Rethinking Aid Policy: Working with Recipient Communities

Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Aid Policy: Working with Recipient Communities


We are interested in talking about international aid and what you think the state of that is. Harvard-trained economist Dambisa Moyo put forth a theory that aid keeps Africa poor and that we should curtail--if not change--the way we aid Africa. What do you think is the best way to resolve the tension between stopping aid and encouraging long-term growth in Africa and responding to the immediate need of the people there?

First of all, I think she raises some very good points. I think everyone should hear her out and should study what she has to say. My impression and my experience has been that in many places, aid does not work in the way it is intended to, and in fact, if you do not think through the way you use aid, it can be destructive.

I will give a couple of examples. In Rwanda after the genocide, there were unaccompanied children--children who had lost their parents during the genocide or who had been separated from their caretakers during the refugee movement. In the refugee camps in Goma [in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo], the UNICEF and UNHCR started funding "unaccompanied-children centers." These were centers where, like orphanages, they would take care of children who did not have parents. You can imagine that if you are in a desperate place where you are having trouble feeding and clothing your own children--perhaps you might be taking care of your brother or you sister's kids or a neighbor's as well--and suddenly [amid the] disease and deprivation in the refugee camp there is a center where children can get food and clothing and even some very basic education and recreation, of course people are going to send their children to that center, whether or not they are unaccompanied. You created an incentive for people to give up their kids and to send them to that center. Once the kids were sent to that center, a number of bad things happened, one of which was that sometimes the people who were running the centers would move them--saying, these kids are unaccompanied, they don't have parents, it doesn't matter where I have the center--and it actually made the children truly unaccompanied. Another thing that would happen is that some of the people running the centers were abusing the kids. Unfortunately, a lot of times when you are dealing with desperate children, the people who are attracted to help them do not always have their best interests at heart. Some kids were hired out for labor in the camps, others were abused, others were given away, and others were sold.

The UNHCR, UNICEF, and organizations like Food for the Hungry started to go to the people in the camps and explain to them that they would no longer have to send their kids to the center to get aid--that [the organizations] would take food aid, blankets, and cooking fuel into the community so that refugees could actually take care of their own kids. The essential, baseline principle that I think this example illustrates is that in order for any aid to be effective, you have to respect the strengths of the local populace. Unfortunately, international aid that is sent often does not work with local processes--it does not work with local businessmen, local farmers, or local community leaders. Because of that, you end up taking power away from some of those local players, and the people who end up gaining power are the people who have control over the aid process--sometimes corrupt government officials and other corrupt entities.

So, there is a place for aid, but in order for that aid to be effective, it really has to be targeted in an incredibly thoughtful way, in conjunction with what is happening at the local level. With food aid, for example, there is a long history of the international community sending metric tons of free food into countries which has the effect of depressing food prices and destroying local farmers--which just makes the community that much more dependent on aid.

It is wonderful when people want to give aid; the world would be a much darker place without it.

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Rethinking Aid Policy: Working with Recipient Communities
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