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The Emergent Continent: Part 4 of 4: Re-conceptualizing Aid

 The Emergent Continent: Part 4 of 4: Re-conceptualizing Aid

This is a guest post by Carol Gallo, who blogs at the UN Dispatch, and is the last of a four-part series.


In the first part of this series, I broke down the problematic nature of the contemporary development aid framework, which resulted in the denial of African innovation and a charity mentality among Westerners. In the second part, I discussed how the story is changing with the emergence of the Cheetah Generation, and in the third, I talked about the younger generation of aid workers and emergence of the Smart Aid movement.

Increasingly, “least developed countries” are demanding a voice in the development agenda and are calling for less charity and “more and smarter investments.” There are calls for transforming attitudes about Africa “from aid and humanitarianism to solidarity.” In a piece for the Guardian, Knox Chitiyo writes about how the UK is coming to see its relationship with African countries in terms of trade, not aid.

So if aid was to be restructured such that developing countries are seen as equals and Africa is seen without paternalism from Westerners, then what is the role of the aid industry? And why is smart aid qualified to be the philosophy underpinning this transformation?

Source: One International

Some Initial Thoughts

Here are a small handful of illustrations of how the flow of ideas and “aid” are becoming a multi-directional street:

  • Ushahidi, the innovative mapping software, has been used all over the world for everything from emergency response to election monitoring to where to find the best burgers.
  • In the summer of 2011, Reason magazine ran a story about mass transit called “What Sub-Saharan Africa can teach San Francisco,” which looked at informal transportation networks in a geographically diverse selection of African cities and how San Francisco can learn from their examples.
  • CNN recently ran a story called “Africa can teach the world to innovate, says author,” accompanying an interview with Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent.

Development almost always means different things to different people, but many times what people really mean when they say “developing” countries is “poor” countries. The first thing the development aid framework will have to do is drop this “we are developed and they are developing” attitude. The point is that there are not two universes here—“developed” countries have many of the same problems and confront many of the same challenges as those in the “developing world.” It’s about breaking down the wall that separates “their” challenges from “ours.”

Rather than this model: Benevolent Western Aid (i.e. $) → Poor, Undeveloped, African People (Often with African Governments as an intermediary)

We should conceptualize aid more like this: People with money, and people with resources (access to different kinds of capital, networks, connections, mentors, etc.) → People with good ideas → People who can execute those ideas

That re-conceptualization is exactly what the Smart Aid camp is trying to enact. And the Cheetah Generation is ready and able to play their part.

This is not to throw context out the window, however. What it means to be economically productive in one context won’t necessarily translate in other contexts. Local knowledge is really important, making collaboration a necessity.

The re-conceptualization of aid needs to internalize this and be wary of streamlining the challenges and goals of aid.


Some Concluding Thoughts

To illustrate this, take this story with the almost laughable title “Cambridge students spur entrepreneurship in Rwanda.” This project involved students from Cambridge University collaborating with students at the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology and “a host of leading Rwandan entrepreneurs.” It seems like a great example of Smart Aid.

Yet running through the article is a subtle undercurrent: Rwandans can’t do this on their own, they are reliant on “Benevolent Western Aid.” It is totally possible, maybe even likely, that the project itself carried no such tinge. But the need to frame the project this way – “we” are helping “them” – on the Cambridge research news website, for a Western audience, says something about the way aid is talked about even in erudite circles.

The way forward, then, is to change the narrative for a broader audience. There are countless Africans who are ready and are more than capable of offering an array of voices. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and websites that facilitate intellectual and practical exchange, it is easier than ever for anyone to hear them.

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