The hidden price of foreign aid

Jean Nicol – The South China Morning Post

Saturday April 9 2005 – Copyright The South China Morning Post
People give to help the needy for highly personal reasons. They are motivated by peer pressure and by pictures of starving children or, in the case of larger gifts, they tend to be spurred by family experiences like the death of a loved one from an under-researched disease.
They also give according to custom. Hong Kong’s paternalistic, benevolent-king model is rooted in both Chinese tradition and colonial custom. Americans give more broadly because of relative affluence and to make up for the lack of both a social safety net and financially close family ties. The British give in smaller doses, and more to overseas aid, probably because they think that their tax-funded welfare state should help the needy at home. Maybe their focus on African children is linked to colonial guilt. This is ironic given that it takes quite a bit of neo-colonial gall to imagine that another continent’s problems can be solved by the very people who helped create them.
That brings us to the Africa Commission and its report. British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants it to heal the ‘scar on our consciences’. I am not sure exactly whose consciences he means, but his proposals sound like a pretty expensive way to clear them. Still, I suppose the unconscious truth in his statement (giving to Africa benefits the giver most) is better than a lie (this is a selfless action).
Not that this makes the recipient an innocent victim. That is the last role outsiders need to perpetuate in Africa. First, because it is not true – more money and genuine attempts at aid have been targeted there than anywhere else over the past few decades. But there has been very little positive effect on the lives of African children.
Second, it is partly this victimisation of Africa – and the soul-destroying beggaring that it helps elicit in Africans themselves – that is one of the most intransigent blocks to change.
Handouts do not work unless they come with such strictly controlled conditions and time limits that they cease to be perceived as such. The recipient has to pay a price: when something is free, less importance is attached to what comes out of it. Freud underlined this psychological truth when he pointed out that having a client pay was actually part of the therapy. Every time a country asks for any sort of freebie, it is making the statement that it is unable to make its own way. That is a crippling admission, especially when it is repeated over generations.
One bright idea has been to redirect money that once went to governments (and was quickly siphoned off) towards foreigner-run non-governmental organisations. This again taps into an unhealthy psychological phenomenon: Africa lies in a crumpled heap on the pavement, making an emotional plea of its terrible history of slavery and persecution, and its limited capacities. This is appealing to aid workers – to both their ethics and their snobbery. The trouble is, concluded former volunteer corps member and travel writer Paul Theroux, selfish, bleeding-heart aid workers only institutionalise the problems they come to help alleviate. And, indeed, after the state, the aid sector has now become the second employer in the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa is a continent of ‘cultural mutants’, says Ivory Coast reggae singer Alpha Blondy in an interview in the French daily Liberation. Nobody can accomplish for them the unprecedented task they now face. It is not one of building afresh. It is one of reconciling the irreconcilable: tribal affiliations with colonist-drawn borders; the rain dance with the Kalashnikov; a distillation of all of humanity’s past with the mindset of a small group of western politicians and economists.
As someone once said, analyse with pessimism; act with optimism. In this case, is there any choice?
Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation

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