Monday, August 08, 2005

Live 8 and Surowiecki

In late July, several bloggers critiqued Bob Geldof's most recent humanitarian circus, Live 8. Blogging buddy Devo, at Vitriolic Monkey, wrote,
"If, twenty years hence, we still see Malaria, AIDS and Tuberculosis running rampant [in Africa], and if at that point we still see photos of hunger-fattened youths with flies around their eyes, and we still see Sally Struthers waddling through the dirt-paved streets urging all of us to send her and her little poverty stricken urchins more Chocolate Yum Yum Bars, I will turn to Bob Geldof and friends, who will undoubtedly be lying on their death beds, from the look of him, and tell them 'I told you so.'"
Such Live 8 disillusionment was common, though there were also plenty of starry eyed youths eager to explain how Geldof's concert series had opened their eyes to the world's ills. One can only hope.

That said, I was troubled by the posts or comments that moved beyond a dismissal of Live 8 to attack international aid at large. Hector Vex, commenting at Vitriolic Monkey, wrote,
"I'm not saying fu*k the world completely, but it's time we realize that Africa is FU*KED. It's a backwards continent that hasn't gotten out of the tribal age. Let's pack up and get out of there and let them evolve on their own. Let's feed the children here before those distended little fly bags over there."
In late June, James Surowiecki wrote the following in an issue of The New Yorker.
"...many critics of foreign aid...mounted a lively backlash against both Live 8 and the G-8 summit. For them, continuing to give money to Africa is simply 'pouring billions more down the same old ratholes,' as columnist Max Boot put it. At best, these critics say, it's money wasted; at worst, it turns countries into aid junkies, clinging to the World Bank for their next fix."
This rhetoric is familiar stuff; we read it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and hear it on Fox News broadcasts. It would be unfair, though, to suggest that such feelings are endemic to neo-conservatism; people from across the political spectrum are guilty of it.

To some extent, it's only natural. If you give a dollar bill to the same homeless man every morning for ten years and, all those years later, he's still spending your money on malt liquor, you'll likely feel cheated or frustrated. This is true of everyone, no matter how generous.

But what if you'd opted to give your money to a different person? Two blocks west is a teenage girl who fled an abusive household. You couldn't have known that she only spent her charitable handouts on food and the occasional shelter fee. Nor could you have known that giving her one dollar each morning for just ten months would have helped her find a part-time job. The point is, to let one discouraging situation cause you to write off charity at large is unfortunate and, frankly, immoral.

Again, I turn to Surowiecki,
"Skepticism about the usefulness of alms to the Third World is certainly in order. Billions of dollars have ended up in the pockets of kleptocratic rulers - in Zaire alone, Mobutu Sese Soko stole at least four billion - and still more has been misspent on massive infrastructure boondoggles, like the twelve-billion-dollar Yacyreta Dam...which Argentina's former President called 'a monument to corruption.' And historically there has been little correlation between aid and economic growth.

This checkered record notwithstanding, it's a myth that aid is doomed to failure."
Sure, that particular "bum" drank your generosity, but perhaps you should have chosen more wisely. Botswana, Mozambique and Uganda, for example, have all been using their aid to jump start their economies (though AIDS continues to ravage the populations). Costa Rica, now the gem of Central America, was once an aid recipient as were Ireland, South Korea and Taiwan, now wealthy countries on the move.

Surowiecki analyzes the aid situation further. He writes,
"during the Cold War aid was more often a geopolitical tool than a well-considered economic strategy, so it's not surprising that much of the money was wasted. And we now understand that the kind of aid you give, and the policies of the countries you give it to, makes a real difference."
Surowiecki is not a Utopian dreamer. He notes the many problems with post-Cold War aid programs, citing the unknown variables as the biggest concern. In other words, even an educated guess can turn out poorly. You could pick the homeless teenage girl as the beneficiary of your generosity...but she might become a heroin addict with no desire to get sober. The bad result can (and often does) happen. Sho'nuff, that stinks.

Every year, I donate hundreds of dollars to conservation groups from around the country. Some years they accomplish little of note. Does this mean that I should stop supporting them? Absolutely not, and neither should the First World abandon its commitment to the rest of the globe.

