Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on providing humanitarian relief to Africa.

If we are to move away from the savior mode into an empowerment paradigm when it comes to assistance to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, what needs to happen?

There are four sets of key players in international development and humanitarian relief: aid recipients, development and humanitarian professionals, donor governments and recipient governments. In the first part of this two-part series, I’ll tackle the first two sets of players. In the second part, I’ll deal with donor and recipient governments.

Who receives aid? Think of three broad categories of recipients:

  • People who need help and have human capital (that is, skills and abilities developed through education and experience).
  • People who need help and can’t use their human capital to make a significant difference in their well being. Think of children, those dying of incurable diseases, and those who have other physical or mental limitations that make it difficult or impossible to provide for their basic needs.
  • People who need help and have human capital, but are limited by their circumstances. Think about refugees, war victims whose livelihoods and opportunities are severely restricted by the conflict, or people who live in places where the educational system is so weak or focused on theory rather than practice that they cannot develop their skills to their full potential.

Acknowledging that there are millions of people on the African continent who live in conditions unthinkable in the West is important here. Africa has the capacity to solve many of its own problems. Believing this does not deny the huge dilemmas of poverty, disease, conflict and environmental degradation. Because these circumstances produce a high degree of human suffering in the form of early death, displacement, being orphaned and a myriad of other miserable happenings, I don’t subscribe to the view that all aid to Africa should end immediately. Too many people would die for no reason.

That said, we cannot behave as though the African continent is full of helpless, uneducated people who don’t know what their communities need. I cringe every time I hear a white Westerner claim to be a “voice for the voiceless” in Africa or anywhere else. Nobody is voiceless. It is arrogant and naive to assume that someone who lacks a platform for announcing his or her views, dreams and needs ipso facto lacks those views, dreams and needs in the first place.

There will always be a need to help the most vulnerable members of society, like children, the elderly and the sick. That’s true in wealthy industrialized states and in Africa. The disconnect with the savior paradigm is not related to the need; it’s related to who is delivering the services and to what ends.

Who provides aid? Think of three broad categories on the basis of motivation for getting involved:

  • The well-intentioned. These are people who want to help out of a sense of altruism or a desire to save the world.
  • The missionaries. These are people who want to help out of a sense of religious obligation or calling.
  • The adventurers. These are people for whom helping is just a job or an adventure.

Within all of the above-listed categories of recipients and providers, there is one further subdivision:

  • People who know what they are doing when it comes to aid and development work.
  • People who don’t.

I think it’s important for us to recognize this last point especially. Some people are doing a terrible job of providing aid. And there are recipients who are perfectly willing to accept aid (or even ask for it) despite solid evidence that the type of assistance they want is inappropriate. Some people have good intentions, some have mixed motives, and some are just in it for the heck of it. This is true on both sides of the aid dynamic.

There is a need to empower rather than save those living in poverty. How do we actually make aid and development assistance work to empower people? Here are a few ideas:

  • Build human capital. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do to help Africans who want to stabilize and develop their countries.
  • Capacity building. By “capacity building,” I do not mean, “Host a series of workshops at which 100 participants talk for four days and come out with nothing more than a plan for another series of workshops.” If we are serious about building human capital, we have to transfer control of concrete resources to those who are in a position to use them well.
  • Take advantage of skills and capacities that already exist. Rather than trying out the next big trend in development, perhaps we should focus more on funding people who are already doing this sort of work.
  • Create community ownership. Aid programs should be conceived in the communities they are meant to serve. This does not mean that best practices and solid examples of success elsewhere should not be emulated. It does, however, mean that the reality on the ground should be more important than donor priorities.
  • Engage in dialogue. If communities are truly allowed to be a part of the planning, implementation and evaluation process, ownership will develop.
  • Develop skills required to compete in the aid market. There is no reason that Africans should not be writing their own grant applications. Aid funding is a game, and we should be training people in the communities that the money is supposed to serve how to compete for it.
  • Hire locally. International nongovernmental organizations should move toward hiring more local than international workers and toward paying competitive salaries to local employees.
  • Train aid and development workers to work themselves out of a job.
  • Convince donors that Africans can manage their own affairs.

Does all this mean that there’s no role for the altruists who genuinely want to help? I don’t think so. It’s going to take time to build up capacity, and there’s a need for sharing knowledge and expertise along the way. Remember, though, that if our goal is really to empower Africans, there must come a time that we outsiders exit the stage. We have to keep reminding ourselves: Africa is not ours to save.

Of course, there’s still the problem of donor and recipient governments, who may or may not be interested in aiding, empowering or even helping aid recipients.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Part 2: Aid for Africa – The Biggest Barrier

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