As an avid reader of the New York Review of Books and, equally, having a distinct interest in African politics, I was quite thrilled to read Helen Epstein's piece in the NYRB, "Cruel Ethiopia." In the piece, Epstein addresses the pitfalls of foreign aid as they are manifest in Ethiopia in particular and - I would argue - in Africa, generally:
The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.
Epstien's piece does an apt job highlighting not only the herd mentality which continues to typify foreign assistance strategies, but further emphasizes a point which many fail to, or are otherwise unwilling to, appreciate: more often than not, the domestic policies maintained by the governments of recipient states are the culprits of poverty and oppression, and stand to be exacerbated by inflows of aid money. Ethiopia is, for instance, rapidly becoming among the most repressive and dictatorial countries on the continent, and yet simultaneously remains the subject of an informal experiment to discover whether the "big push" approach to African development will (finally) succeed.
The trouble with aid is precisely this "big push" approach. Programs must become increasingly tailored to the particular contexts for which they are intended, and targeted to achieve very specific aims. The Gates Foundation is seemingly growing cognizant of this fact as it is revamping its 'war on polio' campaign, moving away from its hitherto pursued strategy of vertical health programs towards investments in health systems. For any foreign assistance strategy to fulfill its intended function, an enabling framework must indeed be in place, be it a viable health system or a healthy government. Of course this is a tired argument, having been repeated ad nauseam within the development literature. Nevertheless, Epstein's piece does a wonderful job of highlighting this reality in the context of a country often left out of the development discourse.