When I first arrived in Malawi with the Peace Corps, I thought all its schoolchildren needed was computers and pencils to achieve the intellectual standards of the developed world. After a year or so, I realized that the problems in Malawi's education system, and culture as a whole, had much deeper roots.
The truth is that our aid efforts in countries like Malawi often do no good, or even negatively impact the culture. Moyo's Dead Aid and the works of William Easterly outline how our development assistance can prevent African nations, in particular, from evaluating closely their own financial resources, and should be phased out. Other scholars, like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier, say that in fact more aid to Africa is necessary. All – Moyo, Easterly, Sachs, and Collier – agree that the only path forward for Africa involves the development of its own industries and markets, which necessitates some private sector involvement.
No matter where you fall on the issue of aid in the future, we can all agree that aid now could be better spent. The problems with bed-net distribution in Africa – that people don't use the nets properly, that free nets put local manufacturers out of business, that recipients hoard nets and sell them at 100% profit – are well-publicized, but I was still shocked to see USAID mosquito nets acting as my neighbor's curtains. My school received three computers from an American church, but we didn't have electricity. Nor did we have the concave mirrors we needed to fix the microscopes donated by Bausch & Lomb.
These instances of useless aid did more than waste postage. I had noticed a crumbling structure at the edge of my school's property; I was informed that it was an unfinished classroom originally built by the EU. When I proposed a capital campaign in the village to finish the structure, which required only making mud bricks and buying some cement and aluminum sheets, for a total materials cost of about $50, I was met with flat resistance. Why should they raise money, the school board argued, when surely some agency would come along to build it for them?
The problem wasn't that the donations were too generous, or too many. It was that they were illogical. From a Malawian point of view (as well as my friends could explain it to me), Americans have so many microscopes and computers that they can afford to just throw them anywhere, even where they won't be used. If your only exposure to America is its thoughtless extravagance, is it any wonder that you lose respect for its donors and agencies? When I visited Livingstonia, the first settlement of British colonists in Malawi, I was pressured to take plastic tubs of knitting supplies down the mountain to my school. They'd been sitting in a shed for years, apparently, without any clear destination; nobody wanted the skeins of yarn and crochet hooks.
I truly believe that Americans want to help people, and that people in the developing world need our help. I think we're just not very good at supplying it. It's too far away, and the lifestyle is too foreign; even after spending two years in Malawi, I'm still not sure what Malawians need most or how to help. But ignorance is no excuse for apathy. What we need is better research, more insight, and greater ambition. It's not enough to send books. True progress will come from policy change and an mindset shift: the sooner we acknowledge that working with people in developing nations benefits us as well as them, the sooner we can all move forward together. The best work we can do is about facilitating independent economic development, providing infrastructure and credit markets, knitting together people rather than yarn.
People often ask us what they should do to help. Donating clothes, books, or computers is a very nice thing to do, and I have no doubt that the recipients of such items are grateful to get them. But I think our responsibility to the developing world is much greater, and much broader. We've got to distribute vaccines and medicines, but we've also got to change minds, donors' and recipients', about how charity works.
And while we're at it, we could use some concave mirrors.