This is an expansion on a comment I made in response to Shanikka’s diary over at MyLeftWing on Niger.  I posted the diary there, but thought it worth posting here, as well.

The first thing we can do in response to the current starvation, of course, is to send our donations for immediate relief–and to send them now.  Doctors Without Borders is a good place to start.

The second?  Well, Niger has been heading in this direction for decades–ever since the drought of the mid-1980s.  Ultimately, it did not help that so much aid was sent then, for it was like putting a bandage on a wound without doing anything about the corruption beneath.

Certainly, the Niger government is not nearly the worst in West Africa, but it is not quite the best, either.  Simply providing it with money is not going to be the answer (not even if corruption weren’t a problem).  And concern should not be limited to Niger.  Mali is soon to have problems, and likely Burkina Faso will join them (though probably to a lesser degree).  Senegal, Mauritania, Chad… the problem of drought and pestilence is not contained in any one country.

So what can be done?
Watch out for the high-profile, advertising-driven, so-called “aid” organizations.  Find the organizations that do more than merely hand out money or food, that work with African communities towards self-sufficiency.  One that surprised and impressed me (given what I had known of it before living in Africa–through its advertising) is Save the Children, which works with entire villages.  Another one worthy of support is The American Friends Service Committee which has sponsored good projects along the Niger River in Mali.  Also, find out if there is anyone from your area serving in Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps Volunteers work with very little money, so don’t help spread corruption, and often create small “secondary” projects that could use a little bit of outside funding.  Because they are “on the ground,” the PCVs can tell us fairly accurately which organizations are doing the best work in any particular region.  Another organization worth supporting, which has projects in Chad and Burkina Faso, is the Mennonite Central Committee.

One of the most important things any of us can do is pressure our government to see Africa in terms other than “us versus them.”  Too often, we support governments we can manipulate to our own (US) ends.  Instead, we should support only those governments genuinely working for reform and against corruption.  The government of Mali comes to mind as one that really should receive more support from the US.

Whatever organizations we support, they should be ones with large local contingents amongst their African staffs.  Foreign aid workers can never know a country the way local people can, and there are Africans available who are not corrupt, who are educated, and who do care about their countries.  They will always do a better job than us foreigners.

The record of aid to Africa has been abysmal.  Making sure that we are not simply further the failures of the past is of extreme importance (see this article for more on the issue).  One of the most important things we can do is make sure we are not compounding the failures of the past.

Finally, the most important thing we can do is not give and forget.  That’s what happened after Live Aid.  It should never be allowed to happen again.

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