we hope to make any progress. To me, that's development.

I do wonder how Kenya will impact my views on this. What does "development" look like? What does aid look like? How does it help or hinder the country's progress? Where do I fit in among this debate?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Adventures to the Travel Clinic

I am pleased to announce that, as of today, I am vaccinated against yellow fever and polio and will be completely vaccinated against typhoid fever by the end of next week (oral vaccine, which is currently hanging out in my refrigerator). In addition, I received the second shot in a chicken pox series, the first in a Hep A series, and a DPT booster a couple weeks ago and picked up prescriptions for Cipro (antibiotic for traveler's diarrhea) and Malarone (anti-malarial prophylaxis).

It was a quick visit, just a brief consultation in the doctor's office where he looked up requirements and administered the vaccines. He gave me basic precautions and prescriptions, told me what to look out for, and affirmed my desire to travel (he emigrated to America at a time when young people had no idea about the rest of the world).

I'm so stoked. It's even more real, more than the ticket. $350 for shots and preventative medications. $350 toward an investment for the rest of my life. It's crazy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Interfaith Issues in Kenya

As a practicing Catholic, I found it interesting that Kenya had as high a percentage of Catholics as it does. According to CIA World Factbook, 33% of the people are Catholic, eight percent higher than in the U.S. In addition, 45% of people identify as Protestant (mostly Anglican, due to British influence), leading to an overwhelming Christian majority. CIA World Factbook also mentions a 10% Muslim minority, with a disclaimer that these numbers can be disputed. I didn't think much about that last statistic until I read this article here.

The article in question talks about a proposition that would ban sharia courts from Kenya. For those who do not know, sharia is the legal system adherents of Islam follow. When implemented within a national framework, Muslims will handle legal disputes within their own communities rather than through a secular court system (unless, of course, the secular courts are under sharia law). In Kenya, these courts are protected by the constitution and only apply to the Muslim communities. However, this vote would overturn that ruling, stating that sharia law has no place in a secular nation like Kenya. This proposition is backed by many Christian groups in both Kenya and the U.S., groups that see Islam as a violent faith in opposition to their own.

While I believe religious courts of any kind should be accountable to the State in order to ensure basic human rights protections, I also find it appalling that self-proclaimed Christians would use this as an excuse to persecute people for believing differently. For a religion founded specifically to stand for the rights of the poor and oppressed (of which Muslims in Kenya are), this is astounding. In addition, as someone who supports human rights, I believe people should have the right to choose how to run their own communities, how to resolve disputes between members of these communities, and how to implement practice of their faith in their lives. In my opinion, with regard to certain aspects of sharia law (Muslim marriage, divorce, etc), the Kenyan government, as a secular nation, has no business interfering.

It also enrages me that Christian groups in the U.S. have been fueling the fire of persecution in African politics (such as Uganda's homosexuality ruling or this recent tension in Kenya). To me, this is another facet of Western imperialism, just like our aid politics, our trade decisions, and our governmental inference. Rather than showing genuine Christian concern for the plight of different peoples (domestic and international), these groups are using Jesus as a puppet to spew their own personal agenda, one of domination and subjugation. The fact that someone twists the God I claim to follow, one who teaches compassion, mercy, and equality, makes me hurt for the people affected by this.

I hope and pray these disputes are resolved in a peaceful manner. I pray that the tension is reversed and that people can learn to live peacefully, Christian and Muslim. I also hope that people can realize the impact of their actions, whether globally, politically, or economically. To me, this is proof that we have a much larger impact than we realize. Let it be a good one.