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Ending Famine and Poverty: The “Kool Aid” Question and Answers by Big Fish

To kick off our monthly debates, Fellow Joanna Noronha has written the following provocative post on foreign aid. Please join the conversation by commenting below or following up with a post of your own.

Dear YLF friends, I hope this blog post finds you all well.

I have decided to write this brief – and light – post about foreign aid. This is a topic that is currently both incredibly important (due to its claimed impact) and heavily debated (due to its alleged lack thereof). I am sure all of you have thought about it at least briefly. Some of you probably have discussed it at length with colleagues also dedicated to Human Rights work. For example, as you may have noticed, Jakob Lund and I have had long Facebook link-exchanging sessions about foreign aid that have very publically displayed our earnest interest, our deep concerns, our consuming doubts – and a bit of our unapologetic geekiness, too, I might add. So, this post will go over some of the most important answers currently being presented to our Kool-Aid question: is it really cool? Or is it just something bad for growth, sugar-coated, rose-tinted and green-washed, that uses images of little kids as bait for big, fat, grown-up profit?

Let’s begin with a bit of history. When thinking about foreign aid, our minds seem to automatically remember Europe, especially Germany, during the post World War II years. The Marshall Plan consisted of financial aid by the USA to war-torn countries of Europe. This seems to have worked very well, as we can see in the post-war segment of this amazing animated graph. As we know, Germany recovered and is now one of the leading economic powerhouses of the world. Also after WWII, another plan was designed by the US for Japan, and it also produced very good results.

Decades later, a multitude of foreign aid initiatives have taken place. Unfortunately, no other country seemed to follow Germany and Japan’s example as poster countries for the effectiveness of foreign aid. This map uses data from the World Bank to give us an idea of how much aid was donated and received in 2007. Why is it that those countries haven’t taken off economically and socially, just like Germans and Japanese did after their nations were so severely harmed by war?

Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist and founder of NGO Millennium Promise Alliance, argues the answer is more aid. In his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, Sachs argues it is possible to overcome today’s extreme poverty by increasing aid. More specifically, he argues it is possible to stop the tragedy that is 8 million people dying from hunger and poverty each year by 2025. He compares the USA’s 2005 expenditures with war ($450 billion) and what it donated to poor countries ($15 billion), to make a case that not only more aid is needed, but also that it would be viable to increase donations if citizens and leaders so chose in the future.

Sach’s most famous critics are American economist William Easterly and Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo. Easterly presents in his books The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good (2007) and Easterly’s Reinventing Foreign Aid (2008) the argument that aid has done very little in the past, and that it is unlikely more aid will produce better results in the future. He argues it is not more aid that is needed, but a different, better form of aid: one that is built from the bottom up, via experimentation and failure, done by “searchers”. In contrast, the grandiose form of aid done by “planners” is doomed to fail, since reality is too complex to fit in a blueprint. In the same stream, Easterly is accompanied by Dambisa Moyo. In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa (2009), Moyo argues that aid is not improving the situation in Africa, overall: instead, poverty levels have grown and growth has declined. This happens, according to her, because nations that receive aid become economically dependent and economic distortions are generated, hindering growth. Moreover, aid fuels corruption, complicating matters even more. The answer is to force leaders to turn to funding sources that would make them more accountable, such as private sector investment and freer markets.

This leads us to a third, alternative stream I perceive in this debate is one that in a way acknowledges both the potential and the flaws presented above, and presents more market-based forms of capital transfer as the best way to fight global poverty. These people are not interested in the debate between those trying to multiply the fish to feed the hungry, and those reminding us all that it is not wise to think we can be babel fishes and speak all languages at once. Instead, they claim that enabling fishing is more important than debating fishy ideas that only work as red herring. I will here call this dissident group the “teach to fish team”, just for fun, and will present two examples of how to do it: by financing simple fishing sticks, and by building huge fishing nets.

Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi economist, and founder of the Grameen Bank, a bank that gives credit to poor people. In his book Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty (1999), he argues that it is the absence of credit to those who need very little money that traps them in poverty, and prevents them from becoming small entrepreneurs. His answer was to create innovative ways to make micro-financing sustainable, via the Grameen Bank. His bank, then, would work as a factory of small, custom-made fishing sticks.

Others will argue ours is a Big-fish-eat-small-fish world – and that this is a good thing. Thus, the answer to hunger and poverty is to build bigger boats, with larger fishing nets. An example of how to accomplish such a capitalist endeavour comes, surprisingly, from China. In her recent book The Dragon’s Gift (2011), Deborah Brautigam investigates whether China’s investments in Africa are the work of a rogue donor, supporting corrupt dictators and propagating low environmental standards, as some argue. Her conclusion is that the Chinese model might accomplish more than the West’s decades-long type of aid.

