Africa: Empty Talk and Public Gestures

There is no need to question Bono’s sincerity or good will. The man means well. But that does not mean that we cannot question his judgment about the best methods to achieve his goals. Bono’s call is for massive infusions of financial aid and debt relief for African nations that have borrowed from the industrialized world. Is that the way to go? Charitable giving must serve some end beyond making the donors feel noble and good about themselves. If it makes things worse for the recipients, that has to be said.

Bono and the other celebrities who lead the call for aid to Africa frequently employ religious themes, one version or another of Christ’s command that we care for the least of our brethren. This puts Catholics in a difficult position. No one wants to be on the other side of an effort to aid the poor and the downtrodden, to sound like Scrooge or some Hollywood caricature of a self-centered materialist. So what should be our response if we are faced with calls for poverty relief that we are convinced are ill-conceived and likely to do more harm than good?

The best-selling author Paul Theroux is not burdened by these anxieties. He established his bona fides as a liberal humanitarian by serving in the Peace Corps in Africa in the early 1960s. This enabled him to say things that many of us say to ourselves, but feel uncomfortable saying out loud, in a New York Times op-ed column entitled “Rock Star’s Burden” on December 15, 2005. Try this on for size: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

What is your reaction? Mine was: Yesssssss!

Theroux maintains that people like Bono are calling for us to support financial aid for Africa even when it is counter-productive, that the grand gesture has become more important to them than results: “It seems to have been Africa’s fate to become a theater of empty talk and pubic gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help — not to mention celebrities and charity concepts — is a destructive and misleading conceit.”

Theroux has no objection to charitable and missionary activities, to targeted humanitarian aid and disaster relief. What he objects to is what he calls the “more money” platform, “the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief.” He states flatly that he has reached the point where he would not “send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for — and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful.”

He uses Malawi, the country where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, to make the point: “Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.”

What happened? Malawi relied too much upon the volunteer teachers and nurses. Bright young Malawians avoided teaching and nursing because “the pay and status were low.” Instead, they emigrated to Australia, the United States and Great Britain, which meant more volunteer foreign nurses and teachers were needed in Malawi. The volunteers came, and eventually went home, and now Malawi has a shortage of trained teachers, doctors and nurses.

What happened to the financial aid? “When Malawi’s minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth,” writes Theroux, the “simplifiers of Africa’s problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid.” This in spite of the fact that Malawi’s first president was a “megalomaniac who called himself the messiah” and “the second a swindler whose first official act was to put his face on the money. Last year the new man, Bingu wa Mutharika, inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs, one of the most expensive cars in the world.”

Yet Bono and Angelina Jolie go on calling for more money, as if the result of giving that money is irrelevant: “But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniancs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth. Such people come in all forms and they loom large. White celebrities busy-bodying in Africa loom especially large. Watching Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently in Ethiopia, cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity, the image that immediately sprang to my mind was Tarzan and Jane.”

I know: that is caustic language. But it is on target and it needs to be said.

What does Theroux propose as an alternative, besides cutting off the foreign aid to corrupt African dictators? “I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education” through foreign dollars sent to their governments “to work in their own countries.” “A recent World Bank study has confirmed that the emigration to the West of skilled people from small to medium-sized countries in Africa has been disastrous.”

“Africa,” he continues, “has no real shortage of capable people — or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa’s belief in itself.” Theroux points to Bono’s Ireland to make the point: “After centuries of wishing themselves onto other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation. In a word — are you listening, Mr. Hewson? — the Irish have proved that there is something to be said for staying home.”

There is nothing un-Christian or contrary to the spirit of the social encyclicals about saying these things, about calling for foreign aid to Africa in a form that genuinely helps Africans rather than in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves at their expense.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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