A history of failed philanthropy in Africa?

World Economic Forum, 2005. (L to R) Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, Tony Blair, Bono, Olusegun Obasango.
World Economic Forum, 2005. (L to R) Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, Tony Blair, Bono, Olusegun Obasango.
WEF

Philanthropic efforts have existed for centuries in order to improve Africa. Has it failed for centuries?

Author Paul Theroux says philanthropic efforts trace back from from Sir Thomas Buxton in the 18th Century to Bill Gates today. He argues in a column for Barrons that billions have been spent in Africa to little effect.

“Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions, according to Penta’s estimate,” he writes.

“I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse.”

The supposed new ideas, like microfinance, are just new versions of the same thing done 173 years ago. The piece is heavy on Theroux’s personal experiences in Africa as a teacher and a visitor. He shares the story of foreign professionals working in Kenya and Malawi. By working in remote or rural places in a given countries, the local professionals have no incentive to pursue jobs where they are filled by foreigners.

“My experience with the teachers in Malawi might explain this paradox,” he writes. “With so many outsiders willing to travel upcountry to improve the state of health care, African doctors tend to stay in better-paying jobs in urban areas, or simply leave the country altogether for places where doctors are held in high esteem and amply rewarded.”

The stories are compelling, but the evidence is lacking. Things are getting better in most parts of Africa and aid is a part of the reason why.

Economist Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development published a book in 2011 that outlined how aid has made things better. By no means is it perfect or even the answer, but it refutes the foundation of Theroux’s article. Most surprising is the fact that things are getting better without the massive economic growth that some experts said was needed for progress.

“The biggest success of development has not been making people richer but, rather, has been making the things that really matter — things like health and education — cheaper and more widely available,” writes Kenny.

There are some core ideas where Theroux is right and many development professionals and experts agree. Top-down development is inefficient, strips people of dignity and can, at times, cause more problems than it solves. The challenge of aid today is to find ways to support communities, individuals and governments as they try to make things better for themselves. Knowing that top-down solutions are a problem is different than shedding tendencies to tell people what they should be doing.

While critical of the likes of Gates, Bill Clinton and Jeff Sachs, there might be much more common ground than Theroux knows.

“Years living simply on the ground in Africa convinced me that there was more for me to learn from Africans than to teach,” says Theroux. “Without much in the way of outside help, the people in the countries I knew managed to endure, usually through the simplest traditional means, and finally to prevail.”

Can philanthropy make things better in Africa? Theroux says no, but Clinton, Gates and others are putting serious cash to bet it can.

HT Sam Loewenberg

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About Author

Aid/Development Beat Reporter Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom found and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy(at)humanosphere.org.

  • Heather

    I wish Theroux had explored the ‘nothing new under the sun’ narrative a bit more – which would be a compelling and informative history – and not tried to claim that from his time in Malawi, he can testify the whole continent of Africa is worse off now (including more poorly governed) than 50 years ago… Not least because Malawi did not gain independence until 1964 and many other SSA countries followed after that.

    • Anon

      Well said, you!