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.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.
This checkered record notwithstanding, it's a myth that aid is doomed to failure."
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."