Geldof's Live 8 is a drop in the bucket; I've no doubt that most concert goers have already forgotten about the "dark continent" and are thinking ahead to Fall clothing sales and the latest album releases. Fortunately, the apathy and ignorance of the American populace doesn't determine our international aid policy. Unfortunately, this administration appears to approach aid with the same "What? Me worry?" attitude.
"In 2002, President Bush created the Millennium Challenge Account, which is designed to target assistance to countries that adopt smart policies, and said that the U.S. would give five billion dollars in aid by 2006. Three years later, a grand total of $117,500 has been handed out. [Note: That's just over 2%.] By all means, let's be tough-minded about aid. But let's not be hardheaded about it."


Devo said...

I'm honored to be featured as a quotable source here, HH! I would, however, like to take a moment to clarify my position regarding Geldof's junket and its relation to international aid and/or awareness. He primarily targeted us MTV/ADD babies in an attempt to "raise awareness" of the troubles that Africa is facing. Unfortunately, our generation's collective consciousness is so diluted with pop-culture detritus that the extent of his pleas only reached the cognitive level of "Man! Africa's POOR! And sick too! Let's give Bush a piece of our minds!!!!" The full scope of the problems that Africa faces is much wider and far far deeper than anything he could have hoped to achieve amidst the blaring of electric guitars and the Madonna's squawking, profanity-laced performance. Furthermore, the people who need to be made aware of these problems do not live in Southeastern Pennsylvania or in London, Rome, Tokyo or Paris. They live in Zimbabwe and Ghana. But you know what? Those people already KNOW what they're going through, and as you point out, it's THEIR decision to use the aid they receive to buy smack or to get themselves a part time job.

If Bob Geldof wants to make a difference in the minds he's taken aim at, he'd do far better to raise awareness of HOW Africa needs to change its own awareness of its problem, thereby demonstrating to the nations able to help that it can responsively and constructively use that help.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thanks for the clarification. I almost added one of my own on your behalf, but I decided to let your link do the work.

I disagree with one thing you write here, though.

"Furthermore, the people who need to be made aware of these problems do not live in Southeastern Pennsylvania or in London, Rome, Tokyo or Paris."

The people of Zimbabwe and Ghana certainly need to be made aware of the root causes of their plight, but since some of the causes are found on these fair shores, the Paris Hilton lovers in Southeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to be made aware, too. Unfortunately, most of these folks do not read the better newspapers, journals, or magazines and they don't watch NOW or Frontline. They have to be reached through the popular channels. I just wish they WERE actually being reached and that Geldof and his counterparts realized they aren't actually getting through. In fact, they aren'y doing much good at all.

The infrastructure required to organize and put on such concerts is enormous, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars, the burning of which does little to benefit humanitarian or relief causes. Such an effort in so consumptive, in the end it probably does more harm to Third World countries than good.

It will be hard for the African countries to shape up unless provided with a good example. i hope Botswana or Uganda can serve as role models. Time will tell.

Devo said...

You bring up a good point about the very channels of communication themselves being inadequate to convey the message of the root causes of poverty. These root causes, as we both know, are extremely complicated and not only difficult to understand, but doubly difficult to convey economically and succinctly. The channels upon which our generation was suckled but never weaned are simply inadequate to convey such subtle messages. MTV editing and ADD camera tricks are simply not compatible with NOW and Frontline, or the subject matter they deal with.

WE need a Bill Moyers for OUR generation. Or a Walter Cronkite or something. Anyone who can fascinate the public simply by being so passionately involved in what they're reporting that we HAVE to listen. Jon Stewart comes close, but I fear that cynicism and reliance upon comedy to convey his message may get in the way of truly great reporting, especially once his horse comes in and he has no more Bush jokes to make...

deborah said...

Living, as I do at the moment in the third world, I find myself more confused than ever on the issue of foriegn aid. India's corrupt and byzantine government make most aid projects impossible. The Japanese recently pulled back from building a sewer system for Lucknow, where we live, out of sheer frustration and confusion. A group of Aussie engineers who are working on argicultural issues were joking about how to enter bribes into the financial reports sent to Sydney. There is nothing more frustration than watching the inflated "foriegner fees" go into local officals pockets.

India's conservative culture and caste system also makes aid work difficult. AIDs outreach is almost impossible in a culture that won't discuss sex or sexuality. All of this is enough to make you throw up your arms and give up - if they can't get it together, why waste the money.

Unfortunately out of this chaos comes malaria, polio, TB and many other diseases that fly with us on planes. This area of the world (Pakistan included) is also churning out a fair number of terrorists. People within the culture who advocate for change run up against the very real roadblocks of corruption and a lack of a social saftey net. It makes change from within all that much harder. Aid is needed, but it needs to be done intelligently. How I don't know, but the past ways aren't working.