The Failure of the Aid Model: A Surprising Discovery about What Caused Dependency in Africa

BUKAVU PHOTO TOWARD LAKE KIVU.JPG

© 2014 Robert Osburn

It’s been nearly a month and a half since I touched down on American soil after two weeks in Africa.  I visited Zimbabwe and South Africa,  and then spent five days in Congo.  While there, I was stunned by my Congolese mentee’s insight: “Bob, look at all the Western aid organizations.  Nothing has changed!”

Kisongo gently insisted that Paul Larsen and I (we were the two Westerners who accompanied him to teach in the conference he had organized) pay attention to the street reality in Bukavu, a city of two million in eastern Congo.  Yes, indeed, walls are lined with aid organization logos, and the logos of aid organizations plaster many of the vehicles plying the crowded main street.  And, oh, look at all the frustrated people desperate for the next bowl of food…

For three days we taught a Christian vision of economic development that was specifically focused on income generation.  “We’ve never heard this before!” was the most common refrain from the 200 or so pastoral and other leaders who listened with almost-rapt attention, and who raised question after question during the Q and A sessions. 

And so we concluded that what the development experts have been saying for the past decade is true: Aid has failed; we must begin a new day where Africans learn how to generate their own income and, thus, over time, thriving economies.  The solution to poverty is not handouts; it is, rather, the tools, the technology, and the teaching that made Western countries economically vibrant. 

William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2007), Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (2009), and Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor (2009), along with Acton Institute’s cutting edge initiative The Poverty Cure, are united in exposing the truth about which Kisongo kept reminding us as we lurched and rocked our way over Bukavu’s main street.

By contrast, all indications are that well-designed efforts built around income generation are the only way forward for those who want to escape poverty’s miry slough of despair.  But, how, in fact, did Africans end up in this terrible predicament in the first place?  Animism (the traditional worldview), endemic corruption, and terrible leadership are part of the answer, but…

Along comes a provocative and surprising answer in a book by Seattle University Professor Olúfémi Táíwó: How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (2010).   His bold thesis overthrows an old and well-established thesis that desperately needs to see the academic grave it so richly deserves.  The old graveworthy thesis?  Missionaries were complicit accessories, however actively or passively, to the crimes of the colonialists, and deserve to be condemned for having made Africans and others passive recipients of colonial rule (and subsequent neocolonialism).  Think of the pathetic missionary Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s much praised 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, and you get the idea.

Táíwó’s bold thesis?  Late 19th and 20th century colonialists undercut and overthrew the good work of earlier missionaries like Henry Venn (a close associate of William Wilberforce) who had fostered Africans’ sense of capable independence by virtue of introducing them to a God whom they learned had made them in His glorious image.  Writes Táíwó on p. 10, the British colonialists, by contrast, decided that Africans

are, by their very nature, incapable of progressing beyond a set limit to anything that approaches full autonomy over their lives.  Under such a circumstance, the superior commits to giving aid and making the inferior always dependent on such aid, almost in perpetuity. 

Táíwó contrasts the colonialists with the missionaries, like Venn, whose aim was African autonomy in the creation of national churches “that, driven by African agency in all its ramifications, would be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing” (p. 7).  For missionaries, reborn Africans were children of God endowed with the same capacities for development as were the missionaries and their home societies. 

What Táíwó is saying is that the colonialists set back the work of the missionaries by creating a continent full of dependent people.  In a sense, our job today is to reverse the work of the colonialists and return to Venn’s vision.  But, this means teaching a biblically-faithful cultural framework for economic development, along with introducing what I call  “complete value chain” tools, and, finally, granting access to competitive technologies that Africans can employ in creating their own wealth. 

The goal, as our colleague Paul indicates in the recent Christianity Today article about him (”The New Puritans,” September 2014), is nothing less than human flourishing.  But, a first step will be replacing the aid model of development with the autonomy model that recognizes the inherent God-given capacities of those we serve.  

As the head of ALERT (African Leadership Empowerment, Reconciliation, and Transformation) and a Wilberforce Academy Fellow, Kisongo reminds us that unless we adopt the autonomy model, nothing will change in Bukavu and throughout much of Africa.