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Aid in Africa: Between Two Truths. And a Recap of the McGill Prof’s Debate

Africa was oppressed through colonialism, violated within slavery, and is now, as some argue, being repressed within the boundaries of foreign aid. Has Foreign Aid really done more harm than good in Africa? On Thursday March 28, McGill held its annual Professor’s Debate and some of McGill’s finest professors and Debating Union students examined this contentious issue.  Which side wins? You be the judge.

Africa’s Tale Through Historical Materialism

Defining aid is vital. Professor Opal defined aid, specifically Western aid,  as “direct money transfers with strings attached”.  These strings act like those attached to a marionette; Western donors think they can dictate the state’s functioning,  and extract resources at will, because of the loans provided. Opal argued on Thursday that such advances are in fact not a form of aid, and act more as a burden than a relief measure. Egoistically pursuing narrow economic interests while neglecting those of the African people is disguised hypocrisy. Pretending to care is arguably worse than not caring at all. It all begins to resemble economic dictatorship.

Then there is the other perspective, the one that paints a picture of how great foreign aid is. It has been proven that aid works, said Professor Brawley on Thursday. Aid needs to be regarded in its specific form with its direct impact, and evaluated accordingly. “Aid is meant to work like an investment, much like getting an education.” People like to see immediate results, but sometimes a leap of faith needs to be taken, hoping the long-term effects will be prosperous. Brawley argued that when it comes to aid, certain qualitative factors are immeasurable, but their significance is immense. It is not right to simply look at numbers like GDP percentages, as it would be ignorant to do so. Other considerations like infrastructure, healthcare, and education must not be disregarded in assessing the repercussion of aid. This idea of economic distortion resonates within the panoply of discussion.

Are solutions possible to make foreign aid work, or is this rendered a lost cause? Professor Opal proposed the idea of a new framework, one that would forgo and abolish debt altogether. Undeniably, this probably is not the most popular idea, but it would ultimately allow for the development of local subsistence economies. 

According to Professor McLauchlin documenting who aid benefits and who controls aid, helps assess its real impact. Accountability needs to be upheld. To whom should African governments be accountable then? Logically, one would assume it would be its people, but the sad reality is that it is not. Incidentally, accountability can also mean democratic assurance and results in tied aid.  If donor influence is inevitable and can have positive outcomes like democratic consolidation and reassurance of proper monetary investment, the extent to which aid means compliance, needs to be monitored. It must be recognized that the bulk of aid since World War II has sided with western interests rather than with those of Africans” , said MacLauchlin on Thursday. Yet, nowadays improvement strategies seem to be “more talk than action. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and carry out such promises, with genuine concern.

More Good Than Bad, or More Harm than Good?

So where does this leave us? Humanitarian aid, simply put, can be defined in terms of the countless lives it has saved, rather than by looking at all of the lives it hasn’t.  Aid can also take on many forms, namely the reformation of a society. Aid can result in the implementation of civil society and the democratization process that propel a deeper respect for human rights and concern for liberties; aid can catalyze the flourishing of democracy, particularly reliant on the mechanism of electoral reforms enforces a monitoring structure on elections.  Additionally, economic aid provides the development of healthcare and the building of infrastructures, to fund clinics that raise awareness about preventative diseases by contaminated water and malaria, for example. However, the line is thin between aid that influences the development of a society, and aid that imposes a structure altogether.

Those in favour of the benefits of western aid proudly highlight the effects of such intervention in the education domain. Most of the best educational institutions are heavily funded, created, and reliant on western aid. To whom does this cater? Some suggest this leads to elite-specific empowerment, as the higher echelons of society seem to be the only ones benefiting.  However, on the flip side, such institutions educate African intellectuals, reforming individuals who know where the local needs lie and can take the lead on managing the distribution of foreign aid.

Obtaining a neutral and truthful account of history, one that isn’t blurred by bias or corruption, will set Africa free. Until then, the aid of numerous NGOs will only go so far. Merely as humans who cohabit the Earth, it should be our duty to help, to assist, and to cure the ills of Africa –not to invade, nor exploit, nor hinder.

– Chloe Giampaolo


C lick here to see the Photo Gallery of the Prof’s Debate 2013


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercial  liquidslave, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Chloe Giampaolo

Student of Political Science at McGill University. Born and raised in Montreal, Chloe has just recently rediscovered her love for her hometown’s architecture, fashion, cafes, restaurants, and culture; but most of all, its riveting politics. Her fascination with words and adoration of quotes has ignited in her a passion for writing, which she hopes to share with her fellow writers. She would like to raise attention to Canadian politics, more specifically that of McGill’s surroundings.

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