Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.Comments
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Every six weeks, we convene as a staff and talk about ideas for shows for the next two to three months. We’re never lacking in ideas, but finding knowledgeable voices that can carry an hour conversation takes some effort. One of the subjects near the top of our list is the ethics of global aid, particularly with Zimbabwe’s recent crackdown on CARE, a multi-national, non-profit organization fighting global poverty.
For me, the subject came to the forefront while reading Paul Theroux’s challenging, insightful travel account in Dark Star Safari. After serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, he revisits Africa and sees a starkly different and yet an eerily similar continent. He’s pretty hard on charitable aid organizations and missionaries, to be sure, and wonders — well, actually posits — whether good intentions have led to an industry that needs to sustain itself in order to carry on its business model:
"…this was the era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount, studied as closely as the coffee harvest or a hydroelectric power project. Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier."
Theroux’s idea that aid and missionary organizations might actually undercut the stability and long-term efforts of people they are trying to help is challenging. The spot of “tough love” seems to be drenched in the hard-nosed, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that I often experienced growing up in North Dakota. I cringed initially. But, some germ made sense. Although I’m not in Africa, I face these tests while walking to work in downtown St. Paul when the same destitute man regularly asks me for five bucks. When do I become that microcosmic institution?
Where is that line and when do good intentions steal a struggling people’s identity, raid an individual’s sense of resourcefulness and pride? When do others who prosper have an obligation to intervene and help those who can’t help themselves because of forces beyond there control — political regimes, long-lasting droughts, diseases, etc.? Who are some of the wise voices you’re reading and hearing about that are immersed in this struggle that can speak personally about these situations?Comments