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?

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