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Paul Theroux has written an entertaining but misguided screed against Bono and foreign aid in general in yesterday's New York Times titled The Rock Star’s Burden (login required)
Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.
I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children's Village. I am speaking of the "more money" platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for - and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.
Theroux sets up the usual straw man, asserting that people are arguing for more resources blindly disbursed in the same old way. But of course not a single soul is arguing for that strategy. The question that all are struggling with is how to make it work more effectively. Even our friend Jeff Sachs, perhaps the best-known advocate for more money, is calling for dramatic changes in how the money is used -- witness his Millennium Villages Project which is anything but "the same old way." Theroux also makes the usual mistake of citing Botswana as a country that succeeded without aid, when in fact it was one of the largest recipients. More importantly, his line of argument is blissfully unaware of the real debates now underway about how the system might be improved. It’s too bad that such a persuasive writer has merely muddied the waters.