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To Aid or Not to Aid

We had another great MAM colloquium last Tuesday with Rachel Adams the Associate Director for Africa from the Yale Office of International Affairs, and Biola Alabi, a Yale World Fellow.

Several interesting and relevant topics were brought up by our guest speakers during this session. We wanted to share our thoughts regarding the ones most relevant to the MAM program: cultural perceptions of countries with developed economies towards countries with underdeveloped ones.

During the discussion we were astonished by how often the role of media emerged as one of the main responsible influencers of public perception. Guided by our guest speakers, we discussed the typical prevalent picture that comes to mind when thinking about Africa, that false image of the ‘snotty child’ which neither Rachel nor Biola have ever seen before. Does it represent the real Africa? Or is it just a simple way non-Africans view Africans?

The colloquium was centred around this topic and it gave us some sense on how media influences public perceptions by focusing on the images the public would be most susceptible by, a most clever and effective tactic.

The role of foreign aid can result in similar results and impacts on the perceptions of people from donating countries towards people from receiving countries. Thus the question raised here is: foreign aid, good or bad?

Undoubtedly foreign aid can’t be viewed as the culprit, for it is only a tool by which the short-term living conditions could be improved in poorer countries. However, it could also be seen as a potential tool for social stigma and lack of self-reliance. So are African countries better off with or without foreign aid? Does this financial assistance hold them back from progress or pushes them towards it?

Firstly, we wondered: why would developed economies be interested in providing financial support to countries with weaker economies. Eventually we identified three major areas of gain from providing financial aid to weaker economies: 1) cultural expansion, 2) political leverage, and 3) economic interest.

So what does financial aid have to do with the media? Well, it can be argued that when people are given a notion to a concept by which they are not directly familiar with, they associate it to the closest one we are familiar with. In short, as individuals it is not uncommon to offer financial aid - in form of some spare change or charity - to others we view as less fortunate. We do not, however, expect anything in return other than, perhaps, feeling good about ourselves. Countries, nevertheless, operate at a larger framework in which their actions are generally driven, unfortunately, by self-interest. Thus when we think of financial aid, we, as individuals, tend to dismiss the reciprocal nature of the transaction. There is no such thing as a free lunch! (and we all need to eat)

Thus the side-effects of this vicious cycle can be broken down as such:

  1. Financial aid makes the receiving countries dependent instead of providing them with the capability of generating a self-sustaining economy;
  2. The relationship that has been created throughout the years between developed and underdeveloped economies indirectly influences the perception donors have of receivers as continuous dependents rather than future opportunities;
  3. This may negatively impact public perception towards these countries, as continuously financially dependent countries and therefore not potential candidates for future business endeavors.

With this framework in mind, is it possible to change this negative public image? Or is it simply the way things are?