The Problem With Foreign Aid: The Trend of 'Forgetting'

The West has spent over $2.3 trillion on foreign aid in the last five decades, according to notable developmental economics scholar William Easterly, but the countries that were supposed to receive this aid have not seen the appropriate results. As Easterly points out in his book The White Man's Burden, while our global society continues to find highly-efficient ways to get entertainment products to the rich, we have not found an efficient way to get medicine, food and other type of aid to the poor. Why is it that in this technological era of efficiency we have not found a solution to this problem? One answer is that we have developed a trend of "forgetting" -- governments and other sources of aid both unintentionally and intentionally forget the important things.

While advocates of the traditional approach of foreign aid have promised great things, their methods have been ineffective. Easterly has criticized foreign aid for its lack of success, stating that

the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families.

One reason for this inefficiency is that these advocates and organizations have not created an institutional memory; they have not learned from past mistakes, and instead continue repeating the same methods with the same flaws. They dispense resources into objectives, despite track records that show their goals are infeasible and their plans ineffective. Beyond this, there is also a lack of feedback and accountability, those receiving aid are not verifying the usefulness of the initiatives, and those at the top are not being held accountable for the results. Without these systems of feedback and accountability in place, there is no history to refer to. Without this history there is an excuse for forgetfulness of the past and repetition of fruitless plans in the future.

In The New Tyranny, Easterly points out that "the idea of expert development [is] a welcome distraction from the reality of continuing colonial despotism in Africa in the interests of the colonizers." Development initiatives by states with unchecked powers have become an excuse to lay aside the consideration of human rights, and excuse to "forget" the disasters that are happening to so many people due to these state's interventions. An example of this is a forestry project in Uganda financed by the World Bank that ended up with a forest fire, over 20,000 farmers losing their homes, and soldiers threatening those that retaliated with death. The World Bank promised an investigation -- but this never happened. The event became forgotten and no one was held accountable for these human rights abuses. There has been a system set in place that allows "developers" to commit these human rights violations without anyone knowing. In the end the only people that really remember the consequences of these events are the victims, and everyone else continues on their merry way, as if it had never happened.

Another issue with aid and development is that Western countries do not take into account their position of past colonial rulers; they happen to "forget" their previous maltreatment and do not critically consider their positions of power. The UK has recently threatened to take aid away from countries that maintain anti-gay laws. However, there's been no governmental discussion acknowledging that these anti-sodomy laws stem directly from British colonization. Local advocates of LGBTI rights within the countries have been ignored, and their desires have been left unheard. As Peter Dunne states in his article LGBTI Rights and the Wrong Way to Give Aid, "aid conditionality ignores the importance of local advocates, suggesting instead that only the former "master" can bring the Commonwealth nations into line." This policy of conditional aid has erased history and the voices of those it is purportedly helping. These voices and histories cannot be forgotten, and aid cannot continue to be used to silence them.

For foreign aid initiatives to start working there has to be open-forums and platforms where countries can work together, the voices of the forgotten can finally be heard, and organizations and people can be held accountable for their actions. We must end this trend of forgetting.

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