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Africa rising and the selfish reason to keep doing foreign aid & development

Business leaders at Rwanda's new stock exchange

I’m not sure why the foreign aid and development case is so hard to make to the American people, but perhaps we need to start looking at it as an economic investment opportunity rather than as a humanitarian imperative.

That seems to be how China sees it. China, which arguably is not known for its leadership in humanitarian endeavors, is doing tons of foreign aid and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, unlike much of the rich world the last few years, many African nations have continued to experience significant economic growth and look likely to continue that growth. As the Christian Science Monitor reports:

Africa – the continent with the world’s youngest, poorest population – will grow by leaps and bounds over the next half century as its middle class swells, its literacy rates rise, and its average life expectancy lengthens, says a new report.

Sure, many of these countries are still poor relative to the Western world. But that didn’t stop the mobile phone industry from seeing a massive business opportunity there.

For those who think the explosion of cell phones in Africa is a one-off and we can’t expect to gain from trading with people who make one-tenth of our average incomes, consider all those who laughed when Starbucks said it could make billions selling a cup of coffee. Africa is huge and growth is growth.

As The Guardian noted in this report advancing the next meeting of the G20 (rich nations), the developing world is, in terms of its economic trending, actually doing better than the rich world right now. As Jonathan Glennie notes, we may increasingly need them as much as they need us:

Growth certainly dipped in most developing countries at the outset of the western financial crisis, but things have been back on track in the past couple of years, according to growth data. Overall, the past decade was one of the best in memory not only for the emerging markets but, crucially, for the low-income countries in Africa.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently said we should cut back on foreign aid and let China do it. Other Republicans running for office, or in Congress, say much the same thing.

We only spend about one percent of the federal budget on aid and development right now. Many experts in national security — like Gen. David Petraeus — have repeatedly said aid and development efforts are even more important than military actions in reducing the risk from failed states and the seeds of terrorism.

In short, cutting foreign aid and development seems to many experts like cutting off your nose to spite your face — unless you want to call it foreign aid for China, allowing them to step in where we leave off.

Obviously, you could make the case that helping the poor get out of poverty is both good for the poor and good for all of us — but such nuanced, more-than-one-idea-in-your-head kind of talk doesn’t seem to be work in political circles.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.