Tue Sep 7th, 2010 at 11:50:44 AM EST
In Mozambique, the children would shout "Sweeeeeeeets" at us, the vowels stretching in the wake of our car as we passed by. In Malawi, they became demands of, "Give me money." And in Zambia, this was now and then varied with "Give me dollar".
We were approached foremost by children, running to the car, trailing us as we went for some shopping, cupping their dusty hands and trying their utmost best to look forlorn - the patented UNICEF look. By the time we reached Malawi, I was seriously wondering, "Where is this coming from? Who is teaching these children to say these particular words?" Because it was so prevalent, everywhere we went, from all ages: a girl of three in a pink dress, boys of twelve with a necklace of dead mice around their neck. All of them plying the same pleas: hungry, for school, for "project".
The answer is, of course, all too predictable, as I witnessed a group of these damned overland trucks doling out sweets to a group of shrieking kids. The problem is white people being charitable.
To an extent, you can ignore children, or dismiss their behavior as trickery. Except that I wrote "foremost". Coming down from Mt. Mulanje, we came across a group of women in their dashingly bright skirts, busy collecting firewood. We shared greetings, niceties, and just when my interest was picked for a few more questions, the most vocal woman stretched and demanded, "Give me money." At Lake Malawi, coming back from the tuck shop, a man in his thirties walked along with me. In Malawi this can mean genuine interest - I found that many Malawians are often interested in your presence, spontaneously walk along with you for a chat, then part politely and drift away out of your life.
It started out friendly enough: I asked about the village, respectfully called him "bambo" (father), and he taught me some more Chichewa. I knew I was in for a hassle, however, the moment he began about his wife in the hospital in the neighboring town, the cost of a taxi, that he only needed a few more kwacha. He had just lit up his second cigarette. At no point I was asked if I had a car, or could arrange one. I mentioned this to him: "It sounds like you need a car." The bait was not taken. And thus the conversation dismally spiraled into a miserable plea and, as wretched as it can make me feel, was left rejected. My period in Johannesburg had long taught me: don't give money. (Except that I of course sometimes do give money - but I try to only do so when no money has been asked for, or a service was rendered to me.)
A particular case of feeling wretched was highlighted when we went for groceries in the only large supermarket in Chipata, Zambia. The parking space was swarming with a troop of up to ten children, all wanting to watch our car while there was an official guardian walking around on the premises. As they failed at that, they adopted another strategy after we came out again: crowding around our vehicle as we loaded in our bags of supplies, they murmured a chant of, "Hungry, hungry." Anyone who wouldn't feel miserable driving away from that for the first time, is probably heartless. African children have perfected the UNICEF look.
In his Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux has a bit of a meltdown halfway his journey, as he visits the places where he once had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. A bit earlier, he lists a few studies that have been decidedly critical of aid-development efforts in Africa. "The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of International Aid Business" was written as early as 1989, and author Graham Hancock has no love left particularly for dealing of the World Bank. Micheal Mannen in his "The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid & International Charity" from 1997, documents unrelenting failures of the "Save the Children" charity. And although not a work of science, "Dark Star Safari" can easily be stacked on the same pile of critical literature. As it seems, there is a whole branch of studies called "postdevelopment theory" which is critical of the conceptual framework of development theory.
My appetite whetted, I picked up Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid", released last year, in Lusaka. If possible, her indictment leveled against developmental aid is even more severe. While Moyo does take shots at the World Bank, the IMF and other institutions, she casts the net wider and explains simply (for the economically challenged), the stunting effects of a cash injection by a rich government into a barely developed economy. Moyo highlights a paradoxical thesis: those nations whose budgets are the most dependent on aid-money would be better off without it.
Government-to-government cash transfers, and the spillover effects of inflation, corruption, bad governance are not immediately visible in a country. It takes considerable time before these effects spiral through the system, and for the negligence and rot of a country to become visible for all to see. Which is probably why Theroux writes so dejectedly about the places he previously visited, about Africa, observing the decay that had become visible in the thirty years of his absence.
Whereas Moyo does not target in particular the other branch of developmental aid, the NGOs, Theroux holds not much back - perhaps exactly because of his former experiences working as a volunteer. Entering Kenya and Malawi, Theroux finds both countries riddled with charities, orphanages, feverish Christian missionaries, volunteer projects that had fruitlessly collapsed when the voluntourists had moved back home after their adventurous year abroad. Some ten years later, and entering Malawi from the southern tip, that first impression remains eerily similar - except that now every NGO worker is driving a white Toyota Hilux instead of a white Land-Rover.
