Home / Making Things Worse: International Aid and Development Policies in Africa

Making Things Worse: International Aid and Development Policies in Africa

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This article is part one of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience. 

  by Jonathan Pourzal

“The evolution of the role of NGOs in development represents the continuity of the work of their precursors – the missionaries and voluntary organizations that cooperated in Europe’s colonization and control of Africa.” — "NGOs: A Tainted History," New African, August/September 2005

In recent years, popular interest in Africa and the concept of ‘assistance’ to Africa, from both Western governments and citizens, has increased. But popular understanding about root causes of poverty and war in Africa has not increased, and therefore, the increased attention is not a positive phenomenon. Without understanding the core of a problem, one should not attempt to fix the periphery. Western celebrities build good PR by visiting destitute and war-affected regions, Western governments pledge to be doing all in their power to “help,” and hundreds of international advocacy NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are working to ‘fight poverty’ in Africa. So, why hasn’t poverty in Africa decreased?

The continent was divided into arbitrary pieces in the Berlin Conference of 1885 amongst the European imperialist powers, “entitling” them each to some territory. This occurred with very little knowledge or concern for the regional diversity of Africa, and its main purpose was to prevent conflict among European powers competing for African natural resources.

Ironically, the European elites justified their conquest with reasoning that parallels today’s Western justifications for similar actions: the interventions were humanitarian. (For greater detail, refer to the first few chapters of King Leopold’s Ghost.) American scholar Michael Klare correctly classifies modern interventions as “resource wars,” in rebuttal to right-winger Samuel Huntington’s claim that these conflicts are an inevitable “clash of civilizations.”

Imperialist divide and conquer policies exacerbated and stratified the existing cultural, geographical, and ethnic divisions of the continent. After African “independence” was granted in the 60s and 70s, war and conflict ravaged many African regions – continuing into the present day. The conditions ripe for war were only worsened by Soviet and U.S. interventions during the Cold War.

Western media has the audacity to categorize such wars as ‘civil wars’, when in fact, they are proxy wars. (The current situation in Iraq today, in which indigenous factions compete for power because of instability created by external forces, is similar.) The most prominent examples, however, are the genocide in Rwanda, the ‘blood diamond’ trade in Sierra Leone, a 20-year war in Northern Uganda and conflict in Sudan. Less known to most people was a vast war in which an estimated 4 million Africans died in and around the Congo – in less than a decade! About 1,000 Congolese still die every day from disease and malnutrition.

The exploitation, wars and diseases which are hurting Africa are now compounded by the racist economic policies which institutionally keep African farmers and businesses from the world market, and in effect, economically disempowered. As journalist George Monbiot notes, “the history of corporate involvement in Africa is one of forced labor, evictions, murder, wars, the under-costing of resources, tax evasion and collusion with dictators.” Even efforts which are largely believed to be a step toward equality in the world market—such as the most recent G8 conference and the promise of Western “debt cancellation”—are, in fact, nothing of the sort. According to writer Justin Schlosberg, “In Europe and America, our crippling subsidies and tariffs continue unabated while our governments preach the miracle of Free Trade to those who can’t afford it.”

So, if Western policies are preventing the development of African economies, why do they claim to be attempting to reduce poverty in Africa? There are 1000s of international NGOs, funded by Western governments, working in Africa to supposedly expedite development. In reality, however, their unregulated influence perpetuates Africa’s dependence upon the West, and crushes any possibility of African economic self-sufficiency – never allowing the continent to pull itself out of poverty on its own. If this were to happen, neocolonialist exploitation of the continent would weaken and eventually collapse, and this would be bad for Western corporate business. 

If the West truly wanted to assist Africa, it would fund the grassroots efforts being conducted by indigenous community-based organizations within Africa. I have researched and networked the past two summers in Uganda, and have seen that the best ideas and methods about economic development come from these indigenous sources. So, rather than devote aid money to NGOs attempting to ‘assist’ Africa with external methodologies and paternal charity, that money should be funneled straight to those grassroots efforts. Economic prosperity and sustainability can only come from the ground up and must be administered and implemented by those who understand the situation best.


Flounders, Sara. “The US Role in Darfur, Sudan.”

Foster, John Bellamy. “A Warning to Africa: The New U.S. Imperial Grand Strategy.”

Hodari, Jaime. “Poverty and Control: George Bush and the Millennium Challenge Account.” Journal of Politics and Society.

Hochschild, Adam. “Chaos in Congo Suits Many Parties Just Fine."

Manbiot, George. “Africa’s New Best Friends.” The Guardian Unlimited.

Schlosberg, Justin. “The Day the Music Failed.”

"Congo: Nearly 4 Million Dead in 6 Year Conflict." International Rescue Committee Special Report

“Why the Indifference?” United Movement to End Child Soldiering.

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About Clayton Perry