So, what do you guys think? Which of these authors seem to be portraying more faithfully the reality you witness in the parts of the world in which you have lived and worked?

Laura Seay reviews Fellow Rebecca Hamilton’s book “Fighting for Darfur”

Laura Seay is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Morehouse College in the United States. She is well-versed in African politics and blogs at Texas in Africa. Last year, she spoke on the topic “Violence, Land Rights and Ethnicity in the Northern Kivus: Five Million Deaths are Not a Genocide” at the McGill Faculty of Law. You can read the full book review over at African Arguments.

Hamilton, herself a former student activist in the movement, identifies several reasons for this failure, among them advocates’ early lack of understanding about the complexity of the crises in Sudan, the fact that the advocacy movement became strong only after the worst of the atrocities had occurred. The movement was also hindered by advocates’ inexperience with handling large sums of money and developing policy proposals, and the simple fact that Western governments could only do so much to affect developments in Khartoum.  In this sense, Fighting for Darfur serves as a stellar account of lessons learned of which current and future advocates for other causes should take heed.   Hamilton’s book implies that if advocates fail to fully understand the situations they confront, the policy solutions they pose will be inadequate, inappropriate, and, in some cases, downright disastrous.  She identifies the advocacy community’s call for military action in Darfur as one of the latter. While it seemed perfectly reasonable to outsiders to call for a peacekeeping or other type of military intervention in the region, Khartoum responded by forcing out several humanitarian aid agencies that had been serving displaced Darfuris, thus making their situation even worse.


Review of Fellow Rebecca Hamilton’s book “Fighting for Darfur”

Alex Thurston, editor of Sahel Blog and writing for African Arguments, offers a comparative review of Hamilton’s book and Mamdani’s Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror:

Rebecca Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide raises important and troubling questions about the relationship between America’s domestic politics and African conflicts.  Hamilton thoughtfully probes the limits of what earnest but inexpert Americans in the Save Darfur movement achieved in their quest to bring justice to Sudan.  She thereby joins a debate about Save Darfur that took on great urgency with the 2009 publication of Dr. Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.  At stake in this debate are the questions of how much context citizens must understand before they act, the politicization of the word genocide, and silences concerning the violence America inflicts on innocents abroad.


Fellow Rosebell Kagumire reflects on killings during the Ugandan Walk to Work protests

Fellow Rosebell Kagumire is currently in Washington, DC as an Internet Freedom Fellow. She writes:

From a distance I could see the flag waving. It had black, yellow red. Few flags can be confused with the Ugandan flag, i took a few steps and i saw one man holding out a placard. As i walked closer to him, one image caught my eye. The image of Brenda Nalwendo, the photo that send chills down the spines of even those i knew to love President Museveni’s regime.  It was in April she was shot right in her belly as she tried to cross the streets as the police and military fired on protesters. She was pregnant and by the hand of God she survived and her baby was unharmed. I later visited her in hospital and haven’t heard from her much. But right here in DC i saw her picture and also the picture of parents of a 2 year old Juliana Nalwanga who was killed in Masaka. About 10 people died in the protests.


Follow Rosebell on her website and on Twitter.

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton in the New York Times: “Eyewitness tells of violence in Southern Kordofan.”

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton, who is currently reporting from Sudan, published a letter by a Western analyst who had just left Southern Kordofan. Hamilton’s comments and the letter can be read here.

Dear friends,

Sorry to have been so out of touch. Just got out of Nuba a couple of days ago by which time it was already a full-on war zone. Twenty-five days there seemed like a lifetime. While I was there, it was obvious the election process had become so seriously flawed that despite great efforts to inform voters and put forward candidates, the government simply wants no even democratic opposition. Making Haroun, an indicted war criminal wanted for genocide, the governor was a clear message to the people of South Kordofan.

Then in the first week of June, Bashir’s forces started an operation to “remove” any local people who had sided with the opposition during the recent elections. There was an enormous build-up of troops, artillery, tanks, and machine gun carriers. And now they’ve started ground attacks with strong air support. All access is cut off, official statements that any United Nations planes will be shot down, no commodities, going in or out, no humanitarian access, roads mined, large numbers of militias armed.


