Thursday, July 7, 2011

Does Africa really need no more foreign aid?

Don't get me wrong. I am FOR sustainability, long-term solutions vs. short-term and do realize that foreign aid most of the time falls under the latter category... But hear me out here.

Not long ago I read a great article on Huffington Post Impact, where the author quotes Idris Bello, "a self-proclaimed 'Afropreneur'", who says that
"Africa does not need aid anymore."
Right when I was about to share the article on Twitter along with my own "Amen to this" I found myself thinking: "But what about thousands of Africans that are in desperate need of immediate help, right now, at this moment?" Will the meager needs of people who live in the Horn of Africa - that is experiencing yet another sever drought - be met or will hundreds die abandoned? Will women all around rural Africa have to see their kids die from water borne diseases, because their villages have no source of clean drinking water? Will an African child have to sleep without a malaria net tonight? Because simply giving a net/bottle of water/bag of grain to people in need is not sustainable. Yet this does save lives.

To begin with, let's just say not all aid programs are created equal. Compare TOMS shoes - check out Saundra Schimmelpfennig's article on why it is bad aid - and Water Credit that I consider an example of smart aid. Another thing we shouldn't forget is that Africa is not a country, but a continent of 53 very different countries.

For example, the home country of Mr. Bello, Nigeria, thanks to its rich oil reserves is doing much better economically than some other African states. With all the oil money coming into the country (even though most of them do settle in the pockets of corrupt government officials) standard of living in Nigeria has risen significantly. However, what is even more important for Nigeria is that the country has just had its first truly democratic presidential election. That will ensure even a better investment environment in the country. However, not all the countries in Africa are blessed with oil or a somehow stable political situation. On the other end of spectrum are Somalia, DRC, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi and such. These are some of the poorest states in the world, with a very extensive list of development problems, where populations live in truly despicable conditions. The truth is that governments of these countries are not even just not up for the task, but the bureaucrats there genuinely don't care about their people. From Mobutu Sese Seko and Idi Amin to Omar Al-Bashir and Robert Mugabe, this pattern seems to be unbreakable.

The question is: who will provide all these resources and help people in dire need if not foreign aid agencies?


  1. I don't know as much about Africa as I should and I also don't know enough about the current aid programs (for someone interested in international development, I'm terrible :-p). But reading that article tat you linked to, that guy seems incredibly idealistic. That's not exactly a bad thing. But as you rightly note Liza, Africa is more than one country and I think it's a big ask for all 53 to start working together, thanks to a continent-wide network of libraries and internet cafes.

    Don't get me wrong, it's good that he's thinking long term. But I recently saw a program that spotlighted a Premier League footballer returning to his home country of Cameroon (at least I think it was Cameroon) and he toured a hospital there that didn't have enough mattresses for the bed frames, let alone enough clean sheets to help stop the spread of disease. While long-term, empowering and educating a new generation of youth that will hopefully return and "give back" and start improving infrastructure, in the short term there are worries that require immediate attention. And aid agencies seem to be the only ones looking to address them currently.

    Look at India for a moment. One country, fast becoming one of the epicenters of the new economic world, growing exponentially in terms of business interests. Yet still with a huge dichotomy between the poorest and the well-off, small villages and those connected to the world through education and the internet. If I apply that model to Africa, to me it's depressing. I just can't see how villagers and those without basic needs will even care about internet cafes springing up as "social hubs" to connect to the globe as this man suggests. Will the political situations in some of these countries stay stable (not to mention democratic) enough for the education/empowerment model to come to fruition long term?

    Again, I don't know enough about Africa and the devlopment programs to conclude anything. It just seems bleak to me without aid programs continuing.

  2. Hi, Kevan! Thanks so much for the comment, for someone who claims not to know anything about Africa it's pretty good ;) I actually agree with you on most of the things. Not sure if you can call Mr. Bello an idealist: some might call him a realist disillusioned by foreign aid system (and, believe me, there is enough to get disillusioned with.) But it's all a matter of a personal opinion, I guess.

    Also, it might be surprising, but people living in some of the poorest regions of the world are able to appreciate Internet connection too. Internet might not be on TOP of their priorities list, but... Zambia, for example, is emerging as Africa's Internet hub!

    All in all, I am, above all, for cooperation between fields; for a comprehensive solution that uses practicality of business, knowledge of scientists, generosity of philanthrophy, and, most of all, experiences of the people we are trying to help. There are no silver bullets here, but we certainly shouldn't be too fast too write whole industries off!

  3. And that’s the point, Africa does not need aid, some places in Africa need AID! For so long, all of Africa has been bundled together as a single entity that is dependent on aid to move forward.

    Yet, increasingly (while acknowledging the troubled spots of Somalia, Chad, etc),several countries in Africa need investments and partnerships. That was my point about the singular focus on aid as a solution to the multifarious issues that the continent faces.

    As someone who has lived in several places in Africa, and also in the USA, I am no idealist, I prefer to see myself as a pragmatist.
    Hence as rich as Nigeria is, if tomorrow ,it experiences a natural disaster, I will be the first to ask for support and aid for the country, but what I oppose is allowing that to define the country, and the continent. And that I believe is captured in the closing statement of the article.

    "Africa needs support, they need partnership," Bello said. "We must empower them."

  4. Thank you very much for the comment, Mr. Bello! I do understand that the quote was probably taken a little bit out of context. I cannot agree more with your closing statement. Business investments and equitable partnerships are truly what the continent needs. Unfortunately, many times investments and partnerships are not as fair and beneficial for Africa's people as they seem. (The Economist had a really good piece on China International Fund But I hope, as entrepreneurs like you promote Africa's image of people and continent worthy of investments, this will change. I am curious, do you, yourself, see these positive changes in Africa or Nigeria specifically?

  5. Yes, I do see these positive changes soon, but I am also realistic enough to know they will probably be slowed down (not totally hampered) by the ineffective leadership in many African countries (Nigeria included), political stability and security risks. I hope to blog actively more on this going forward at

  6. I will make sure to check your blog! Glad that positive changes are actually happening!