Foreign aid’s brutal reality

How often do you see adverts on television pleading for aid? It might be Save the Children pleading for assistance to help starving children in Somalia; Red Cross asking for assistance following a big earthquake, flood, eruption or other natural disaster. And they all want money. Money, money, money.

Foreign aid has its numerous critics. And at every point that I have noted the time passed between major events requiring foreign aid, all too often the same old problems arise:

  1. The aid is politicized – any aid given by a Government is likely to be in support of some sort of agenda, by nations intending to achieve X, Y and Z
  2. In third world countries in particular but also some more developed countries, politicians can be found siphoning off some of the aid and redistributing it to their mates
  3. The aid infrastructure in countries is too poorly developed to effectively distribute aid and the donors find themselves facing logistical issues getting the aid to where it needs to go
  4. A rash of big disasters relatively close together can be a bit harsh on even the more generous donors wallet and their compassion – whilst certainly having compassion, no self respecting person is going to run themselves out of money

And one that I think is perhaps the most problematic:

The aid given is sometimes not what is needed. People with good intentions, give teddy bears away, which is comforting for a child, but no use whatsoever if you have 20,000 people needing shelter. This has happened in Tonga after Cyclone Gita crossed the kingdom two weeks ago as a Category 5 monster.

Most people cannot or will not donate more than a small amount of money, simply because they need to fund their own lives somehow. Whilst most would have compassion for someone whose community has just been hit by a major disaster, does not mean everyone can just rush in and offer assistance. Or wants to. Some days I am not sure how well these salient facts register with aid organisations.

Sometimes the types of aid that are given to countries long term is completely wrong. Do any of the Middle Eastern nations really need the billions of dollars in military aid that the United States and Russia throw at them each year? Sure the trade off is that the more powerful nations might be granted access to the other nations mineral or energy wealth, as seems to be the case in the Middle East and several African nations such as Nigeria.

Unfortunately corruption is never far away from aid/disaster relief projects in many countries. In a country like New Zealand or the United States, the bigger problem might be bureaucratic bungling in the first days after a disaster, that cause some with time constraints to give up and go home. It is different in other countries such as Nepal, in that the aid might arrive on time, but then not be seen again because a politician has siphoned money or resources off to pay a debt or in anticipation of asking for favours, or selling the aid back on the black market.

Some countries have very poorly developed infrastructure, or it is very vulnerable and easily destroyed or disrupted. The recent disaster caused by Cyclone Gita in Tonga hampered relief because roads were badly damaged and the power supply was out in many areas – you would expect this to happen in a disaster zone, but

New Zealand too, needs to be careful about how and when it dispenses aid. If we are working in the Middle East with America, should we be supplying troops to a conflict where there seems to be no distinguishable outcome? When perhaps we should be helping with the removal of unexploded ordnance from lands that would be used for crops, but cannot because there are mines, shells, bombs, grenades, rockets and so forth buried in the ground that might explode if touched.

By all means donate money. It will be most welcome. But make sure that it goes to a reputable aid agency such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army or Oxfam. Make sure that the agency you are donating to has a good reputation – in the United States, the corporatization of aid, means agencies that might have been good when they were founded have declined in suitability.

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