One man’s trash—or losing Superbowl team’s shirts—is not necessarily another man’s treasure. So stop sending all the shit you don’t want to Africa. Sure, it makes you feel like a saint, but you’re just digging a deeper hole than you’d be willing to fix in the future.
Take for example, Jason Sadler’s 2010 campaign to collect and donate a million t-shirts to Africa. The mission, undertaken with genuine—if not misguided— ideals, was immediately met with disapproval by the international humanitarian community. By flooding the market with free t-shirts, which would be sold on the black market at very low prices, the project would undermine the internal capacity to produce such goods. It’s the same reason the United States subsidizes corn. We produce so much that it would be sold at a loss on the open market. Fortunately we have the economic structures in place to provide security for these producers, but most African states barely possess the structures to assure basic security. But due to such influxes of American waste aid, the Nigerian textile workforce fell from 137,000 in 1997 to 57,000 in 2003. Malawi, Mozambique, and Uganda have seen the closings of their largest textile companies and Zambia has seen widespread protests from workers in the industry. Ethiopia and Eritrea have banned the sale of secondhand clothing for this very reason. Mali, which is the largest cotton producers south of the Sahara, does not have the industrial capacity to even make a t-shirt. So instead of giving them t-shirts, give them a factory. And instead of being satisfied that a pair of TOMS fits a kid in Central America, demand that his mother gets a job making shoes there.
Take this concept and blow it up to the structure of modern humanitarian aid in general. We throw money, surplus grain, and white people at deeply complex political and social problems and expect it to be a sustainable fix. History is replete with examples of donated computers gathering dust in alleys, broken MRI machines too expensive to repair sitting in rural hospitals, and cattle given to farmers that die within months because they’re too weak to survive the local climate. We don’t care what people actually need; we just care about what will look good on the front page. But when people start dying because we’re too hubristic to listen, then it’s time for a fundamental change in the way we think about aid.
Current global food production can give our entire population more than 2500 calories a day. If that’s the case, then why are there 870 million people around the world that are chronically malnourished? In “Poverty and Famines”. Amartya Sen, renowned Indian economist, advances a way of thinking about how famines and starvation work. And it’s more that just not having enough food.
Sen outlines the concept of “entitlements”, which connect one form of ownership to another. For example, ownership of a cow might translate in the market command to purchase grain. The same goes for labor ownership transferring to a wage. It is Sen’s argument that a collapse in entitlements is the cause for suffering, rather than the traditional Food Availability Decline (FAD) argument. He used the 1970’s famine in the Wollo region of Ethiopia as a case study. In the years 1972-1974, more than 100,000 people in the country died from starvation. It is true that the rains in those seasons had been erratic and a drought began to intensify, but these factors alone do not account for the widespread famine. Also keep in mind that in formulating his argument, Sen ignores the intense political strife and vacuum of Ethiopia at the time, which saw the ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie and the warring of several militant factions for power, which was also ignored by the international community in their ‘humanitarian’ response.
Sen contends that this drought did more than reduce the food supply; it caused a collapse in the entitlements of agriculturalists and pastoralists, the basis of the Ethiopian economy. To combat the FAD approach to understanding the famine, Sen uses the Ethiopian government’s own—albeit vague—statistics of output to calculate that there was only a 7% drop in food supply in the nation during those years. But despite the relative availability of food, the population of Wollo suffered a tremendous blow from the famine. But rather than allow just the food decline of the Wollo region explain the crisis, Sen puts it in terms of a direct entitlement failure of the farmers and exchange entitlement failure for service providers. Infrastructure in Wollo was sufficient enough to bring in food from the more productive surrounding regions, but a collapse in market command failed to allow for this. In addition, food prices did not rise dramatically in this time, further supporting the argument for an entitlement failure rather than a purely environmental phenomenon.
With this understanding of the famine, it becomes clear that the standard international response of sending food isn’t the proper response. These people aren’t dying because they don’t have food. They’re dying because they don’t have the economic power to buy it. Flooding their markets with free grain just destroys their market command even further. How can a farmer sell what little he has and try to rebuild his entitlements if grain is being handed out for free? That’s not to say that some famines are in fact created by food availability and it’s not to say that sending food in emergency situations is a sin, but it should not be the knee jerk response of international humanitarian aid.
Though the outright continental theft of the 1800′s is over and the puppeteering and commandeering of African governments of the post-independence 1960′s is dead, there still remains a spirit of imperialism in the 21st century. Humanitarian action is the new force of globalization and a mask for political influence. The IMF and World Bank offer funds on the conditions of economic restructuring and generous concessions for oil and mining companies unsurprisingly based in the First World. The UN and Peace Corps offer their resources to develop a country, but at the expense of that nations sovereignty. But if we want the constant civil strife, political instability, economic stagnation, and social oppression of the continent to end, we can’t keep forcing down their throats the same Western ideology that they’ve seen for hundreds of years. Take the time to actually learn and listen to what the people need and want and you’ll serve them better. Understand the situation before you try to create a solution. Give them jobs. Give them the equipment to be more efficient farmers. Give them a path to political stability. Don’t give them western ideals of sainthood and society.