During a Brown Bag lunch on Thursday, March 24, at the Ho Science Center, President Jeffrey Herbst presented his thoughts on the effectiveness of foreign aid, focusing on the Sub-Saharan African countries. Citing his work and research experiences throughout his discussion, he explained the successes and shortcomings of foreign aid. Herbst stressed the importance of an informal lecture environment and set the stage for a dialogue between speaker and listener. He stood in the fifth row so as to better engage with the audience.
Herbst provided an explanation of the origins of foreign aid which did not exist prior to the Marshall Plan in 1948. He said that because of foreign aid’s “rock star” effect, with American dollars flowing freely to African countries, there has been a significant counter-effect. Herbst mentioned that there are other ways of helping countries in need, such as facilitating an effective trade system, strengthening the military and creating order or expediting foreign development. However, he said those approaches are not as appealing as hard cash.
“Trade is a less ‘sexy’ topic than giving money,” Herbst said.
He argued that monetary aid is not the end all, be all, of African development. For example, Herbst said the most dynamic sector of African development was the proliferation of mobile telephones. This managed to transform economies but foreign aid was not involved in any way. President Herbst shared his own observations about foreign aid, which he followed with a brief explanation of the different types of foreign aid.
His first observation was that aid is always political. This comment particularly moved junior Vashti Ziegler.
“I learned that foreign aid should not be as politically motivated as it has in the past because politically motivated foreign aid doesn’t benefit the country that needs the aid, but rather it serves to benefit the donor’s reputation in the international sphere,” Ziegler said.
Herbst also highlighted the fact that while volunteer groups like the ConCon Peace Corps have good intentions, they are typically only on-site for a relatively short amount of time.
“Money will always be used by the people on the ground for what they want to use it for. Where the money is redirected is your contribution to a foreign country,” Herbst said.
Westerners cannot “fix” a desperate country all at once, which Herbst claimed to be a general western assumption. The countries first need to effectively manage foreign aid implementation themselves.
“Very poor countries can’t democratize at the same time as they undergo all these small tasks,” Herbst said.
From his personal experiences, Herbst said Africans know everything about the aid debate and they do try to structure their own actions accordingly. The problem is that the effects of monetary aid are difficult to evaluate because it is nearly impossible to see where the money goes. A component of being successful in aid is therefore seen as the continuous giving. This creates an issue of arbitrarily giving money without actually doing anything.
“Actual implementation must be considered,” junior Ariana Minella agreed. “How is this done? How does our cultural context within a developing country’s cultural context affect the implementation of aid? These questions definitely make me second guess participating in the Peace Corps, etc., although I still believe that helping and giving is better than not trying at all.”
In the question and answer session, President Herbst addressed the positives and negatives of any foreign aid contribution. For example, globalization is more dynamic and faster than foreign aid, as communication among people like farmers and traders becomes more effective. However, globalization also facilitates the communication among terrorists.
“It is interesting to think about how we are led to believe that what we are doing is helping people in need, but in the end our good intentions are worthless in the political game of foreign aid,” junior Jessica Tenny said.
Herbst advised students not to lose hope in the foreign aid system, but rather to be conscious of the fact that “having good intentions is not always enough.”