Unintended Consequences of Charities for African Relief

1450 words



I once had an application from an overseas aid fund cross my desk. A group of neighborhood people wanted to gather food, clothing, glasses, money and send it to a rural village in Senegal. It had come about because a charismatic young man who had emigrated from there became a well known identity in their community. He told people about the plight of his countrymen and the conditions there, so they were anxious to help. There seemed to be little planning at that time, other than to gather the goods and send them.


Among the documents they sent me to prove their worthiness were some pages of email correspondence between them and an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs official who one of them had a connection with and who knew something about Senegal. His advice to them was to be very careful because dumping things into the wrong hands (even things like old clothes, that have little or no value in a Western country) can cause violence and social disruption in a poor, isolated village. Despite that advice, they were determined to continue their efforts. I don’t know what became of that group.


One point the diplomat failed to note is the economic consequences of this kind of aid. What happens to the village dressmakers when everyone gets their clothes for free? What happens a few years later, when the flow of overseas donations stops and there is nobody in the village who sells cheap clothes? This destruction of local industry and commerce is magnified with the bigger aid projects.


One very big project is Jeffrey Sachs’ Millenium Villages initiative. Jeff Sachs, a former child prodigy, is an economist who had some success in helping to reform Bolivia’s economy, applied the same solution to a few countries in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and then attempted to apply the same solution in what is now Russia. It became clear that it was lucky circumstance, not universal principals that had allowed his cookie-cutter solutions to succeed. Despite this failure, Sachs’ previous success had given him some excellent connections. Perhaps it is because he had suffered his first major failure that he took on an even greater project: to cure Africa of poverty.

Sachs became interested in Africa after a trip in 1995 where he saw the dire conditions of the worst poverty. His solution was the Millennium Villages Project. This project was to use methods set out in his book The End of Poverty (forward by Bono). It was conducted with the backing of the United Nations. Basically, the idea was to apply Western technologies to African agriculture, health and social problems. A formula of remedies was to be applied to 79 villages in 10 African countries over the course of five years at a cost of $110 per person per year. The remedies included establishing health clinics and school feeding programs, distributing mosquito nets and basic medicines and providing fertilizers. A trained local was employed in each village to implement the program with the help of a 147 page guide book. After five years, the villages would have achieved such a level of economic success and profitability they would be able to buy their own mosquito nets and they would be models for the project to be applied to more villages until all of Africa was lifted out of poverty.


(I feel I should note here that there are more poor people in China than in Africa, there are also more poor Indians than Africans. That doesn’t make it any better for the poor in Africa, but it may give you a new perspective).


The project had a promising start. It became quite fashionable, even sparking an MTV documentary starring Angelina Jolie and the professor himself:




Although the documentary is inspiring it made me cringe to watch the male and female versions of the messianic white man in action. The saddest part was to see young people’s hopes being raised on the basis of false promises. Even in those early days, the venture was showing signs of erosion as Western and African cultural preferences clashed. The journalist Nina Munk was considered an early supporter, but even in this early essay she seems to be stepping away from total endorsement. She reports how, in one village, mosquito nets intended to save babies from malaria were instead used by the farmers to protect their goats. In the villagers’ view, goats were more valuable than babies. The project reacted by threatening to withdraw the nets from the farmers unless they used them only for their children. In my opinion it is dangerous to use such threats, which belittle the aid recipients. A better solution would have been to provide enough nets that the farmers could protect both their goats and their children, nets are cheap enough.


The Millennium Villages Project has been running for a few years and is due to wind up by 2015. It has only been rolled out to 12 villages, not the 79 originally planned. It seems unlikely there will be much support for the project to be extended. Nina Munk has turned completely off Professor Sachs as her recent book is highly critical of both him and the project.


The Millennium Village Project’s main flaw, apart from its cultural blindness, is that it treats villages as if they are in a box, separate from the outside world. The fact is even the most remote village has connections with many others: family relationships, cultural activities, trading, seasonal work etc. So, if services are provided in one village, people will flock in from all over the district so they can enjoy the benefits too. One example, the village of Dertu, was no more than an oasis, serving nomads who brought their camels in for water from time to time. The plan was for the people to retain their nomadic culture but in fact they became settled as soon as they knew they could rely on food and services being provided to them. Without infrastructure, the dusty waterhole became a filthy shanty town, quickly outgrowing the simple waste disposal system that once served a much smaller population. Its water system gave out and people fought among themselves for the goods and food that was being distributed. Drought was followed by flood, followed by sickness. Crime soared as the type of strangers who are attracted to boom towns settled there.


The project’s local coordinators became disengaged as they watched the developing nightmare and found their 147 page guide books failed to take into account the many unique exceptions that applied to their particular village. They began to misreport results, failed to undertake tasks, misallocated supplies, stole goods intended for the medical centre etc.


Seeing his vision crumbling, Sachs has shifted the goalposts of success many times. So much that now the success of the project seems to be whatever Sachs defines it as. There can be no doubt the project has failed, but it will be difficult (both professionally and psychologically) for a proud man like Sachs to admit it. I suspect he will leap into another big new project of some sort while shifting the blame for this one.


Meanwhile, the people of villages such as Dertu will be left to pick over the corpse of their five years of prosperity. There is no doubt that many people have benefitted from the improved nutrition and healthcare, even if they are no longer provided. However, as Munk quotes Simon Bland, head of the British Department for International Development in Kenya: “I know that if you spend enough money on each person in a village you will change their lives. If you put in enough resources – enough foreigners, technical assistance, and money – lives change. We know that. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve lived and worked on and managed [development] projects. The problem is when you walk away, what happens?”


In my opinion, many African countries are turning around their economies. This has been the result of two movements:

  • the recent minerals boom and the flow down effects of energy and mining companies needing to provide infrastructure to bring their mines into production;


  • as a taxable middle class developed from the jobs and industries created by the mining and energy companies, these taxpayers have demanded loosening of state controls over a range of other industry segments. It’s a phenomenon I have observed over the years in Indonesia since the fall of the Suharto regime.


In the future we will see greater industrialization in Africa as simple manufacturing is farmed out of China into countries with cheaper labor.


If you want to read more about the problems that are created by Western aid in developing countries and why foreign aid doesn’t work, I would refer you to the writings of Dambisa Moyo who has connected foreign aid with corruption and nepotism in the recipient countries. Or watch this video of one of her lectures:


It’s an hour and a half long, but you can start at the 30 minute mark without missing much.

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