"Generosity" & Human Nature I – Der Spiegel Interview with Kenyan Economics Expert James Shikwati

Note from November 2007: This was originally posted on a blog of mine that was hosted on Blogger. I’ve since imported that blog over here to C Good’s Things on WordPress.

This is a link to an article in Spiegel Online with a Kenyan economics expert, James Shikwati.

Mr. Shikwati convincingly argues that one of the biggest problems that African countries face is all the aid they get from the rest of the world. At the start of the article, when the interviewer mentions that the G8 will probably increase aid to Africa, Shikwati’s reaction is ” . . . for God’s sake, please just stop.” (!!)

Shikwati goes on with some very solid reasoning about why aid is bad, including some arguments that I hadn’t thought of before. Why should Kenyan farmers or tailors work hard or try to grow their businesses, when they are going to be undercut in the market by donated food & clothing? Why should different African nations try to get along better and develop better trade, friendlier laws & better roads when it is so much easier to run crying for aid? Why should African bureaucrats try to encourage home-grown businesses or self-sustaining programs when their job is to distribute aid that comes from abroad (and if there’s no more aid they won’t be able to reward their friends & supporters with money or goods they’ve skimmed off the top and they’ll even have to find new jobs)? And why should anyone in the rest of the world expect U.N. bureacrats to find a lasting solution to hunger in Africa, when such a solution will mean the end of their jobs dispersing aid?

Shikwati also states that the problem of AIDS in Africa is blown way out of proportion, while malaria, which is a much bigger actual problem, is hardly ever mentioned. I have read this in other places too.

Too much aid creates dependence in the person or people receiving that aid. This dependence is sometimes an untinended result, but all too often it not an unintended result, even though the person administering the aid will cut their own throat first rather than admit to themselves or anyone else that dependence was their goal. If the person administering aid takes offence or gets huffy when the aid recipient gets back on their feet and says “Thanks for the help, but I’m fine now and I can probably take it from here.”, that is a very good indication that the aid giver had darker motives than just altruism when they gave the aid.

I will let Shikwati’s words speak for themselves:

In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It’s a simple but fatal cycle.


Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They’re in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria’s textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

In the industrial nations, there’s a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn’t do all that poorly either.

Unfortunately, the Europeans’ devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason.

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