Thursday, November 14, 2013

Financial Aid to African Nations Is Like Pouring Water Down a Badger Hole

One of the better roads in The Gambia

In Fiscal Year 2012, the Republican-led House of Representatives appropriated about $50 billion US for the Department of State to distribute to various countries around the world through foreign aid.  The bulk of that $50 billion was distributed to Iraq, Afghanistan and to Israel for obvious reasons.  However about $7 billion (14 percent) was given to various countries in Africa.  This included $625 Million to highly corrupt Nigeria which has its own highly productive and burgeoning oil industry - go figure.  The United States, the largest provider of foreign assistance to countries around the world, has been giving large sums of money to African nations for many years so this was nothing new. 

Ostensibly US foreign aid is provided to developing countries for that purpose – to help them develop.  And outwardly that is an admirable trait.  However a growing body of economic evidence makes it abundantly clear that foreign aid, and especially to Africa is as useful as we used to say when I lived in North Dakota as “pouring water down a badger hole.”  It accomplishes nothing other than getting the badger wet.

Author Paul Theroux in his excellent book Dark Star Safari discussed African countries and foreign aid. Theroux had been in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the early 1960s and witnessed the infusion of US (and British) foreign aid there.  He returned to Malawi in the late 1990s hoping to witness changes.  However, Theroux noted nothing but more of the same.  In Theroux' estimation most developing African countries feed at the trough provided by good deed doers and then become totally dependent on that aid for their existence. Eventually they believe it is their right to hold their hands out to receive aid they "deserve" simply by being poor. Why would they want to improve things? Some person in the United States or Great Britain or Germany will feel sorry for them, throw money at the problem, and feel they have absolved themselves of their white guilt as they move on.  Doing so does nothing to motivate anyone or any country to actually improve their existence. Why should they? If things get better all the free money is going to dry up. A woman I met in South Africa in 2011 confirmed Theroux' hypothesis saying "It really has nothing to do with being white or prejudiced. It's simply a matter of fact."

The "save the children" meme's that you see on television all the time are in the same light.  I remember seeing commercials begging for money to "save the children" in Africa in the early 1960s when I was barely 10 years old. Now 50 years later we are still being begged with heart-wrenching images of starving children to throw money at the problem. Why with more than 50 years of trying to save the children have they not been saved?  Its a perpetual motion machine that will remain perpetual because the problem cannot be solved with more money.  The United Nations has the UNICEF program (the United Nations Children Fund) that has the same goals and obviously after more than 50 years has not accomplished much other than throwing additional money at a problem.

The most recent data I could find (from FY 2008) shows that the United States gave $93.8 million US to The Gambia in various forms of aid and in FY 2007 it had been $73.2 million.  If these figures are indicative it’s easy to guess that much more than $1 billion US has been given to The Gambia in the last few decades and this is on top of the aid provided by its former colonial occupier the United Kingdom.  At the conclusion of my recent trip there I came away (as I did after Swaziland and Mozambique in 2011) asking myself what on earth are we receiving for the money we invest in this or any other African nation.

Simply put, The Gambia is a mess.  The infrastructure is a joke.  The main highway out to the Tendaba turnoff (160 km from the capital, Banjul) is passable but beyond that it’s a pock-marked and pitted disaster.  Basse Santa Su, a settlement 360 km (223 miles) upstream from Banjul can be reached in 12 hours (an average of 18 mph) in a bus because the road is in such horrible shape.  Even around Banjul the road system is ridiculous. There is one stop light in the entire country and it does not work.  A policeman has to stand in the four-way intersection (putting his life at risk) during rush hour to direct traffic through this busy intersection simply because the light hasn’t been fixed. And to look at the light it’s pretty obvious that it was long ago broken.  The road system in downtown Banjul, the capital city, is all deeply pock marked and sinkhole pitted dirt road.  The capital city doesn’t even have an asphalt street system.  The ferry between Banjul and Barra across the mouth of the River Gambia is a joke.  The ferry, when it works, is dangerous and unsafe.  There are usually two ferries making the run but the engines on one of them recently blew up and had to be replaced.  The government of Taiwan recently donated three new engines for the ferry but there is no indication of when or even if the second ferry will ever be fixed.

