Trade Not Aid

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.“

Trade Not Aid

Within development economics circles, there is a growing consensus that aid alone cannot tackle poverty in Africa. Some of the most vocal critics of aid, such as Dambisa Moyo in her recent best-seller ‘Dead Aid’, argue that foreign aid has been bad for Africa and must stop, referring to the extent to which aid breeds a kind of continent-wide addiction with a loss of self-control, ability to think forwards, the confidence to act for oneself and believe in oneself.

While Moyo’s criticisms are directed towards aid distributed by western governments or intergovernmental institutions such as the World Bank to African governments, some consideration as to whether these criticisms can also be applied to aid distributed through NGOs or other local institutions is merited. While perhaps only the most ardent market ideologue would argue against forms of aid such as disaster relief or medical aid, the argument that some forms of charity can, in the medium term, actually undermine the recipients’ ability to help and advance themselves is hard to refute.

The psychology of such charity or aid is also worthy of consideration. Historically, the relationship between the developed West and Africa was characterised by the supposed existence of the ‘White Man’s Burden”, whereby the colonialists saw it as their divine duty to civilise the primitive, heathen population of the lands they colonised. This image of the people of Africa has survived well past the political decolonisation of the continent, exacerbated by the western media’s focus on images of Africa as war-torn, starving and in need of western salvation. Recent initiatives such as Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8 have been strongly criticised on the grounds that they reinforce the belief that the source of hope and progress for Africa lies with western celebrities and their ‘glamour aid’, with African voices disturbingly marginalised.

This image of Africa has, inevitably, also made inroads into the African psyche. The culture of dependency that aid and charity have instilled in the minds of African people has merely reinforced one of the dominant cultural messages of the colonial project, namely that indigenous African institutions, cultures and technologies were and are worthless and the route to all progress and prosperity lies in following a linear developmental path modelled by the West.

A growing number of development economists are therefore arguing for a change in emphasis towards trade as a means by which African people can lift themselves out of poverty. Currently much of the debate focuses on the need for access for African agricultural products to western markets and the need for an end to western agricultural subsidies which make it next to impossible for African producers to compete. However, while African economies can doubtless make progress in this area, if the necessary trade regime is put in place, the failure of the ongoing Doha round of trade talks suggests that meaningful progress in this area cannot be expected any time soon.

The alternative, therefore, is to consider the merits of investing in local business and enterprise where the goods or services are produced and consumed locally. Not only is the carbon footprint of this economic activity reduced, as the energy costs of exporting half way around the world do not need to be incurred, but such economic activity will be of direct benefit to local people and the local economy, thereby tackling local poverty and promoting local economic and social development.

Altruistic or philanthropic western agencies can, therefore, consider the merits of beginning to consider the African more as a ‘business partner’ than a recipient of charity or aid and seek to build the capacities and skills of their partners so that they become more self-reliant. In countries such as Ghana, where 50 years of peace and 16 years of democracy have banished the images of civil war and famine which so dominate the western perception of Africa, there  is considerable scope for this reconceptualisation of the relationship. Investing in local enterprise, helping to raise the capacities, skills levels and the aspirations and hopes of the youth in particular is an increasingly attractive option for those who wish to see an Africa able, one day, to stand on its own feet, meeting the needs of her own people without the constant need for western hand outs.