Is foreign aid doing Africa more harm than good? That question surfaced very quickly in the opening session of TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania, sparking a lively point-counterpoint between Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda and unannounced guest Bono. The conference, never before held in Africa, attracts a famously eclectic group, largely from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design (hence the intials TED.) In the room yesterday? Everyone from Google's Sergey Brin and Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr to primatolgist Jane Goodall and Ethiopian economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin, who is working on establishing the first Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. .
I have made several trips to Africa before, most recently visiting Zambia with a group called Friends Of Zambia dedicated to attracting more foreign aid and trade to that small southern Africa country. I was so moved by what I saw in my stops at schools, orphanages and hospitals that I vowed to both stay involved personally and try to do what I could to bring the issue to the listeners of the talk radio show I host with my four sisters, Satellite Sisters on ABC Radio and XM. There are moments when the challenges seem so complex that you don't know where to begin, then you see that a village just needs a well to get clean water or a girl just needs a uniform to go to school and you know where you can start.
One of the opening speakers at TEDGlobal this week was Andrew Mwenda, a Uganda journalist and fellow at Stanford. He voiced a point of view that I have been hearing more of lately: that the foreign aid provided by developed nations is doing more harm than good by propping up corrupt governments and turning the citizens into passive recipients of charity instead of active parts in the building of their countrys' economy. It's direct foreign investment that will begin to change the economic dynamic here, not charity.
Based on the reaction from audience members from 40 different countries with a large African concentration, Mwenda's position was widely held. To make his point, Mwenda took a few swipes at the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, claiming "it was not as great as it was cracked up to be." Then he challenged the audience to "give me a single example of one country that was developed with aid. Just give me one example."
That's when some gentle heckling began from a familiar Irish voice in the audience. Most people in the hall did not even realize Bono was there. After a short break he took the stage with a short video from German Chancellor and G8 chair Angela Merkel and this opening line: "try telling Angela Merkel that the Marshall Plan was a load of crap." Bono, one of the world's most visible proponents of debt relief and massive development aid to Africa from the G8, said Germany was a "brilliant example" of how aid can work. "It was a bulwark against sovietism and also an act of mercy." He went on to say that "the Cold War was fought in Africa, too. We were complicit in supporting murderous regimes like Mobutu's. I don't think it is charity to pay back those countries several generations later. It is justice."
Addressing the growing feeling that debt relief will not get African nations nearly as far as western direct investment, Bono said "You'd think somebody farted in here when the words 'debt relief' came up - ooh, debt relief, that's so uncool. Well, I will tell you that 20 million children in Africa are going to school today as a direct result of debt relief, 3 million right here in Tanzania alone. The reason Ireland now has one of the hottest economies in the world and gets all this direct investment from companies like Google and Intel is that they realized Ireland had an extremely well-educated population. Even I was extremely well-educated,' he joked. 'Combine a well educated population with the kinds of tax relief that was offered to companies coming in and you have economic growth. Only the state can offer that package."
To Mwenda's charge that every minister in every bloated department has a fleet of cars, yet few dispensaries have even a single ambulance, Bono conceded that "this can't be about redecorating presidential palaces" but reminded the audience that "3000 African kids will die today of malaria so you have to work on the micro as well as the macro economic issues."
No doubt, this is just the beginning of many debates that will play out this week at TEDGlobal. It's too simple to decide that either aid or trade is the solution, though I was surprised to hear from journalist Carol Pineau, the producer of the documentary Africa: Open for Business that "no one in Africa really believes any more that aid does any good at all." Really? That shocks me. I believe ultimately that it is jobs and business and sustainable industries will be the most powerful tools for lifting up these countries but can free market forces save the people dying of AIDS right now? I don't see how. I have worried in the past that because so many of the resources that come to Africa come in the form of aid, that Africa's best and brightest are working for NGO's and charities, instead of starting their own small businesses. Two years ago I met a fantastic young man in Lusaka, Zambia running an orphanage. His managerial skills were so impressive that I couldn't help thinking to myself whether the country would be better served if this young man were given the money to start a business instead of an orphanage. Does aid create a brain drain away from agriculture and industry and towards relief work? It clearly can. But for me, as one American woman with a radio audience of many American women, I've got to think that I belong in the camp that's helping to respond to the day-to-day needs on the ground of girls and women who are just trying to make a life for themselves and their communities. I don't know exactly what every individual should do but I do believe that no one should be doing nothing.