Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Rabbi's Well: A Case Study in the Micropolitics of Foreign Aid in Muslim West Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Rabbi's Well: A Case Study in the Micropolitics of Foreign Aid in Muslim West Africa

Article excerpt


A conventional distinction in the foreign aid literature contrasts relief aid (qua emergency help and charitable giving) with developmental assistance (for sustainable economic growth, capacity building, and equitable distribution). In practice, however, the distinction blurs, and in the field it can lead to micropolitical conflict. This point is illustrated by the ecumenical efforts on the part of a U.S. rabbi to assist a school in southcentral Niger. As illustrated by the history of this project, complexities of local administration, and tensions between the staff and principal of one school, crystallized and demonstrated conflicts between traditional authorities and those of the modern state.

There are no totally generous acts. All "acts" have an element of calculation. One black ox slaughtered at Christmas does not wipe out a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your own ends.

Richard Lee, "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari"

The Ethics of Non-intervention versus the Problematics of Intervention

Richard Lee's cautionary tale (1969) of blending ethnography and generosity among the !Kung raises fundamental questions about the role of the Africanist in promoting change. Whether the goal is raising living standards throughout an entire society or feeding a Kalahari clan at Christmastime - or just increasing knowledge about any one aspect of the African past or present - the academic's interaction with Africa inevitably changes something about the continent. The problem is: what is the nature of this change; how much of it is desired; and can we control it?

A cornerstone principle of conventional social science is that the researcher should minimize his or her impact on the population under study. Few fundaments of positivism have retained as much consensus among social scientists. Yet for social scientists conducting fieldwork in rural communities of Africa, this principle represents a major challenge. By virtue of the enormous economic disparity between scholar and subject, the goal of apprehending a community without changing it is as difficult as it is problematic.

A related and relevant distinction that permeates both the scholarly literature and the foreign aid community is that between relief aid and developmental assistance. The former encompasses monies allocated for emergency help in circumstances of natural or human-induced disaster. Relief aid can be also thought of as a kind of charitable giving. Developmental assistance, by contrast, is supposed to lead to change. Whereas denying relief aid in the name of academic nonintervention would be callous, if not unethical, the decision to facilitate developmental aid for a community under study is much more discretionary, as is the decision not to facilitate developmental aid.

At the grassroots level, the line between relief aid and developmental assistance blurs easily. There is not only a question of recipients' inability to distinguish, in circumstances of acute resource scarcity, between short-term assistance and long-term aid; the motivations of actual donors may not be all that clear, either. As the current case illustrates, within poor communities the extension of even modest amounts of foreign aid can exacerbate, if not trigger, micropolitical conflict. Heightened knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the local dynamics of foreign aid absorption is critical to successful implementation of development activities. This thesis is illustrated in the case of an artesian well constructed on the grounds of a middle school in a West African Muslim community and financed by a theo-politically progressive pulpit rabbi in New England.

Snapshot of a (Relatively) Impoverished Community

Yekuwa (Yékoua) is an agglomeration of two Hausa villages in the Magaria district of southcentral Niger, approximately seven miles from the boundary with Nigeria (Katsina State).1 Now exceeding eight thousand in population (double its size from 1986), Yekuwa, over the last two decades, has experienced progressive development in both the traditional and secular realms of administration. …

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