The Banjul-Barra ferry. A disaster looking for a place to happen

There was no observable industry in The Gambia other than a water-bottling plant and a brewery.  With no factories where are people supposed to work?  The average Gambian laborer makes about $1.25 US per day toiling in agricultural fields or wherever else they can find work.  If US aid is supposed to be used for “developing a developing nation” why hasn’t there been any development of factories where people can work?  Many people live in squalid conditions akin to the large barrio on the edge of Lima, Peru.  Here they eke out a living on $1.25 a day in mud huts with a tin roof with no air conditioning in one of the hottest places I’ve ever visited.  Meanwhile lavishly beautiful homes have been constructed by expatriated Europeans who moved to The Gambia because it is so cheap. 

A partial list of the innoculations (plus anti-malarial pills) needed for healthy travel to The Gambia

Despite being a developing nation receiving huge sums of aid annually, the health care system there is a mess.  To travel to the Gambia you need a yellow fever inoculation, vaccination against meningitis, vaccination against typhoid fever, vaccination against two kinds of hepatitis and to top it off malaria is widespread and endemic there and you have to take an anti-malarial pill every day you are there to ward off the disease.  This is all on top of the very real possibility for river blindness and even sleeping sickness to name just two more.  The pock-marked highway leading from the international airport to Banjul is covered with garbage just thrown away and the pockets of stagnant water sitting by the side of the road are excellent breeding places for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.  Why isn’t foreign aid money being used to improve those health situations?

Because of the unequal distribution of wealth (there are millions more have not’s than haves!) begging is widespread and rampant.  Someone opens a door for you and asks for a 20 Dalasi “tip.”  Walk into a public restroom and the bathroom attendant standing there doing nothing asks for a 50 Dalasi tip just because he’s there.  Leave your backpack or suitcase out of your hand for a second and someone wants a “tip” for picking it up for you even when you don’t want it touched.  You constantly hear sob stories about “my uncles neighbors second cousin’s brother died and we need some money for the funeral tomorrow” and others too numerous to mention. Walking down a trail one day I was approached by a woman demanding money because I was going to take her picture and she needed money.  The only problem was I didn't have my camera with me and pointed that out.  She then demanded money simply for talking to me.  I ignored her and walked away.  

Even bird watching guides are in on it.  One guide I used twice asked me to give him $200 US so he could build a bird watering trough at Brufut Woods to attract birds for his clients to look at.  He also asked for $500 to pay for clearing the trails at another area so birders could walk more easily.  To this request he added that “A Dutch birder used to send me €1,000 year to do that. The least you can afford is $500 US isn’t it?”  It is?  That was the first I heard of this idea and I don’t appreciate you assuming that because I’m from America I’m dripping in money I want to send you.   Development of the tourism industry is one way of turning a corner in The Gambia but I saw no evidence of foreign aid going to that sector of the economy. 

So what are we or any other donor country getting for our investment in foreign aid to The Gambia or any other African nation?  I’ve only been in 10 African countries so far but to me it appears that all our foreign aid is doing is assuaging white guilt from past transgressions.   We aren’t changing anything and in fact if there is one thing we are doing its creating a culture of dependency far worse than what the Tea Bag Anarchy Party claims exists in the United States.  The bottom line I think is that our foreign aid policy is perpetuating the need to keep pouring money down the African badger hole. 

Africa is a mess. It has been a mess for a long time and it will continue to be a mess for an even longer time in the future as long as there is no incentive to do any improving on their own.  As Paul Theroux hypothesized in his book, why would any African nation (other than South Africa which is actually more European than African) want to improve itself when they receive barrels full of money now for doing just the opposite.


  1. I love The Gambia. Went there at Easter with my family, and we are going back at Christmas. I do agree wholeheartedly with your comments here. It's a problem with most of Africa. Is foreign aid delivered as a large cheque(check) or a suitcase filled with money? If it came as a truck load of tarmac, then the countries leaders would not be so interested in hoarding it for themselves. I can't see president xyz wanting 5000 tons of tarmac to put into his Swiss bank account. Let's not give them fish, let's teach them to fish.
    My wife and I have raised some money to make and distribute mosquito nets to the Gambian people. Hopefully we can provide some employment, and reduce suffering too. A very small drop in the African ocean, but it may be a start.
    Another project we looked at was setting up a mango juice factory. Apparently most Gambian mangoes rot. Everybody thought it was a good idea, but I don't have the capital for such a venture.