Paul Theroux, Times Online
January 1, 2006
Andrew Mwenda’s position echoes the concerns of an opinion piece written earlier this year by Paul Theroux, the travel writer and novelist. Theroux, who worked as a Peace Corps teacher in Malawi during the early 1960s, maintains that despite years of foreign aid the once promising country of Malawi is now a failed state.
The barrage of well-meant aid money directed at Malawi has done more harm than good, he says.
“I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, Aids education or affordable drugs,” said Theroux. “Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children’s Village. I am speaking of the ‘more money’ platform” and “the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labour and debt relief. We should know better by now.”
But, Theroux adds, he would not send private money to a charity or foreign aid to a government in Africa unless “every dollar was accounted for,” and that never happens, he says:
“Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points, too.”
Theroux argues that donors ignore the deeper reasons why countries like Malawi are failing because they turn “a blind eye” to, among other things, “bad governance” and “rigged elections.”
Referring to Irish rock star Bono of the music group U2 in the title of his editorial, “Bono Aid Is Making Africa Sick,” Theroux derides the efforts of celebrities and charity concerts to save Africa as “a destructive and extremely misleading conceit” because it deepens the perception that Africa is “fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help.”
Citing Bono again, Theroux likens the African situation to the singer’s home country of Ireland:
“Both countries were characterised for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs,
malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather. . . . Just a few years ago you could not buy condoms legally in Ireland, nor could you get a divorce, although (just like in Malawi) buckets of beer were easily available and unruly crapulosities a national curse.”
According to Theroux, Ireland was once the Malawi of Europe, and its main export, immigrants, became the country’s greatest loss.
This last point, contends Theroux, is of particular importance to Africa: over the years, the effects of a brain drain of educated and skilled Africans from the continent to other parts of the world has been “disastrous” and also represents another consequence of the self-defeating, crushing mentality donor aid perpetuates.
“Africa has no real shortage of capable people – or even of money,” says Theroux, but “the patronising attention of donors has done violence to Africa’s belief in itself.”
Looking to Ireland as a model for Africa, Theroux concludes:
“After centuries of wishing themselves on to other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation. . . . the Irish have proved that there is something to be said for staying home.”