It’s a Question of Aid

third-world-aid-fail In Cairo, where I lived for three months, the ex-pat community was fluid – meaning people come and go within a year or so.  And it was also extremely small, as I have found out on multiple occasions.  Soon enough, every new arriving foreigner is connected to every other by no more than 2 degrees.

It’s not hard to meet people in Egypt, but for someone who did not work – and thus not integrated into the white-collar working population of Cairo, meeting Egyptians that you can comfortably converse with, free of anxiety of getting either duped or seduced, was a challenge.  So when one of my roommate’s Egyptian friend drops by our apartment, I would always chat him up about my Egyptian life.

In Egypt, you don’t really stand around talking about the weather or other pleasantries.  The conversation is usually sparked by random events during the day, and inevitably descend into hour-long discussions conducted in our narrow kitchen on everything from corruption, to poverty, to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

One of the things we discussed often, was the problem of aid.  We discussed it often, because things around the apartment would just stop working sometimes. All the time.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of American aid, next to Israel. That much is common knowledge.  What enraged him and many of his contemporaries, are the back-end deals that crippled development in Egypt. Apparently, in return for receiving aid, Egypt had to shut down many of its own manufacturing facilities and kill their budding industries, so they could be handed money to buy the myriad of expensive imports from abroad.

Speaking of imports, Egypt gets shafted.  In an extremely compelling of case of how the poor ACTUALLY pay more (unlike the Washington Post story that is full of holes), Egyptians do pay exorbitantly more on everything from vacuum cleaners and electric blenders, to washing machines and fans, than consumers in Western Europe and North America.  And the quality is always, always, much worse.  Like the rest of the world, most of those household electric items are made in China.  But unlike most places, products that arrive in Egypt either came from the “reject” pile, or got churned out from a back room where the concept of quality control had yet to emerge.

By the time I arrived in the apartment, our carpeted living room had not been cleaned in weeks since the last vacuum cleaner broke.  Unable to get in touch with our landlord (most apartments to foreigners are fully furnished, responsibly thus rest with the landlords), whom spends his winter months in Dubai; we simply abandoned the enormous living room as a lost case, and conducted the majority of our activities within the confines of our bedrooms.

After a while, the fine sand and dust from the desert seeped through the windows began to conquer the living room. The situation eventually became so embarrassingly bad, my German roommate decided to buy one herself from the one and only western-styled mall in the outskirts of Cairo. Not yet halfway through our first attempt, the suctioning sound became abnormally loud. Before we could say “turn it off”, the room became enveloped in a dusty fog.  The machine’s noisy power was matched by its unwitting ability to turn our living room into the streets of Cairo on a windy day.

These stories are common with ex-pats put up in furnished apartments. The washing machine’s broken?  “It’s Egypt.” Your hot water supply is either non-existent, or leaves you with third-degree burns? Whaddya know, “it’s Egypt!”.  Your fuse box blows out for the third day in a row? Shrug, “it’s Egypt!”  Decades of industrial inactivities have rendered Egypt unable to produce even the most basic electronic devices.

At this point, our friend would make the daring point that, for developing countries like Egypt, it’s better to be America’s enemy, than her friend.  Puzzled, I asked him why.  His answer was: Look at Syria, look at Libya, both loathed and openly feud with the US, and clearly not receiving any aid.  Yet both are much more self-sufficient than Egypt in terms of their respective industrial developments.  I have been to neither countries, nor am I familiar with the level of industrial progress of them.  But as far as the effect of aid is concerned, I am beginning to concur with his opinion.

A Kenyan economist named Shikwati, tells the west to pull the plug from the whole development aid business, and try interacting with Africa in a different way.  I can’t agree more.  His opinion is shared by a German diplomat, whose essay I covered a while ago.

During the interview, Shikwati could barely hide his distain of the western approach, citing examples of wasteful aid that undermines organic development of African industries.  Something as innocent as food aid undermines the development, if not the very survival of the entire agriculture sector. Local farmers cannot compete with the price of subsidized foodstuff from overseas. And with bags of readily consumable corn coming in from oversees, why would anyone pick up a hoe and work for months, only to dump the fruits of their labour at below production price?

I spent some time in the shipping industry, and I can confirm what he said about the used clothing business is completely true. I used to be responsible for routing containers of used clothes from Toronto to the port of Mombasa, and wondered where the demand came from.  Little did I know that this form of external stimulus could potentially strip local tailors of their livelihood.

While economists would argue about competitiveness, relative versus absolute advantages, and wishfully conjure up new potential industries for the continent, those with any knowledge of political economy would argue otherwise. In their infancy, blossoming industries need a certain (some would say, a great) amount of government protection and subsidy to eventually survive, compete, and maybe, if they are very good and very lucky, thrive in the international market.

But all this talk seems irrelevant and hardly meaningful in face of disgraceful corruption, environmental degradation, and cycles of unrelenting instability and violence.  If decades of aid only plunged the continent into more disorder and over-reliance on the outside, is it not time to try something else that does not cripple organic development of its own people and industries?

Something? Anything? Nothing?

picture source: paddyf123

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