Conservatives used to have choice words for foreign aid. It was “money down a rathole” (Jesse Helms), and it amounted to “putting Ghana over Grandma” (Tom DeLay). These quips are not nearly as fine as the late Sir Peter Bauer’s opposition to “taxpayer’s money compulsorily collected…outside the area of volition and choice.” Still, they are a lot better than the boasting of a pickpocket administration that has proudly committed 70 cents out of every $100 earned by Americans to corrupt Third-World coffers. Bush, not content with “spending three times as much on aid to Africa as the lowest figure during the Clinton years”—in the approving estimation of New York Time columnist Nicholas D. Kristof—has asked Congress to authorize a further $50 billion to fight AIDS in Africa.
Forget about the empirical—and infinitely ethical—observations of Bauer, the renowned development economist, and author of Dissent on Development. Say hello to Hollywood hollow heads. Bush and his brigands are not the only philanthropy-by-proxy enthusiasts. Beavering away to shape public opinion—and policy—about Africa are the likes of Angelina Jolie and rocker Bono.
In their capacities as UN goodwill ambassadors, or Time Magazine “Persons of the Year”; in the free access they enjoy to popes and presidents, Brangelina (Jolie + the pug-faced Pitt) and Bono, and their enablers in the media (CNN’s Anderson Vanderbilt Cooper), are dictating the cultural and political script vis-à-vis Africa. To cite Peggy Noonan: “These people have read an article and now want to tell us the truth, if we can handle it.”
And to listen to these self-styled social reformers, one is led to believe that the West is responsible for Africa’s plight. Underdevelopment and poverty; perennial genocides, and spiraling crime—these, apparently, are indirectly our doing. Or so the sanctimonious stars claim when they let down their guard (such as when Jolie intimated to CNN that Africans butcher, mutilate, and rape their compatriots with clockwork predictability, because “We have…we colonized them”).
When it comes to development aid, they say we’re stingy and indifferent. If colonialism was our original sin; capitalism is our cardinal sin. Our voracious system of production, these do-gooders typically claim, is a zero-sum game. To wit, the standards of living we enjoy come at the expense of Africa’s poor. To add to some of these old humbugs, the It Girl of Aid has become quite the village scold. Jolie recently complained in an op-ed in Refugees (a publication of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) that it was “a scandal, really, in such a rich world, that we are not even finding a way to help feed refugee families properly.”
Jolie has some nerve. The West has given trillions in aid to the Third World, which has precious little to show for it. Ample Western funding aside, even Kristof, an evangelist for foreign aid, has written of clinics, donated and equipped by the West, standing empty. “Go on to the market,” he laments, “and there you may see the clinic’s stock of medicines for sale.” Stolen! “Bridges built with foreign aid over streams” are so poorly constructed that the result is “erosion on both banks.” “In Ethiopia, you greet parents cradling hungry babies and explaining that they have no food because their land is parched and their crops are dying. And two hundred feet away is a lake, but there is no tradition of irrigating land with the lake water, and no bucket; and anyway the men explain that carrying water is women’s work.”
In the essay “Aid: Can It Work?” a frustrated Kristof has detailed many a failed effort to convince Southern Africans, for example, “to grow sorghum rather than corn, because it is hardier and more nutritious.” But because it has been given “out as a relief food to the poor… sorghum [has] become stigmatized as the poor man’s food, and no one wants to have anything to do with it.” Hand out infant formula to HIV-infected women so they don’t transmit the virus to their babies via breast milk, and the women will dump it before they reach home: “Any woman feeding her baby formula, rather than nursing directly, is presumed to have tested positive for HIV, and no woman wants that stigma.” As a former AIDS counselor in South-Africa, I was told by my female clients what the use of prophylactics portends: African patriarchs don’t like protection; African women risk battery, and worse, should they insist on their, “like, reproductive freedoms.”
“In the heart of poverty-stricken Congo,” avers Kristof, “wrenching malnutrition exists side by side with brothels, beer joints, and cigarette stands.” Kristof admits reluctantly that the men spending their money in these fleshpots cannot be persuaded to put it, rather, toward their children. Kristof cites disturbing research suggesting education programs in Africa, also the cornerstone of anti-AIDS efforts, are ineffective. Giving people a pill, conversely, works quite well—only there is no pill against HIV/AIDS. In Africa, HIV/AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease afflicting heterosexuals, predominantly. The fight against it invariably entails the teaching of caution, restraint, and the curbing of instant gratification, to which too many Africans appear indisposed.
Irrational superstitions, unfathomable brutality, atavistic attitudes, and self-defeating values—Africa’s plight is not the West’s fault, although, Western governments have compounded the continent’s problems through foreign aid. “The Heart of Darkness” that is Africa is a culmination of the failure of the people “to develop the faculties, attitudes and institutions” (in the words of the brilliant Bauer) favorable to peace and progress.
The cockroaches in Congress will approve the transfer of funds not their own to a cause not of their making. And Africa will dispose of the $50 billion in the same old way.
©2007 By Ilana Mercer