National charity

I am a bit annoyed. If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, annoyance from me should come as no surprise. Of course annoyance is a many splendored thing, and part of mine today involves charity. Charity is a good and admirable thing. But is charity still charity when you’re forced to pay it? Is it still charity when you’re taken to task for not giving as much as the next person? Is it still charity when a significant part is used for purposes other than the reason it is given?

I ask these questions because I give over $100 a year to help people from other countries. I don’t know the exact amount of money I give because I have no choice in the matter, nor can I decide where it goes. My country’s foreign aid budget, when divided among the national population, works out to about $100 per person. I have no choice in the matter beyond who I vote for. Particularly annoying is the government itself cannot tell me where this money goes and what it is used for. Much of the foreign aid budget is funnelled through third-part organizations who have no obligation to account for how the money is used. Certainly they’d change their tune if the government made such reporting a condition of getting the money.

I can find no information on the current budget, but in 2005, my government donated somewhere between $40 million and $65 million to China. China! They can afford a space program, the largest standing army on Earth, and we’re giving them foreign aid? We’ve got ‘sucker’ written on our national forehead.

Even when it goes go to truly needy countries, how is it used? Look at Africa’s 900 million people. They received $103.9 billion in 2006 from the member nations of the OECD development Assistance Committee. This works out to just over $100 per African. Certainly $100 isn’t going to land the average African in the lap of luxury, but it buys a hell of a lot more there than it does here. The ads on television tell us that for the price of a cup of coffee, a poor African child can eat for a week, pay for a year of school, or get immunized. If Africa is receiving enough to do all these things and more, why are so many still illiterate, starving, and dying from easily preventable disease?

Perhaps we can get an insight from Sani Abacha. He was the de facto leader of Nigeria from 1993 until he died in 1998. During those give years, Abacha and his family stole an estimated $4 billion. In 2002, Abacha’s family agreed to return $1.2 billion to the government. While corruption of this magnitude is endemic in Africa, aid money is unsafe.

I agree that Africa is a disaster. There’s no arguing this. But I also agree that large amounts of unending aid serves to make corruption extremely lucrative. Will western governments continue to hand over money to make themselves feel better, or will they instead do something that’s actually helpful? A good first step would be to cut aid to repressive governments. Maybe if dictators couldn’t loot foreign aid and look like heroes when they dole out the dregs, they wouldn’t be so many eager to step all over their own people.

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