The Effects of International Aid

On Wednesday night, I listened to a great episode of public radio’s Speaking of Faith.  Krista Tippett interviewed Kenyan journalist Binyavanga Wainaina about his perspective on international aid to Africa (you can listen to it or read the transcript if you want to).  He said that aid from both government and private sources are is oftentimes more about the giver than the receiver, and he even compared the mindset of those who believe that they can fix Africa to the old colonizers:

“A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space, and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it.  And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us.”

This was Wainaina’s reaction to Krista’s quote from a prominent American religious leader (she didn’t identify him, but her interview notes confirm that it was Rick Warren) who had experienced an awakening about AIDS and poverty in Africa.  It’s a great cautionary statement even if it’s a harsh comparison.

Aid, according to Wainaina often has great intentions (and he really does believe that they’re good intentions, despite his tough words) but often does not last, doesn’t take into account the knowledge of the people it’s supposed to help, or undermines the capacity of the society to build itself.  He’s got a darkly funny parody of the giver-centric attitude here.

That’s the bad news.  But here are two pieces of good news.  First, microlending, which actually puts capital in the hands of people in poorer countries, can do great things and also trusts the people of the country to do good things.  Secondly, although Wainaina is not a religious person, he said that local religious groups (both Christians and Muslims) often do great work because they are intimately connected with the people that they minister to.  I think that this is a reminder that Christian communities around the world, as the body of Christ, have the potential to fulfill God’s commands to care for the most vulnerable in remarkably effective ways. Perhaps this means that Christians hoping to truly help the world’s poorest need to think about supporting local solutions and that we need to make sure that large, global efforts based in the wealthiest countries really care about the perspective of local people and will have real staying power.

I’m no expert in this field, but Wainaina’s perspective makes a lot of sense to me.  Speaking of Faith is going to revisit this topic, so I’m sure my own thought on this will develop.


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