Listening to the People We Are Trying to Help

During my layover in Oxford I looked up a guy who I met last time I was in Kenya. Benny and I had become fast friends in Nairobi and kept in touch over email. Having since moved to England to pursue his studies, we were able to meet up for an afternoon. He drove me to Luten where he is currently living and on the way back I decided to ask him about his thoughts on the best ways to help Kenya. As he shared his insights with me, it occurred to me that we do not often stop to listen to the people we are trying to help. How absurd would it seem if we walked up to someone and began to try to help them without asking them about their needs? At first they might be politely amused or even grateful for our willingness but over time our failure to listen would keep our efforts ineffective. This seems to be the case with foreign aid to Africa. Many people, groups, and countries send help in various forms with massive sums of money being the most common, yet it seems that we are not really engaging the African people themselves as to what they really need.

One of the most frustrating debacles to many Africans I have met is their awareness that so much of the foreign funding that comes into Africa never truly reaches its intended destination. Roads, development, medication, food and the like all wait while politicians' pockets are being filled through bribes and patronage.

The time has come to quit blindly giving to Africa. I think that foreign aid itself is quite important to ongoing development yet it needs to be given in a way that assures accountability as to its use. When people are giving their own money in the private sector, they tend to only do so to people and organizations that they trust. I believe that if we begin to engage in conversation with Africans themselves, we can find a way forward to where we are no longer deciding what they need but listening to their actual expressed concerns and working to address them intelligently.

In a lecture entitled "Conflict and Governance in Uganda" to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Ugandan journalist stated the following: "What the US government should do is first of all, shift from giving too much money to the governement of Uganda. Whether it is for purposes of health or structure or whatever it is, US aid to Uganda needs to be significantly reduced… or eliminated because aid is a bad instrument of development policy. It distorts the incentives of government. Rather than the government focusing on its own citizens and how it can make them prosperous, it focuses more on how to manipulate and beg international donors for money. The idea that aid is a solution for our problems is a wrong idea." This quote is loaded with implications but here is a Ugandan trying to tell us how to help his country.

So what were Benny's thoughts? If you give a person a fish you will feed him for one day. If you teach him to fish it will feed him for a lifetime. What we really need, Benny described, is education and especially training toward vocational skills. I think this journalist and Benny both are brilliant men and that we really ought to listen to Africans just like them who are trying to tell us what is really needed in on their continent.