Fellow Rebecca Hamilton in Foreign Policy: “Trouble in Khartoum”

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton, who is currently reporting from Sudan for the Pulitzer Centre, recently published this piece on violence in Southern Kordofan:

The news coming out of Sudan grows bleaker by the hour. Prospects for peace look less likely now than at any point since the north-south civil war, Africa’s longest-running conflict, ended in 2005.

The Sudanese government is presently bombing the northern border state of Southern Kordofan, and the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced as a consequence of Khartoum’s seizure of the contested Abyei region last month. The emerging picture stands in stark contrast to what appeared to be President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s surprising commitment to the peaceful separation of northern and southern Sudan just a few months ago.


You can follow Rebecca Hamilton on Twitter and on her website.

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton on emergencies, information and policy responses

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton is currently writing from Sudan for the Pulitzer Centre. She recently posted the following comment, “Raising the Alarm,” on her website.

Something I wrote in Fighting for Darfur feels particularly salient at this moment, as my inbox fills up with increasingly panicked messages from those with friends in Southern Kordofan:

“As has been clear for some years, and was true in the case of Darfur, a lack of information per se is not what accounts for the delay in responding to atrocity situations. The issue is the delay between when citizens and governments have the information and when they act on it – in the first case, by creating political incentives for action, given a crowded agenda, and in the second, by crafting policy responses.”

There is information on the deteriorating situation in Southern Kordofan. Yes, much of it is second hand and thus challenging to verify. But it fits broadly with what minimal information theUN is releasing. Moreover there is a reason the information is second hand: So far no foreign reporters have been able to get in there. Last week, according to Human Rights Watch, a group of Al Jazeera journalists who tried to enter the area from the north were stopped at a checkpoint, beaten, and turned away.

You can follow Rebecca Hamilton on Twitter and on her website.

Fellow Rosebell Kagumire: “DRC second worst place to be a woman in the world; what’s in a label?”

Fellow Rosebell Kagumire also (see Fellow Jina Moore’s comments here) reacts to Reuters’ worst place to be a woman poll. Rosebell talks about the danger of the single narrative:

Yesterday, the Trust Law which is part of the Thomas Reuters Foundation published a Danger Poll. The results were about the five top spots where it’s dangerous to be a woman in the world. Top was Afghanistan and second was Democratic Republic of Congo. The indicators were six; non-sexual violence, sexual violence, health threats, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.

When I first saw this on twitter via@VOACongoStory.  I replied: And these narratives stick!! #DRC #Congo RT @VOACongoStory poll by Trust Law .

DRC was put in that spotlight because of the war time rapes that are well documented in the Eastern DRC where different militias control different parts. The survey identified Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan, India and Somalia as the top most dangerous countries for women in 2011.

We journalists love to jump up to the terms coined to describe a place or a people-sometimes without questioning. Our challenge is always, how do you describe a place or people to another person who has never been there and make them feel as if they are there? Sometimes the terms coined might well fit the situation but as an African, I have seen these terms thrown around by those outside the continent who are so ready to speak for us in their endeavor to get more funding to ‘save’ Africans. What they never think of is these terms stick even when these situations are gone. Many have heard of the war in Congo and mass rapes from different UN resolutions and regional agreements. Our very own army – Uganda committed horrendous crimes in DRC between 1998-2003 and so did four other African armies. The challenge we are faced with in the Congo is not so much in coining terms to describe a whole country as worst place to be a woman but rather finding real interventions to end the lawlessness in DRC that allows impunity to do anything from murder to rape.


For more information on a similar topic, do also check out Chimamanda Adichie’s presentation on the “Danger of a Single Narrative” on TEDX.

Follow Rosebell on her website and on Twitter.

Fellow Jina Moore on “Order of Ghastliness” Polls

Fellow Jina Moore, who is now back in the US as visiting scholar with New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, comments on the methodology behind Reuters’ latest poll on the five most dangerous countries in the world for women.

(…) The level of non-information this poll represents is hard to overstate. A question like that tells us, at best, what a set of people perceive to be the most dangerous countries in the world.  The headline for that poll is, “Afghanistan perceived by gender experts as most dangerous place to be a woman.”  A measure of perception might be interesting in a conversation about how development workers, journalists or aid workers frame the world based on their opinions and biases.  Or not.


For more news and updates on her work, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton on the Kojo Nnmandi Show

Fellow Rebecca Hamilton continues to cover developments in Southern Sudan. Yesterday, she spoke on the Kojo Nnmandi Show in Washington, D.C. about instability in Sudan. She examined the military tensions in Sudan and how they have regional observers worried about a return to civil war in the country’s southern region.

To listen to the show, click here.

You can follow Rebecca Hamilton on Twitter and on her website.

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