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

I’ve been trying to sketch an outline of how Westerners tend to develop and characterize our relationship with Africa and the people who live there, specifically with reference to the international aid and development system. I’ve argued that the savior mentality is misguided, that Africa is not rightfully ours to save, and that a better way to assist would be through a paradigm of empowerment.

I conclude this two-part series by thinking about what is probably the biggest barrier to moving into an empowerment paradigm: the governments that give and receive aid. It would be possible to shift our way of thinking about Africa through education and experience at the individual, community and organizational levels. But I am far less optimistic about the prospects for change at the level at which projects are funded, at least insofar as it involves governments.

Why? Because aid – for donor governments and the governments that receive the bulk of aid – is inherently political.

Except in cases involving natural disasters or epidemic disease, donors don’t typically give freely to everyone out of good intentions. Aid projects are funded at least in part (and sometimes entirely) on the basis of donor priorities. When aid projects take into account the real, expressed needs of recipients (which are, I’m glad to say, increasingly real for most projects), they are often structured in such a way as to advantage suppliers or producers in the donor state or to reward good governance or provide support to an ally.

As we might expect, there is often a contrast between donor goals and what is actually needed in order to improve the material situations of the recipients. (This might explain some of the resistance to solid evaluations of development and aid activities.)

An anecdotal example:

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a World Food Program warehouse in North Kivu. The warehouse was enormous, with pallets of flour stacked 10 meters high. Most of the bags of flour were from USAID stamped with the ubiquitous “From the American people” label.

There is no question that food aid was needed. Millions of people in North Kivu live with chronic food insecurity, and that was a particularly violent year in the province.

But I couldn’t help but be struck by the absurdity of it all. There we were, looking at stacks of food that had been shipped 5,000-plus miles from the Great Plains of America while we were standing less than 50 kilometers from one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. It made no sense whatsoever that money should be wasted on shipping food when that same money could have been used to fund more peacekeepers, who could have stabilized the agricultural region, thus allowing farmers to continue their work, thus providing them with jobs and income while they supply the province with food.

So why does it work that way?

Because U.S. food aid functions as a subsidy to American farmers, who vote for the representatives who keep the rules governing food aid in place. It’s a form of patronage politics that is part of our foreign policy.

Moreover, despite lots of talk about improving well being for Africans and opening up trade with the continent, the West continues to keep a number of agricultural, immigration and trade policies in place that make it almost impossible for African businesses to compete in global markets.

AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act), though tied to political conditions, was a good first step in moving away from protectionist trade policies that made it impossible for African textile producers to compete, but we need an AGOA for every sector in every country that uses unfair trade practices while preaching the gospel of market liberalization. We need to play fairly.

Is there anything wrong with governments politicizing aid? Shouldn’t taxpayers in wealthy states expect that their financial contributions to the state will be used to advance the state’s interest? It’s a tough question, and not one that I have an answer for. Like “Tales from the Hood,” I’m not convinced that there’s always a win-win outcome to be found in these matters.

The politics of aid make me very cynical about the prospects for movement away from the savior complex. That’s sad because there are a lot of good people working at USAID and other agencies who genuinely want to empower Africans and move away from the status quo.

The key to understanding this issue is to remember one thing: Aid and development should not be about us. It should not be about Western-conceived preferences and priorities. Rather, it should be the product of collaboration, conversation and concrete steps toward African ownership of African development.

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 1: Aid for Africa – Can We Empower?

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