Biological evidence against foreign aid to Africa as currently utilized Zeleke WA

June 25th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

A few days ago, I watched a video record of an interview of Dr. Dambisa Moyo, the Oxford and Harvard-educated Zambian economist, by an American and a Canadian journalists about her book “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa” (Published by Penguin Books in 2009). Dr. Moyo is a world-renown international economist who has served on many financial organizations at various capacities and lectured to different interested groups about the problems of foreign aids to Africa.

In the interview, the author argues that foreign aid to Africa as commonly utilized by most African governments has been incapable of delivering its intended and highly advertized purpose- helping the poor. Instead, she says, aid has contributed to the impoverishment of more Africans in the past fifty years. She links this problem at least in part to the lack of willingness of donor groups and government authorities to deliver the aid directly to the needy people of the continent and to utilize it for long-term solutions. Attempts to reach the people who need help through their government leaders have been unsuccessful because the leaders do not look at themselves obliged to help the people they govern. These authorities are not in a position to be accountable to their own people as they get most of their support from foreign sources in the form of aid without preconditions that are beneficial to the people. Ethiopia has been mentioned as a case example since 90% of the country’s budget comes from foreign governments as aids, and it is also registered second in the African continent in terms of poverty. This means, the African people living under such handout-prone situation do not have significant leverage on their own governments to force them to serve their interests. On the other hand, if the governments have no choice but to depend on revenues collected from the people (as widely done in the northern hemisphere countries), they would be forced to work for the people in order to stay in power. Since this is not the reality in the majority of the African countries presently, as pointed out earlier, foreign aid, as currently utilized, is considered to be a major cause of failure for the economic development and the promotion of democracy in the continent.

The purpose of this note is not to pursue further discussion on this line of argument about aid to Africa but, supporting Dr. Moyo’s viewpoint, to present biological evidence against aid as it is presently used in Africa. This biological evidence is related to a phenomenon occurring in the brains of aid receivers- whether government authorities or the needy people themselves. This is how they are connected.

Experimental findings are now available indicating that aid given “freely” (that is, without working for it) is not particularly motivational for productive activity. The most compelling evidence for this argument came from Emory University in Atlanta in 2003. In their published work, researchers from this University hypothesized that people who get money without corresponding efforts are less satisfied and motivated to work compared with those who earn it. This was shown experimentally by measuring brain activity in the striatum area using an MRI technique in two groups of volunteers. The striatum is associated with reward processing and pleasure experience, and hence is linked to motivation.

One group of the volunteers had to work to receive money by playing a simple computer game while the other group was rewarded without working or having to earn it. The brains of those who had to work to earn the money were reported to be more stimulated and active relative to the second group. Accordingly, the volunteers in this group were more aroused and motivated when they had to do something productive to get the money compared to those passively received the money. Behaviorally speaking, this observation was reflected by the degree of satisfaction they got from the money they were rewarded. These findings were supported by previous reports that people get a great deal of satisfaction and motivation out of the work they do. By contrast, individuals who are rewarded materials for “nothing”, do not sustain their happiness for a long time, let alone getting motivated to earn them in the future. For instance, it has been determined that lottery winners sustain their happiness only for a year after winning. Thereafter, most of them are likely to go back to their previous financial and lifestyle conditions- everything becoming history unless a similar ‘miracle’ shows up again to continue the cycle.

What does this have to do with the aid problem under consideration? Does it play a role in the underdevelopment of the African countries that heavenly depend on aids from foreign donors? According to the above experimental report, if people are not aroused by what they get “freely” in the form of aid, lottery or any other stuffs, they are hardly motivated to work in order to acquire it on their own. The stratums of their brains are not activated enough to lead to the full appreciation of the rewards they get and to acquire the necessary motivation and reinforcement. Although the ultimate big losers are the ordinary people, this situation has a varying degree of effect on both the so-called leaders and the people themselves. Because of the easy way the African leaders are able to get their means of survival from foreign sources, the described biological scenario is assumed to be functional in their brains. The implication of this observation is that whatever amount of aids these leaders receive, that by itself may not result in any progress in the way they carry out their jobs as leaders (if that is the responsibility they claim). However, in order to sustain their power they have to continue depending on foreign donors (meantime demonstrating their loyalty to donors), while at the same time suppressing legitimate challenges emerging from the oppressed people they govern, by usually force. The spill-over effect is more dampening on the needy and oppressed people who are forced to be part of the whole scheme, thereby robbing their motivation and reinforcement potentials for productive activity. This is so powerful on the people because besides given only a small fraction of the aid received in their names, they are at countless disadvantageous positions that are further inhibitory for self-reliance and productivity. Again, taking Ethiopia as an example, the present regim, for political and selfish reasons, has unjustly deprived most of the county’s poor farmers of the lands they need for farming even for their very survival. Such a gloomy situation in Africa is not only limited to economic problems that the people of the continent are facing persistently, but it is also related to the absence of hope for democratic transformation.

From the aforementioned account, one possible answer to the underdevelopment of African countries is to require government leaders to earn they want to receive from others. The assumption in this proposal is that these leaders are genuine and, given the opportunity, are willing to help their people. As supported by the laboratory experiments described, such a requirement has brain-stimulating, motivational and reinforcement effects. The same applies to the ordinary people seeking help, although the latter suffer from enormous additional problems caused by their own incompetent and unhelpful leader. The people should be central to the whole issue and every effort should be directed towards the ultimate goal of making them independent both economically and politically.

Although the relationships between reward, motivation and reinforcement have been well recognized quite for some time, evidence of their role in the utilization and impact of aid has not been clearly described. Thus, it would be of interest and beneficial to look into this issue further to explore the positive aspects that may be associated with it. It should, however, be noted that the comments made above do not necessarily mean that aid is unnecessary for the needy people of Africa. In fact, aid can be very helpful as long as its overriding purpose is to eventually result in independent citizens who can make it on their own. A change to a new positive outlook in this regard should start from the African leaders themselves, who, hopefully, by accepting and understanding the value of earned achievements, can provide a better service to the people they are meant to serve. If the aid that is available is not utilized for this noble purpose, besides remaining in severe economic stagnation, the people can be further affected since the aid can be misused by corrupt government authorities as a means of repression against democratic forces.

The know-how and good-will of donors and recipient politicians can determine the outcome of aid utilization. If it is not executed responsibly and effectively with full consideration of the peoples’ interest, then the people should have the right and the responsibility to take charge of determining their own fate. This is a human right issue, which is part of their God-given rights.
Therefore, in addition to the sociopolitical arguments forwarded by Dr. Dambisa Moyo surrounding the aid problem in Africa, the new biological evidence emphasizes the dark side of the matter when it is inappropriately handled. This is an additional fact against the misuse of aid that every concerned stakeholder should consider with added determination to bring about desirable economic and political changes in Africa.

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