In the mid-1990s, when Vietnam began to head down the path trodden by Asia’s emerging tiger economies, one of the slogans most frequently repeated to American businessmen hesitant to invest in the country was that “Vietnam is a country, not a war.”
The message was clear: Americans unable to get past their disastrous military involvement in Southeast Asia were missing out on business opportunities there. The same mindset could be said to hold sway among many of the nation’s charitable organisations and individual donors.
Take Africa, for example. While foreign aid has become all but synonymous with Africa and many of the problems ‘the continent’ still faces (if an area made up of 54 countries housing over a billion people can be fairly described using a single collective term), many of its countries are today on the verge of growth, not disaster. Nevertheless, aid collections, including the upcoming Folkekirkens Nødhjælp drive, continue to play on worn-out stereotypes.
Despite their worth for the most destitute, these campaigns tend to treat the development glass as half-empty, rather than half-full. A more effective approach would be to see emerging countries – not just in Africa, but also in Latin America, Asia and even Europe – according to their potential.
For the poorest of countries – whether in Africa or elsewhere – traditional aid programmes may still be what the doctor ordered. But once countries start showing signs of growth, donors should stop thinking less in terms of aid and more in terms of grants or outright investments that require recipients to attain specific, albeit simply defined goals. Is poverty declining? Is corruption increasing? Are human rights and the environment respected?
For countries that struggle with the basics of human existence, such requirements may seem like first-world luxuries, but getting to the point where they can accomplish the proverbial goal of fishing for themselves might just require being given money with strings attached.
Denmark is typically singled out as one of the few countries meeting UN aid goals. But sceptical world leaders looking to get more bang out of their aid buck ought to have a look at how that money is being spent. Just this week, Denmark agreed to help South Africa, which is officially listed as ‘developing’, build more wind turbines. The project is funded with Danish aid money, and while the immediate goal – helping poor Africans – is in line with traditional thinking, Danish companies clearly stand to benefit if the effort is successful.
Replacing altruism with corporate-mindedness might rub some aid purists up the wrong way, but what they can’t deny is that prosperity will come if donor funds pave the way for investment. It’s hard to argue the same if they keep being used to building roads that lead nowhere.