New Imperialism: On Aid to Developing African Nations

Last Tuesday, USAID announced that it would be providing about $97 million in food aid to Ethiopia, as early tracking of El Niño weather patterns are predicted to cause “limited agricultural production, strained livelihoods, and exacerbated food insecurity among poor and vulnerable households”[1] throughout the horn of Africa. Since this summer of 2015, USAID has provided more than $245 million of food aid to Ethiopia. USAID has spoken about how they hope the aid demonstrates their commitment to the development of Ethiopia and its people. While it can be assumed that Ethiopians are at least slightly more prepared to handle this natural disaster with the help of US aid, questions arise regarding the extent that Ethiopian citizens are better off, especially considering debt and the long-term economy.

According to the OECD, African countries received the highest amount of aid at $28 billion for the continent, with $25 billion going to countries south of the Sahara (Sudan: 1.9 billion; Ethiopia: 1.8 billion). Objectively, there is a problem with aid in Africa: the International Monetary Fund itself has admitted that, “Aid will not lift growth in Africa.” In many countries where aid is received at a normal rate, it becomes addicting and blinding. While aid historically has been helpful to poor countries in diplomacy (Marshall plan), it has never been as open-ended and constantly outpouring as is the aid going from developed nations in the western world to developing sub-Saharan African countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. This dynamic encourages politicians in developing countries to feel a sense of expectation and comfort instead of considering it an opportunity to develop, innovate, and grow. Food aid has been particularly controversial because it has never shown any attempt to support African farmers, but rather, it entails a process of shipping American-grown food to the target countries.

Further, this kind of consistent aid is linked to corruption—especially considering the authoritarian leadership style that is linked to so many governments in countries in the horn of Africa and Sub Saharan Africa. The African Union believes that corruption costs Africa about $20 billion a year. Because government-to-government aid is far removed from citizens of their respective countries, citizens are often unaware of the changes they should be seeing (more food, more employment, better infrastructure, etc.) to keep politicians accountable. In the eyes of many citizens in aid recipient countries, embezzlement is just a reality that can be included in transaction costs.

It is important for countries to consider what exactly comes at the expense of aid. Oftentimes, the (relative) impossibly large sum of money that is required to repay debt debilitates governments so that they can no longer focus on anything else. Healthcare and education are of course the most neglected factors in this system. The countries’ investment of its own resources to healthcare and education could undoubtedly make for more secure and civically engaged policies, healthier people, and more advanced agricultural technology. When considering the El Niño weather patterns that will plague the horn of Africa in the coming weeks, it is important to consider how the normalcy of the practice several million or billion dollars in aid might be perpetuating a cycle of dependence, weakness, and corruption.Reminiscent of imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, as developing nations’ crippling debt grows, developed nations will be inclined to exercise an uncomfortable amount of power over the indebted.

[1] https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/nov-10-2015-us-announces-97-million-additional-emergency-food-assistance

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