Africa, Development, and Bono

man fishingSome headlines scream so loud something so shocking that you can’t ignore them. “Africans to Bono: ‘For God’s Sake Please Stop‘” from The American is just such a headline.

I’ll admit that at first I thought ‘this must be a joke.’ But upon closer examination, it’s a reasonable argument made rather convincingly by it’s purveyors and the article’s author (and blogger), Jennifer Brea.

The essential argument is not that Africans universally undervalue the role of outside aid in jump-starting development. Rather, they argue that what they want is development, not innumerable checks for solving immediate problems.

Aid is not useless, but its not the path toward a rich and sustainable future. If Africa’s only form of foreign “investment” comes from money being dumped into the continent to feed hungry children, prevent malaria, and build modest infrastructure, little true and self-driven development can occur. There is a need to investment in local companies, to develop industries that create jobs and products that can be sold both locally and around the world.

Aid in its current form can disempower both governments and their citizens, making governance easy by allowing it to do nothing, or even allowing it to work against its citizens’ best interest. As Ms. Brea says, the current modality of aid “seems to deny Africans a role as agents of their own transformation. We [outsiders] can save Darfur. We can save Africans from disease. We can even save Africans from themselves. Africa can be saved if we just try hard enough.”
Not only are certain problems endemic to the way in which aid systems currently function, but much of the means to itself are disempowering.

Aid is often pleaded for, rarely by Africans themselves, by portraying the continent as a helpless and wild continent unable to do anything to enrich or help itself. As you can no doubt guess, even if these images of the distended bellies of hungry children covered is flies is based on reality, it undercuts the appearance of progress on the continent.

It is also fundamentally disempowering to a continent and people that are trying hard to find a new and novel way toward their own future.

For closing words, Ms. Brea:

Aid can alleviate immediate misery and that is why we love it. Charity is a profoundly human response to all those images that pull on our heartstrings. But all evidence points to the maddening conclusion that, in the long run, aid not only has no positive effect on economic growth, it may even undermine it.

The only way Africa will develop and create wealth is if it can attract foreign capital and trade its goods on the world market like every other economically successful country does.

But investors are jittery. And considering what we think we know about Africa, who would blame them?

Branding Africa as barbaric and hopeless or glamorous and chic may sell magazines and get us to open our purse strings once in awhile. But neither myth is true or useful.

Here’s a radical idea: if we really want to help, why not ask Africans, not their governments, how they perceive the challenges before them, the dreams they have for the future, and the resources they think they need to realize them?

Instead, we let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

And in the process, the story of the other Africa, the Africa that is dynamic, creative, and wants to work as a partner and the leader of its own future, is being drowned out by the clarion cry of the anti-poverty glitteratiand our own appetites for gripping, salacious headlines of war, poverty, and grief.

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