Friday, December 12, 2008

The Ethics of Aid

I listened to the interview with Binyavanga Wainaina who talks about the ethics of giving aid to African nations -- the HOW and WHY of giving aid -- and it was extremely illuminating. Not a complete answer by any means, but a worthwhile thing to hear his perspective on it. It's a challenging thing because he will say something like this:

Mr. Wainaina: And so the ethics of those pictures [of dying children] to me, I mean, really, I can't tell you how much they are upsetting, because someone just keeps telling you the urgency of the situation. People in Darfur are dying. I'm like if you have to dehumanize people to that degree, for them to die, if it is that the Western audience is so inattentive to a possible genocide that that is what you have to do, don't do anything. Leave us alone.

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Wainaina: Yes. Let us just solve our own problem. That should not be a way that human beings deal with each other.

I have an experience I don't think I wrote about on the Uganda blog that I think illustrates this.

One of the borrowers from Life in Africa had gotten a job with another NGO (non-governmental organization, what we call non-profits) that raised money to educate children in Northern Uganda where the civil war was being fought. They sold these hand-made bracelets to support this. But the bracelets were being made in a lovely compound in a fancy part of town. And there was nothing wrong with what these folks were doing to help people. But there was this huge disconnect between the images of horror being shown to the Western donors and the location where this work was being done. The (local) people making these bracelets were glad for a job, but a certain part of the donations, of course, paid for their labor -- and I suspect also paid Western-level salaries for the well-intentioned people supporting this project.

It was a mind-bender because you think, well, how CAN I help these people? And maybe the answer is, recognize the limitations of your donations. This place was promoting its work as "Each $30 donation will send one child to school for X time." Well, maybe. I dunno. I can just say that my time in Uganda left me exceedingly skeptical about aid work.

Wainaina addresses this somewhat, saying, "So the question is not is it good or is it bad; the question is why isn't it presenting itself for the scrutiny? If it is so good, why is it not saying, 'We have come to your country, right, and we are open for you to come and see what we are doing and we want your best minds to come tell us what they think is wrong with it.'"

And that seemed to be the gist of the interview: it's a mistake (and a colonial and missionary mindset) to go to African countries and say, "We can fix you. We know what's wrong with you and we can make it better." Rather, it should be a mutual project.

I was very glad that Wainaina thinks microlending has made a huge difference in Kenya! (The picture is of a group of borrowers in Kampala.)

Speaking of Faith is going to do a series on the Ethics of Aid, just a fantastic gift for all of us who are trying to determine what is the right way to use what we have to help others to the best of our ability. I'll keep you posted on it.

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