IN A NUTSHELL
Africa: Views on Development
Africa. There are those who think that Africa is a foreign country (“country”, are you kidding me?!?) with starving children and corrupt killers. To others, it is a continent that has been broken up, sold, freed, and now carries incredible resilience along with the legacy of colonialism and globalization. To many others still, and for all its positive and negative denotations and connotations, Africa is home. I recently learned about the danger of the single story. You can’t look at an entire continent with one story of that continent. To do so would discredit the history and culture of thousands of different ethnic groups, languages, and peoples. The story for many who are involved with Africa is the story of development. Following the idea of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, I combat generalizations of what development should look like with: “development is in the eye of the community being told they need to develop”. Along with the discussion of development comes the discussion of foreign aid.
There have been many perspectives on aid since the time of African independence in the mid to late 1900s. Simplified, the viewpoints of Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly represent the two extremes at opposite ends of the aid issue. Sachs, taking the optimistic viewpoint, argues for an extreme increase in aid and investment to give African nations the economic stimulus needed to improve essential programs and infrastructure. He cites past successful programs of medical, technological, and agricultural improvement to support his viewpoint. In his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time, he says, “At the most basic level, the key to ending extreme poverty is to enable the poorest of the poor to get their foot on the ladder of development” (Sachs). Sachs explains that the solution to poverty lies with capital creation using aid from rich countries, and that doing so would spark all aspects of capital in poor nations and jumpstart development.
Opponents of Sachs’ viewpoint argue that such a huge involvement from rich countries would only further perpetuate the system of dependency. In analyzing this idea of a “big push”, Todd Moss, in his book African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors, writes, “The traditional skeptics of aid have worried that too much help would make countries dependent and discourage them from standing on their own feet…argue that Africa already gets lots of aid…and believe increased aid flows may make matters worse” (Moss 138). The cycle of poverty, which is discussed by Sachs as a trap where the only way out of it is the big push of foreign aid and capital investment, is also related to a cycle of dependency. Because of various conditions of aid throughout the different avenues of lending, countries often become even more in debt, and must therefore borrow further to pay it back. In my opinion, it seems likely that even more investment would lead to even more dependency, which is one of the main issues with aid in the first place.
The question of dependency as a result of foreign aid should also be examined in junction with the notion of neocolonialism. There have been many that have argued that since independence, colonial powers have simply shifted dominance to more background strategies, implementing influence through aid conditions, trade and economic agreements, as well as the globalization of culture and other aspects of Western value systems. Moss writes, “In the beginning of the 1980s, donors began attaching conditions to aid, typically a series of promised actions to liberalize the economy (such as privatization) or to stabilize the economy (such as meeting budget targets)” (Moss 145). This liberalization of the economy is the foot in the door for Western companies and governments to further their own goals in these countries in a similar way to past policies of colonialism. While the efforts of rich countries may be good intentioned, it is hard to imagine governments and NGOs participating in an extreme aid-giving campaign without getting something out of it. For, even in well-meaning organizations, greed and efforts of dominance seem to remain at least partially influential.
Easterly, on the other hand, takes a what some call a pessimistic approach on the idea of foreign aid and international relations, though I consider it more realistic and important in furthering the discussion. Negating the arguments made by Sachs, Easterly says that past efforts of aid have done little to improve the state of African nations. In discussing the cycle of aid dependency as it relates to adjustment lending in his book The Elusive Quest for Growth, he says, “The donors’ concern for the poor creates even more perverse incentives for the recipients…countries have little incentive to alleviate their poverty problem. The poor are held hostage to extract aid from the donors” (Easterly 116). This is one of many critiques on the history of aid that Easterly discusses, but overall, he argues that the presence of rich countries has been detrimental for Africa’s growth. Policies of colonialism seem to have continued even after independence, and the idea of aid is similar to the “white guilt” and patriarchal attitude of Westerners thinking they need to “save” Africa. The whole system seems to perpetuate this Western dominance and may be solved by removing influence altogether, which honestly doesn’t seem likely (especially for nations with intense international affairs policies and involvement like the United States).
I think it is important to not completely write off one viewpoint over another because doing so would discredit the positive work that has come from both of these approaches. It may be helpful to find somewhat of a medium between the two. Aid in and of itself is not evil, especially that of emergency aid given in times of disaster. Without strings attached, this kind of help has been significant in saving lives. Other aspects to think about in consideration of the broad topic of development include the recent boom of development aid from China, neoliberal trade agreements that diversely affect economic development in Africa, as well as the role of corruption in African governments (as well as other governments from around the world).
Comparing the economic and industrial progress of Africa to the rest of the world is something that shouldn’t be happening in black and white statistical research because there are hundreds of years difference between the building of European nations and African nations. Africa has begun nation building later than these richer countries because of these richer countries. After African nations gained independence, Western governments were puzzled at why policies that had been instrumental in rebuilding Europe after the World Wars failed to work in Africa. Simply put, the European nations had existing infrastructure to support the policies, and Africa was left building from the ground up. There have been numerous studies on the effectiveness of aid in the past and the reasons why aid fails, but I think there should be more studies focused on proposing new ways to approach African “development”, as well as a discussion of how individuals and countries can give without implications of political, economic, or cultural dominance.
Indeed, there also could be an entirely different discussion on the fact that the main proponents of these different views on aid (Sachs and Easterly) are white, American men making decisions and preaching opinions that affect an entire continent. There must be a point when we step back and let the people of Africa itself tell us what they need. There should be a moment when we hear from members of communities in African nations what development and progress means to them, and we should not be threatened when the goals, cultural values, and even political beliefs are different from our own. Africans seem to be caught in the middle of these discussions of foreign aid, being seen often as the child that the rest of the world needs to help. People living in poverty are not ignorant of their own governments’ failures and successes and could be a positive force in turning the conversation of aid into something that is less about giving from one country to another and more about cooperation based on the needs and wants of African people themselves. This is not to say that there haven’t been African voices in the discussion of international aid and foreign investment, but these voices are not at the very forefront (at least from where I sit as an American student), which means the world is mostly listening to these influential American economists, who do not truly know how to address the African experience. It is not so much a question of optimism vs. pessimism, or extreme involvement vs. no involvement; it is a question of which approach will produce positive results for the people of Africa. Each viewpoint has various charts and statistics to prove their own point, but the factors associated with each of the statistics are broad and impossible to examine in a fully quantitative and qualitative way. Politics certainly play a part in the discussion, especially when thinking about corruption, but it is not the only angle. Community-based, bottom-up approaches should be considered more heavily, because they address development while making the African people the proponents of their own development.