Recently, somewhere in America, a politician was forced to backtrack from comments he made comparing people on welfare to wild animals. The problem, he said, was that if you feed them, they would breed. Although his comments were crass, there was an underlying message that he failed to pass on when uttered that awful metaphor…handouts create dependence, dependence is bad.
We have been to some of the poorest countries in the entire world on this trip: Guatemala, Bolivia, and of course the ‘South Park’ favorite of Ethiopia. Throughout these countries we’ve seen, in living color, the people who sometimes grace your televisions in “hunger porn” commercials where some international aid agency is trying to get you to send money to support a child or a community.
When food and money enter a community from a foreign source, it can take away the people’s need to work and support themselves and places that ability in the hands of The West. We have seen people so dependent (not everyone, but many nonetheless) on this aid that they no longer work, find food themselves, or otherwise put ‘effort’ into life.
There are countless stories of how “sponsor a child” programs have destroyed communities because one child is chosen for new books and not another. We’ve seen many children kept out of school so that they can beg, as this is more profitable in the short term. Giving out sweets is a problem because if it is done by many people, eventually the child recipient might have no teeth since we’re not giving out toothpaste as well. School supplies are probably the best option, so long as they are given to a school or community to be distributed equitably to all rather than used to stock an individual’s hoard. In one town we visited the known scam for children was to ask foreigners to buy them a book directly from the shop, once the tourist left the child simply returns the book for cash.
If I sound like I’m standing on a soapbox, it’s because I feel a need to vent. Throughout Africa we’ve been witness to UNICEF camps, OXFAM caravans, and USAID food vats. We’ve watched as aid workers come to Africa, drive around in 4×4’s, and leave the place no better than they found it…staying only at the fanciest hotels in town or in a specialized camp with more security than Baghdad’s Green Zone. And if you think at least USAID food aid serves to help feed people, you’d be surprised that the people it helps most is the American farmer. The US Government buys this food, from our farmers to support them, pays to ship it over seas, gives it away for free, all for it to be bought and sold on the local market at market prices. Generally we see USAID food in shops and stores available for sale.
The next time you see hunger porn on the television remember that the business of aid is just that, a business. The goal is certainly altruistic, don’t get me wrong, but the practice can be anything but. There is a right way to help and a wrong way to help. One friend of ours shared a story of how she was told by one of these officials that, with luck, this organization would have enough funding to be involved in Africa indefinitely. This official was then surprised at the response of shock and dismay she received when the group she was addressing pointed out that if the goal is to supply handouts indefinitely then clearly the organization wasn’t helping anyone but themselves….
This is part one of a two part post. I don’t believe that these problems are without solutions and that we, as “rich” people cannot help in someway; but I do believe there is a right way and a wrong way. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life.