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A “Bottom-Up” Approach To Foreign Aid

The largest challenge for the United States to overcome in the international sphere is not the lack of influence, but rather the misguided efforts of its foreign policy and the necessary reform of its flawed approach towards the developing world. The United States is faced with the daunting task of balancing a proper approach to “building nations” that have multi-layered issues. East Africa is the prime example of an expedient foreign policy that needs to be reformed and implemented correctly. The region lacks effective political administration and social institutions that focus on development. Currently, international organizations are too concerned with immediate solutions like sending aid, and the global community has failed to pay adequate attention to the most essential factors in development: education and social mobility.

Many believe that it is impossible for developed countries to completely “forget” that they sent aid. But it wasn’t too long ago that the international community was dumbfounded in realizing, as a bureaucrat from Malawi evaluated, that on a yearly basis, the government “pinched” at least 30 million dollars from foreign aid. While Malawi still receives 930 million dollars from foreign aid, many have advocated for ensuring that most aid does not fall into the hands of the government. While the U.S. should not phase out or cut aid, despite decisions to do so by the current administration, many are calling for action and a “silver bullet” that will be an ideal solution to poverty in developing nations. It is certain that it will take a long time for policymakers to agree and focus on education and empowering individuals. Claudia Williamson from Mississippi State University calls the trend of desiring certain goals from controversial developing nations as “rewarding failure.” While within the status quo, there has been an improvement in certain developing countries with regard to democratic rights and liberties, the think tank “Freedom House” emphasizes that the changes are minimal at best. This proves that, overall, the inherent issue is our tendency to reward those that barely meet the standards of conditionality and view any growth as “redeemable” for aid, which has caused the international community to rarely meet its goals for development. With new economic plans unfolding, we should not lose hope in light of these issues; we should pay attention to economic experts when planning future approaches.

In the heated debate between foreign policy experts and economists, William Easterly, a New York University Economics Professor, had the audacity to publish “The Elusive Quest for Growth,” in which he argued that the overused and outdated approach of funneling food aid and other provisions is not encouraging individuals to change their lives. Rather than trying to find the best technical fix for a collapsing country, ensuring civil rights and opportunities for people is the only aid that we should provide, advocating the use of individuals, not states, as the units of measure for growth. While some African countries may see favorable GDP growth, economists and policymakers lose focus on the citizens who are still oppressed. In his most recent work, “The Tyranny of Experts,” Easterly elucidates the message that our imperfections in foreign policy set donors back to square one in helping a country, pressing for more conditionality and reform in our relationships with these controversial governments. It is true, however, that molding governments according to the Western standard is difficult, as it can be perceived as encroachment by local citizens; however, a policy that highlights empowerment can change the perception of oppressed citizens. Contrary to other economists who want to continue state intervention for progress, individuals that supported and continue to support market solutions advocate for the endowment of rights that give consumer confidence, social mobility, access to services, and power to remove and elect officials. If such ideas are diffused among the masses, then they can lead a movement that fulfills a state of autonomy. If the choice is given for individuals to take and is coupled with encouragement and guidance, the role of Western countries would then shift from being the ones who dictate to the ones who guide.

With the increasing desire to invest in institutions and improve individual mobility, many have asked where to allocate investments and aid. The answer can’t be any clearer: schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. The Competitive Enterprise Institute determines in studies ranging from the 1990’s to 2005 that the amount of people suffering from HIV is around 40 million. While the World Health Organization tries to help 3 million people per month, they ultimately fail for three key reasons: the lack of infrastructure for dispersing drugs, lack of clinics to administer medicine, and lack of awareness and overall education for citizens. It is evident that with the absence of roads, bridges, and access to clinics, much of the population remains helpless. The Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Uyo, Nigeria attributes the lack of connection between markets and consumers to the mismanagement and absence of emphasis on infrastructure. Such areas need to be modernized because they will aid future generations that suffer in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda. African citizens are seeing the detriments of a top-down approach, yet, not enough citizens have embraced the bottom-up approach. While experts continue to stress the value of it, we can only continue the promotion of such an alternative solution.

The United States suffers from a criticized and controversial record in intervening in foreign countries. However, we can learn from our previous lessons and build trust with African countries once again. The foundation of educational opportunities can be more momentous and can serve as our remedy for past failed attempts, rather than continuing to promote artificially propped-up economic growth that politicians and misguided economists desire to see. We can make countries realize that the most valuable asset a country can have is not a steady flow of foreign aid, or abundance of natural resources, but rather an educated community that is willing to progress and improve. This emphasis of building institutions from “scratch” can prove to be beneficial in aiding uninformed citizens and serve as insightful experiences for leaders. However, to succeed in such a process, we have to hear the people themselves. As President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal states, “I’ve never seen a country develop itself through aid or credit, countries that have developed in Europe… have all believed in free markets,” once again, social mobility is called to mind through basic empowerment and autonomy. When countries like Uganda have budgets that rely 50 percent on foreign aid, it becomes imperative to hear the outcries of the citizens and realize that foreign aid in the form of loans that will be repaid in 30 years is not the way to go. The role of powerful countries can be transformed from being arguably imperialists to initiators of change.

By allowing younger generations to be exposed to these new, refined programs and the emphasis on education, the United States, the international community, and other donors can begin to realize the significant positive effects that social mobility can have. While such a process may take longer and require a massive commitment, it can prove to be more stable in the long-term.

Photo: The distribution of high energy biscuits and medical supplies in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo by UNICEF, 2008. 

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review.