“For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”

Maybe it’ll help if a black economist from Kenya says it instead of a white economist from South Africa. De Spiegel interviewed James Shikwati.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa…

Shikwati: … for God’s sake, please just stop.

Talking about food aid and the donated corn (maize) from Europe and the US …

Shikwati: … and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It’s a simple but fatal cycle.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn’t do anything, the people would starve.

Shikwati: I don’t think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders — drawn by the Europeans by the way — more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?

Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrial nations, there’s a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn’t do all that poorly either.

16 replies »

  1. Its a shame that this economist must include blanket terms such as “you europeans” to explain how certain elements of one region of the world has for the past 400 years exploited elements from another. I use a bland term like “certain elements” because those doing the exploiting are from the upper class of certain countries–a subsection of a subsection. Using Europeans contributes to the masking of a very important idea that we have a global upper class composed of people mainly of European origin who are continuing to make the rules and fatten themselves on the less powerful.

    Having said that, I totally agree with the economists’ suggestion to stop the aid. And, there is no reason to believe that people left to their own devices will find a way to survive. It is possible. People in Sub-Saharan Africa can and develop strategies to prosper in this global economy if we let them be.

  2. I wonder what Shaka the Zulu King’s take on South Africa today would be…

    Gradual withdrawal of aid I would support from large areas of Africa but I would not like to be the one to decide how long that piece of string would have to be…

  3. The more I read, the more I think that one of the biggest problems you face is that the solutions you favor are so counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make logical sense that the best way to help is NOT to help.

  4. You’re right, of course. Another famously counter-intuitive piece of economics is Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage.

    It makes no sense to people that competition isn’t important in economics, only comparative advantage. A country looking to improve its exports doesn’t need to be cheaper than China. It doesn’t even need to consider China. All that country has to focus on is what IT does best, even if it is worse at it than anyone else.

    US protection of corn farmers, cotton farmers and Detroit motor manufacturers indicates that US lawmakers don’t understand that one either.

    So how I expect them to understand that aid results in the opposite of what they intend, I don’t know.

  5. Gavin,

    Thanks for this fascinating piece.

    I think there’s something both humane (wanting to help those we see as “less fortunate” – which might mean only not born in the developed world) and condescending (hearkening back to Kipling’s notion of the “white man’s burden”) about our foreign “aid” programs for the developing world.

    I wonder if we’d expanded and developed our Peace Corps model (sending people with skills and knowledge to help locals “learn to fish,” so to speak) if that would have proven over the last several decades a more helpful (in the right sense) form of assistance….

  6. I know I’m going to be shot down hard for saying this, but couldn’t the same argument be made for Welfare Programs here in the State? 🙂

    OK. Now I’m starting to sound like a heartless Republican.

  7. Jim, I’ve read a lot about how condescending the Peace Corps model is as well. I personally know at least on person who left the Corps totally disenchanted because the volunteers came in, said “grow these crops on these rotations and you’ll be fine,” left, and then the communities proceeded to collapse and starve because the provided crops stripped the soil of all its nutrients.

    The Peace Corps is a good idea, but without the right attitude toward the locals’ expertise in their climate, soil, etc, it could be as bad as Gavin indicates that food or monetary aid is.

  8. As I said, Brian – “if the Peace Corps model had been developed.” Its failures are well known – but it also has had some notable success. While I wouldn’t argue that it needs revamping (as this article suggests), the idea of going in and working with people to better their situations is a worthier model than the one we’re currently following.

    As for welfare, Michael, I don’t disagree entirely. Again, (and I hate to parrot Sam, especially since he’s running for president) but education could help many achieve self-support. Workfare, for all its flaws, is at least a step in the right direction. It needs, as does the Peace Corps, revision and improvement.

  9. Had a long chat with a colleague about this earlier today. I mentioned the mobile phone as a tremendous development tool. Reason? It doesn’t preach. You can use it for anything. Farmers use it to find out which market they should take their crops to (instead of simply going to whichever one they can get to).

    On the other hand, even careful benevolent programs (like the Peace Corp) have inbuilt assumptions. Namely, that you should farm. What happens if farming isn’t sustainable at all – no matter what you plant?

    The collapse of food production in parts of Ethiopia (sponsored by Bob Geldof) was related to a pitiless drought that forever changed northern Ethiopian agriculture (in the 70s and 80s, before global warming but certainly as a result of poor agricultural practices).

    Instead of letting people move, the government (and aid programs) forced them to stay where they were and farm. Without water it created the images that so haunted the world.

    This is where I come back to markets. If people want to change what they do, let them. Forcing people (and paying them to keep doing what doesn’t work) is exactly the same as subsidising farmers to farm things that no-one wants to buy.

  10. I agree. It’s the whole “teach a man to fish” idea. But it’s more than that. I suspect things have changed significantly in the last 30 years, but back then my mom had to go on welfare for a short while after my dad flew off to Germany. As I recall, she was making more money on welfare than she was while working. The only reason she worked as hard as she did to get back into the workforce was pure self-pride.

    I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, but from what I can tell, pride kinda goes out the window for a lot of people after they’ve been in the system for a generation or two. Then, it somehow morphs, to some extent, into a sense of entitlement.

    I have no idea if this is analogous to the situation outside the US. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I bet it plays some sort of a role any time Aid is involved.

  11. Michael, your take is completely accurate. The transition process is defined, by psychologists, as “learned helplessness”. People, through aid, are told that they are incapable of helping themselves.

    In their minds they reason, “If I’m incapable then of course others must help me.” And so they demand it.

    In Africa, after 50 years of aid, entire nations depend on it. The culture of entitlement is predominant, dangerous, and exasperating.

    In South Africa free houses were promised. Free houses are being delivered. But not fast enough for the likings of many. Now they riot to demand their free houses. Once they have them then they complain that they aren’t as nice as they wanted.

    Entitlement is the dark side of aid.

  12. Unfortunately, I think this kind of thing might be part of human nature. I see it even on small scales when I buy pizza for my students every time we finish an experiment. The one time I didn’t, the students actually seemed to be angry. Kinda threw me for a loop for a while.

    I am actually going to start to use a learned helplessness animal model in some of my research. I was thinking about it in terms of depression. Basically, put the animals in a situation where no matter what they do, they can’t get out. Eventually, they just give up and sit there. It didn’t really occur to me that “aid” could be part of that environment until you said it. Won’t work with mice, of course, but I can see how it would work with people.

  13. Its not about psychology. Its basic economics. If your local farmers cannot sell their crops because food is free, or extremely cheap, they cannot continue to farm. They go bankrupt, all the industry that supported them goes bankrupt, and then you become dependent on another country or entity for support. It is obvious to anyone who cares to look that the lifestyle of the industrialized world could not be maintained without the cheap labor and materials from the non-industrialized world. If the rich and fertile continent of Africa were ever able to demand that its workers and its capital be valued at their true worth to the industrialized nations our world would look and act dramatically different. Equal pay for equal work and you end poverty. Learned Helplessness? Try hundreds of years of sustained military and economic oppression.

  14. Argyle, “if … Africa were .. to demand that its workers .. be valued at their true worth to industrialized nations”. Africa is valued at its true worth. Nothing.

    Try and understand the significant difference in skill, education and organisation in Africa. There is no comparison to Europe or the US (or even China). What both I, and Shikwati, are requesting is that Africa be allowed to find its own level without the continual disturbance of do-gooding outsiders who cause more harm than good.