Africa is a continent rich with natural resources and economic potential. Goods such as ivory, coffee, diamonds, and oil are exported all over the world. Its innate farming culture allows people to raise cattle and produce vegetation that can sustain entire communities. And yet, in spite of its many resources, Africa has almost become synonymous with poverty and hunger. Millions of children live on less than $1 a day and die from diseases that are entirely preventable.
This tragic reality underscores the ineffectiveness of the kind of foreign aid that Africa has received over the last 50 years. Since the 1960s, the West has invested over $300 billion in foreign aid in the continent with virtually nothing to show for it economically, socially, or politically. Africa’s persistent poverty and underdevelopment defeats the noble purpose and intent of foreign aid. In fact, it can be argued that it has crippled the continent, making it worse than it was 50 years ago.
Instead of fostering economic and political development, foreign aid often causes unprecedented corruption and a culture of dependency. For starters, foreign aid seldom makes it past the doors of political leaders, and so fails to spur the creation of programs and other developments that can benefit the communities. Secondly, there are misguided conditions for receiving foreign aid and donor countries are disproportionately favored over and above recipient countries. African countries given foreign aid aimed at infrastructure investments are conditioned to use engineering and construction firms from donor countries. These practices do not grow the local economies of countries on the receiving end because the money only circulates in the economies of donor countries.
Thirdly, the current manner in which foreign aid is given creates a culture of dependency, which kills innovation on the part of African leaders and the wider community. Finally, and perhaps most important, there are often other financial strings attached, such as oil in Nigeria’s case, that causes the international community to look away when all of these other vices are being committed.
However, there is a different type of aid that has the potential to get countries that have suffered extreme economic hardships back on their feet. This aid is modeled after the success of the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan, which was given for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II from 1948 to 1952. And it was largely successful for the same reasons that foreign aid given to Africa has not been successful: The aid was invested in the local economy, businesses and infrastructure, meaning that it was not simply given to buy off government leaders. There was also a system of accountability which prevented theft and corruption.
Many African leaders at the last African Union General Assembly called for this type of economic development assistance over the way foreign aid is typically administered. More so than the international community or other experts, Africans are the best experts of their context and know the types of investment that it will take to get their economy growing.
The United States would also do well to make this type of investment in Africa because of how Africa is connected to the wider, global economy. Currently seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. A timely Marshall Plan will not only further accelerate the tempo of their own economic growth but also have a hand in stimulating economies around the world.