Aid dependency and everyday life

Official development assistance to Malawi about $35 per capita annually (this, in a country where the gross national income is $170).  ODA only accounts for bilateral and multilateral transfers of money between governments; money flowing in through NGOs and non-profits bumps this number up a little higher.  And yet, has any country ever developed because of development aid?  I haven’t been here long, and I haven’t seen everything that development has to offer, obviously, but I am becoming increasingly doubtful that aid actually builds capacity to govern or to “develop.”  In other words, development agencies are not very good at putting themselves out of a job.  The problems of aid dependency range from large scale to minute.  While I know about some of the societal problems (the classic example being the erosion of the social compact between government and citizens, as government is more accountable to donor agencies/foreign governments than to its own people), most of what I’ve experienced is at the individual level.

I’ve gotten used to children demanding “give me money!” but the first time a guard on campus asked me, I was taken aback.  “Madam,” he said.  “Yes?”  “Give me 50 kwacha!”  Um, no.  I was even more surprised when a similar exchange took place between the house boy (who is actually probably in his 30s) and me last week.  While I understand that attitudes toward money are different here than in the US – namely, that the less fortunate have some sort of right to be shared with – I was frustrated and a little annoyed by the exchange.

It’s not that 50 kwacha is really that much – 35 cents – but to give it would 1) not solve the problem, 2) encourage this sort of behavior in general, and 3) open the floodgates for these requests from others on campus (I’m pretty identifiable).  To be fair, it was a rare occasion when I gave the homeless in DC any of my change for pretty much the same reasons.  Only in the event of a specific request (something to eat, subway fare for getting to New York Ave) could my pursestrings be loosened; the general shaking of one’s Subway cup in my direction was completely ignored.

Mostly, though, I was annoyed (probably in the typical American way) by the sense of entitlement by each of the askers had – the requests were more demands.  Has the influx of development aid into Malawi made Malawians view all foreigners as banks?  Who encourages this behavior?  Obviously someone has.  I understand that wages here are low and that jobs aren’t plentiful, but I can’t shake my Protestant work ethic and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality.  The houseboy, for example, isn’t doing hard labor and though I appreciate his work, if I come home at an unexpected time (say, 10:30 AM), more likely than not he, the guard, and at least two of his friends will be sitting in the living room watching TV.  Further, until he notifies the appropriate authorities that my hot water has been out for the past 2 weeks (and gets them to fix it), I’m not particularly inclined to provide him with additional compensation.

I have no solutions, no great revelations here – I’m just whining.  On the upside, I successfully obtained a visa (so I can stay here legally) today, my absentee ballot has finally arrived (and you know you’re from a small town when your neighbor puts a sticky note inside wishing you well), and I just got back a really helpful email from a shot-in-the-dark contact.  And I promise the next post will be more coherent!


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2 Responses to “Aid dependency and everyday life”

  1. Larkin Powell Says:

    Amy–I’m enjoying reading your posts. The ‘Southern Iowa Network’ got me your blog site. I’m setting ours up for Namibia; we leave in late December. Have you contacted your tax man?! It was good to see you at the orientation in DC. Good luck with your work, and I hope your hot water gets fixed before you leave.

  2. Linda Says:

    I don’t know, in spite of my vestigially Protestant (Unitarian) work ethic, I think if I ever ran into Bill Gates I might hit him up for $500 – or at least new shoes. I mean, why not?

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