Our own anecdotal stories, for what they are worth, about volunteers at work are not much brighter. Enter Jay, an almost qualified physiotherapist and avid traveler, who set out to Lusaka for a voluntary stint of 3 months in a hospital ward surrounded by the dismal concrete compounds that define poverty in Zambia's capital. He left the program, thoroughly disappointed, a month too early. The hospital had charged him $500 (yes, American dollars) in advance for his accommodation. A month later, Jay was informed this amount had only covered for the first month - it was $500 per month. He could not get out of his accommodation during the night, as it was considered too dangerous, and apparently hardly anyone came to fetch him to see something else than the hospital. The ward was overstaffed; he only had 3 patients per day. The reason soon became clear: the Zambian government had prohibited the institute to advertise their services (which were free!). The cusp of futility for him was probably the visit to a rural settlement, far from the capital, where all the children were screened, and the parents were informed the children could get free treatment. Then the group would drive back, and were surprised to find that not one of these children ever came to the institute - because no one had thought about arranging means of transport for children who are really stuck in the heart of rural poverty.
After our jarring experience in Chipata at the supermarket, we had an insightful chat with a missionary couple, Johan & Marie, who were stranded on a campsite because of a broken axel. I don't have too much with missionaries - all too often, Jesus is sold in Africa for food. But the chat was interesting because to sell God, they needed to understand the culture, the African psyche. "In Chipata, there are no hungry children," they scoffed at our story. The African safety net, although heavily burdened because of AIDS, was still functioning. If a kid loses its mother, it becomes a "single orphan"; if it also loses its father, it becomes a "double orphan". In the latter case, a caretaker will be assigned - generally grandparents, but sometimes it also can be the oldest child, even when it's 10 or 12 years old. They show doubts about this type of solution, but are acceptant about it, and do not seem intent to start changing it.
However, this African safety net makes many (western-based) orphanages a farcical affair - the "orphans" get free food, education, entertainment, and in the evening many, if not all, kids go to their own home, or that of their caretaker. And those who stay in the orphanage are not always orphans. "Day Care" would often be a better description for many orphanages in Zambia and Malawi, according to the couple of missionaries. I didn't visit an orphanage, didn't ask someone else, so for now it's just a story of two people - but one that fits the picture we were getting nonetheless.
Johan and Marie sigh particularly about USAID and UNICEF, wishing them gone yesterday as their policies are undermining traditional culture and respect. The brazenness of the children in Chipata is an overflow effect of the attitude which these organizations stimulate in Africa. One day, Johan was driven to the supermarket by a friend. Being white, a kid immediately lodged onto him at the parking, proclaiming hunger and misery. His friend looked up, and then proclaimed, "Hey! I know you! I know your father! Your family is not even poor! Why are you saying you are hungry?" The kid scampered off.
So yes, at many places where we were looking, aid, paved with good intentions, can lead to hell. Worse, because generations have a faster turn-over in Africa, an entire generation has grown up with the perception that white people are rich, that they come to Africa to give money to buy off their shame of being rich, and that the outcome of the project the money is spent on doesn't really matter. The impression does appear that this is at least part reason in eroding features Africans could be justly proud of: kindness, hospitableness, generosity. All of these are slowly degenerating into a degrading and stereotypical plea, and in the same time eroding and diminishing African pride. The next generation, the children, are groomed and ready to take up the very role the charities desire from them - the cupped, empty hand at their beck and call.
But Theroux is also too negative about Africa. Where I to write more about Malawi, I think I would be decidedly more upbeat than Paul Theroux, seeing the country some 10 years later. Africa is getting there, although probably not because of NGOs, but despite them. China's role is fascinating in this - but that's really another subject - and a number of African governments are catching on. And I can't help thinking that perhaps there was a reason for the Zambian government to forbid Jay's institute to advertise.
Is all aid malignant to development, in all its forms - humanitarian, educational, health, economical? That's too broad a brush to paint with, and I will not argue so. But it does have all the appearances that, like the banking crisis, NGOs in Africa showcase what happens when accountability and oversight are lacking. In the end, Hancock is right: NGOs are a business, and like any other industry branch, they need strict oversight and regulating watch-dogs. This, and a long, critical and independent reflection on the economical development undertakings by NGOs and their "achievement" rate seem to be urgently needed.
For starters, NGOs could also look at themselves and their own employees if they have any desire to stop this cynical drip, and their gradual self-implosion. We talked to a British student, doing developmental studies in London, lining up straight for a job at Oxfam or the like. On his journey, he had met an aid-worker in Kenya, and had asked him for his motivations for doing the job he did. The answer had left him so disillusioned that he had become ambiguous about his own study. The answer had been: "I'm in it for the money, nothing more."
Give Me Money, indeed.