On Aid: Why Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Let’s take the story of a giant, engorged on wealth and privilege. This giant trods upon the earth with greater might and size than his compatriots. He has had the advantages of being able to manipulate a global system that dictates who gets what- even down to potable water, fresh food and life-saving pharmaceuticals. Somewhere in the progression of history, this giant grew to prominence- likely after a world war that left his former rivals indebted to him. He turns his attention to the nations that his rivals colonized- namely those African, Asian and South/Central American nations many of us cannot name.

The giant’s steps invariably crush the voiceless, disempowered and disenfranchised as he drafts documents outlining what a human right is and how to measure poverty in terms of numbers and indicators. The problem is- those numbers and indicators fail to take into account the most basic of human needs- access to potable water, access to and ability to produce food, access to vital knowledge. Additionally, the assumed universal of “modernization”– a teleological progression from hunter/gatherer to subsistence farmer to an industrial/urbanized society is adopted as a model of “progress.”

So the well-intentioned giant takes it a step further. He introduces Structural Adjustment Plans that require the liberalization, privatization of state-owned enterprises, demonization of labor unions and de-regulation of the “lesser” nations’ governments and economies. He normalizes debt, reduces tariffs, disincentivizes government provision of public goods and undermines the building of taxation structures- in the name of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, multinational corporations threaten the biodiversity of African and Asian ecosystems through intellectual property rights and patents. Claiming plants with medicinal properties and seizing the land on which they grow, these corporations displace the inhabitants of the land, forcing them to move to cities that are urbanizating too quickly to develop the infrastructure that would support the burgeoning urban populations.

In the wake of the destabilizing effects of these myriad policies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) step in to bridge the gaps- so to say- indvertently claiming the role that the government could and should serve- provision of public services. Except, now it’s a private entity providing essential services with imported labor and materials. The schools bear the name of “good” philanthropists along with the logos of heir respective corporations. All the while, the average African country receives foreign aid to the tune of 13-15% of their GDP.

To the east, the giant consumes and pollutes at an unsustainable rate. His food consumption increases fivefold while his population doubles, while most of the world lives on less than $1-2 a day and lives on the margins of malnutrition- increasingly forced to eat the giant’s globalized diet while they cultivate invasive species on their plot of land. These invasive species contribute to wasteful water usage, soil erosion, and deforestation. It is within this context that the giant’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and thus submit to accountability regarding his pollution, is particularly galling. Who is the giant? The giant is the neoliberal behemoth- particularly the “western” powers in the United Nations and its umbrella organizations.

Thus far, I’ve painted the picture of a globalized world system that is interconnected and imbalanced in nearly all respects. At present, military interventions in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and Côte D’Ivoire have served as a peculiar form of aid the US, in particular, specializes in- it destroys infrastructure, destabilizes regions and governments, while creating dependence and vulnerability. Of course, these ‘interventions’ are cloaked in propaganda, beginning with names like “Operation Oddysey Dawn” “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and ending with censored, yet strategically pervasive coverage of the conflict. The atrocities committed by American/European troops is de-emphasized while the violence of the “insurgents” and “rebels” is recalled with great detail.

In the aftermath of the conflicts, the conflict zones are left ravaged and further indebted and dependent on foreign aid and multinationals’ investment. They are essentially ripe for economic liberalization and privatization. It is a sort of neo-colonialism, whereby “the once-colonized are constantly subjugated to foreign systems of rule/control.”

Why Do I Find the UN’s MDGs Problematic?

It is in this context that I find the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) problematic. No, I do not find fault in the nominal goals:

  1. ending poverty and hunger
  2. universal education
  3. gender equality
  4. child health
  5. maternal health
  6. combatting HIV/AIDS
  7. environmental sustainability
  8. global partnership

But I do object to the lack of a real challenge to the root causes of poverty. On a social, micro-scale, yes, gendered illiteracy and undereducation is a factor in the poverty and exploitation of women and children, but on a macro-scale, the problem of unregulated capitalism that serves the interests of men has yet to be addressed.

On top of that, the problem of hunger isn’t simply about overpopulation in the Global South. One major issue is that the current global food market diverts resources away from the bulk of the population. My article entitled The Global Food Crisis and Land Grabs in Africa discusses the factors that drive multinational corporations’ rush to buy up Africa’s arable land. In the last three years alone, there has been a 1000% increase in the land sold or leased to foreign bodies on the African continent. „Over 70% of these land deals are concentrated in Mali, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mozambique. These deals usually stipulate the transfer of land ownership to investors or long-term leases.“

From “Caritas” to “Charity”: Paternalism & Conditional Love?

The Latin word for „love“ is „caritas“- the same word from which „charity“ is derived. The old English understanding of „Charity“ was a compulsory sort of love for the fellow man that impels us to act in the best interest of our fellow human beings. Today, charity has come to mean a sort of paternalistic and conditional transfer of capital or services between the rich and those who are labeled „poor.“ Often this „charity“ is not consensual, nor does it take into account the specific needs of the beneficiary. Aid, voluntourism and military interventions do not serve the interests of the impoverished, disenfranchised or disempowered. These kind acts offer the therapeutic sense that the benefactor has done „good“ and „helped“ others. Good intentions are not enough. This website makes the same point that I have been trying to illustrate- in a more elegant fashion.


What the nations of the Global South need is not paternalistic and conditional help. What we need is wealth creation- via infrastructure development (localised banking systems with low-interest small-business loans, wireless networks, roads, plumbing and readily accessible water, sustainable irrigation technology and practices, etc). Without a safety net, we cannot expect innovation and investment within our respective nations. China has seen this lack and formed strategic partnerships with Ethiopia, Tanzania and other nations, hiring African civil engineers and funding the road-building projects. (The question of fair wages for the workers has yet to be resolved, unfortunately).

The Fight Against HIV/AIDS

MDG number 6 is “combatting HIV/AIDS. One of the goals listed under it is expanding access to life-saving medicines. When it comes to the healthcare sector, a challenge to major pharmaceutical companies‘ intellectual property rights and patents on African and Asian plant life is necessary. Also, a challenge to the TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) that:

„allowed countries to issue compulsory licences only for domestic use, however, countries without local drug-manufacturing industries, including 37 in Africa, were unable to use compulsory licences to keep medicines affordable.“ („A ‘crisis in waiting’ for AIDS patients:Trade rules will make it harder to get cheap generic medicines)

These TRIPS are undermining access to life-saving medicines for HIV/AIDS, malaria, among other diseases by hindering access to cheap generic medicines in the 37 African nations that do not have local drug-manufacturing industries. However, the Millenium Development Goal of combatting HIV/AIDS makes no mention of how the World Trade Organization‘s TRIPS undermine HIV/AIDS patients‘ access to anti-retroviral treatments. And it does not address or challenge this.

In Conclusion…

This is just a start. How do we really address the structural/root issues behind poverty, hunger, ecological destruction and lack of accessible and affordable health care in the Global South without levying a challenge against multinational corporations and corrupt governments? Even supranational organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (the Bretton Woods “twins”) and World Trade Organization are complicit- and they fall under the umbrella of the United Nations.

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