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November 08, 2006

Does Helping the Struggling Also Ruin Them?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What to do, what to do? When poor Africans struggle, we often send them food. But when we send them food, they often not only become dependent on our largesse, they quickly forget the basics of how to feed themselves.

A friend who spent a couple of years working for Oxfam in Africa told me stories similar to the ones in the linked BBC article. When I asked her what policy would be best, she (an earnest-lefty bleeding-heart if ever there was one) said that in her opinion we should simply cut off aid to struggling Africans. Otherwise they'll never learn how to look after themselves. Harsh, and I'm not sure I agree -- but, y'know, she's been there and I haven't.



posted by Michael at November 8, 2006


Makes me think of the 'give a man a fish' saying. We should be giving them fishing rods.

Posted by: TW on November 8, 2006 2:08 AM

A book for your reading list is "Blue Clay People." The author was director of a big NGO in Liberia, and also wrote a good book on Bolivia. I think he came to the conclusion that all the aid does not help, but doing nothing is even worse.

I do believe he tried to share his neanderthal genes with some Liberian beauties, which might have helped, but not short term.

The whole subject is depressing, partially because we can't even talk about it honestly.

Posted by: neandertal on November 8, 2006 2:46 AM

But Aid provides so many jobs for the children of the bien pensants.

Posted by: dearieme on November 8, 2006 5:22 AM

good suggestion. my experience in the NGO sector inclines me in a similar direction. but at the same time, those developed countries that have profited so tremendously from African exploitation, all the way back to Belgian Congo might want (at the very least) to stop pillaging the continent for profit.

that way, it would be like giving them fishing rods AND dismantling the dams that block their rivers, AND withdrawing the commercial fishing boats that plunder the remaining few fish that straggle their way past the dam, AND withdrawing the military force that prevents the people with the rods from complaining about all of this, AND paying some costs associated with the extraordinary devastation of the continent.

that way, the stupid fishing-rod homily would finally begin to map to reality.

Posted by: daelm on November 8, 2006 7:50 AM

One of the beste Dutch novels of the last decades is about this exact same theme: Bert Keizer's 'Tijdelijk Feest' [Temporary Party].It is about a doctor labouring somewhere in rural Kenia, slowly realizing he's doing the work Kenian doctors won't do.

But why?

Keizer also wrote an extraordinary book about euthanasia, that has been translated as Dancing with Mr. D..

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 8, 2006 8:00 AM

RE: the fishing metaphor, I'm afraid that the US practice has been (an actual example) to deliver tons of canned tunafish to people in the desert who never eat fish -- and not deliver any canopeners since their lobbyist didn't show up with a nice election campaign contribution as did the guy with the tunafish who couldn't sell them because of mercury contamination.

Here on the rez, where people are known individuals with real needs, these decisions are often one-by-one, which makes them no easier. Do I give X five dollars which he desperately needs, or do I save it for Y and slip it to Y secretly to avoid jealousy? In my experience there is no magic solution because there is no magic solution to being human, vulnerable, and limited. It takes hard pondering, often at the end of the day when one would rather sleep.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 8, 2006 10:35 AM

Ah, I know where I've read the same condescending liberal tales: Paul Theroux.

Posted by: Tat on November 8, 2006 11:11 AM

The aid to Africa issue could some become an academic point for westerners as China is now the main sort of investment in Africa.

It will be interesting to see if they can succeed where we have failed.

I can't wait till the left stops blaming the Wests for Africa problems and starts attacking China instead.

Posted by: nz conservative on November 8, 2006 11:54 PM

The study of how to help people effectively has a long history. Apparently the point of charitable institutions such as woodlots, where the deserving were provided with the opportunity to work to gain assistance was intended to maintain self-respect as much as provide aid.

Although I have not read any of the primary source material, my sense from discussions with historian acquaintances is that there was a conscious development of doctrine that went along with older aid work. I don't know where to look or when it changed, but suspect that institutions such as the salvation army maintain some of these traditions. Maybe it is the connection with religious institutions that makes this tradition unacceptably unmodern.

A more recent example that confirms this lesson in the foibles of human behavior is found in the work of an organization called Kickstart (formerly Approtec. See that produces tools for subsistence farming. According to Dr. Martin Fisher, one of the founders, early in their history the UN purchased and gave away thousands of their tools in Africa (Ghana I believe). The tools sat idle and the program failed. They then started to manufacture and sell their tools in these same areas.

Tools such as their MoneyMaker, a human powered pump that can irrigate 1.5 acres of land, sold in the tens of thousands. Their tools have enable the creation of many tens of thousands of successful small businesses (35,000 was the last number I read). It's an incredible example of what can happen when you work with human energies instead of dampening them.

Now I don't know why this worked, but wouldn't be surprised if trust had a significant part in the acceptance of their products. Free is attractive, but anybody who hasn't already had their nerves deadened by 'free' television is going to wonder what's in it for the giver.

Visible strings are a good thing. They make the transaction easy to understand and accept. I've never been to Africa, but wonder what strings are resonating there.

Posted by: Jonathan Feinstein on November 18, 2006 12:31 PM

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