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Does Foreign Aid Cause Harm?

The problem is you can’t serve if you don’t know who you are serving.

Photo of a person showing a bandaid on their arm.
Photo of a person showing a bandaid on their arm.

After decades of foreign aid sent to countries in need, why have we yet to see more progress toward independence? There is a reason, and it is not what you think.

Maliha Chishti is a doctor and researcher specializing in war and post-conflict peacekeeping. In her 2016 Ted Talk in Toronto, she discusses her time working with the United Nations in Afghanistan, instituting security resolution 1325 on the women there. The purpose of the resolution was to help provide foreign aid that would assist the country in recovering from its long occupation and violence in the country.

She says the mission was unsuccessful. Maliha elaborates on her experience of landing in Afghanistan. Without domestic consent, knowledge of the land or culture, or the complexities of the war, the United Nations and other international organizations began to assess and assign the “right way” to Afghans.

Photo of a marketplace in Afghanistan.
Photo of a marketplace in Afghanistan.

This is not the first time that eurocentric organizations have landed in a country with foreign aid resources, all be it with good intentions, and have sullied a situation even further. After the horrific acts in Rwanda in 1994, the International Criminal Court created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). This tribunal was a huge learning curve for the international community. After much of the perceived work was done, many Rwandans still felt the promise of international justice did not take place.

The main problem money spent to create peaceful relations in the country was made by people who did not understand how to do so.

Traditionally peace and forgiveness in the country were not met through financial reparations or education on justice (the main focuses of the ICTR) but through the coming together of communities, sharing a drink or food, an apology, and then the welcoming of a person back into the community. Rwanda was once a significant promoter of international justice and the ICC. Today Rwanda is one of its harshest critics.

In May, President Kagame said that Rwanda “cannot support an ICC that condemns crimes committed by some and not others or imposes itself on democratic processes or the will of sovereign people.”

Photo of local people throwing their hands up in the air.
Photo of local people throwing their hands up in the air.

This is precisely the same problem that Christi describes in her experience in Afghanistan. A lack of knowledge and thinking that one way of living is superior to another. This leads to foreign aid being misused and people being stripped of the values and traditions they hold dearly. This further destabilizes a region and wreaks havoc on communities.

She believes that the secret to international aid being a success lies in first our understanding of them and then our ability to facilitate solutions that utilize a country's strengths and capacities. Success does not lie in our assessments of their failures or our dictation of perceived dominant western values.

Photo of a chart showing some common misperceptions between poorer and richer nations.
Photo of a chart showing some common misperceptions between poorer and richer nations.

There are so many ways people can work together cohesively and experience exponential growth. The key is first being open-minded and humble enough to understand “we” are not better than “them” and then diving deep enough and allowing the people to express what they need.

Autonomy is one of the greatest concepts we can all agree on—the right to choose. To choose their own government, to choose how resources are spent, to choose their own reparations, to choose how they can grow.

Although considerable gaps in understanding continue and much work is still required, some agencies are changing the face of international aid. Some Non-for-profits provide monetary support to people, which enables them to decide what food and resources to buy. It also allows them to solve local problems without international interference.

Some organizations have begun to encompass local knowledge and use it to benefit the people. Life for Relief and Development uses local agencies and vendors to support its work. One of the differentiating factors between LIFE and other agencies is the establishment of offices in the communities it serves and the hiring of locals to work in these offices. This gives LIFE a deep understanding of the historical, cultural, and political context of each region.

LIFE also supports local communities' development through local vendors' engagement. Once an assessment is done by the locals, LIFE can provide what is needed through local businesses. This supports those businesses which feed the regional economy.

Final thoughts, there is no “Us” and “Them,” only US. This is a global community in which we are all affected by each other. Contrary to common belief, another’s success contributes to the success of the whole. We should take time to pause and look at different ways of living with renewed eyes and see that all it takes for us to cause less harm and more good is the pursuit of knowledge to ultimately serve others. Through understanding and knowledge, the flow of generosity and good intentions can be well invested. With the acceptance of others as they are and cultivating them from their roots, they become a unique tree that bears unique fruit, ultimately contributing to our rich global community.



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