The Politiconomist

Where Politics and Economics Hang Out

The Trouble with Aid

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The Kony 2012 campaign is off to a strong start, what with all the criticism. And for those who don’t want to actually read the critiques, here it is, all conveniently summarized by two informed misanthropes in drinking game form.

So, now that we have established that Kony 2012 is at the very least not the most enlightened campaign in recent memory, let me now make the broader argument: that in general aid is wrongheaded. Basically it boils down to this: it’s bad for the economy and good for those already in power.

The Economy

So, there are a couple of facets to this one. The easiest part is that free stuff is really bad for the economy. For obvious reasons, if you give people free stuff, it takes away from the other stuff getting made. (If you need to draw a supply and demand chart, shift demand left to represent the donation and observe the change in quantity.) In time, the economy will adjust—indeed, in the idealized perfectly flexible economy economists fantasize about—but that time is not good. And, if the donations dry up, the economy has to flex back. And that’s all without raising ethical questions about agency for the people involved.

Macroeconomic development aid, typically donations between nations or from international agencies, is pretty hairy. The way these agencies measure growth makes sense in a functioning economy, but not so much in a developing one. Aggregate demand makes sense if that demand is sustainable, but there is a habit of funding unsustainable demand. Building a hotel, for example, makes sense if someone wants to stay in it. Problem is, the money spent on the hotel is counted the same as if it were spent on something useful. And when that runs out, the only way to keep that “growth” up is to take more money. This would be merely wasteful if it weren’t for the political systems it reinforces. While we’re on the subject…


As if it’s not bad enough that these methods don’t generally work and even do harm, we can talk about what they reinforce. See, it’s not like all that money ends up where it’s intended. There is a good dose of corruption in any political system, but most of the African nations excel at it on a level that only Chicago in the States seems capable of surpassing. Where does that money go? Into the hands of those with power, of course!

Since we’re ostensibly upset by the power structures, we should probably talk about them. First of all, if I may loop back to the Kony issue, Kony exists because there is a space for him. Knocking him out will necessarily change that space, but I doubt it will cure all ills in Northern Uganda. There will be another Kony; perhaps worse, there won’t be another Kony but someone substantially but not totally similar. The same is true of the underlying systems. We can’t just channel money into the same people who benefit from broken structures. For example, not only has the Ugandan government benefited a good deal from the , they have also brutalized the people the LRA purport to stand for and passed a number of brutal laws. (Close to my heart is the anti-LGBT violence they’ve supported, but the army is feared because of its violence against women and the property damage they do.)

Though, to a point, even mentioning the above power structures as wrong gets us into hairy territory. I’m not inclined to disagree they’re bad, but what ought we replace them with? You quickly find yourself imposing values on people who live in a context different than you. I’m not interested in supporting the anti-LGBT culture or a number of other institutions there. But…I don’t have to live with the institutions they are replaced with. I have no skin in the game so I can’t know what’s is good for people there, plain and simple.

Kony 2012 is probably as well intentioned as a lot of other advocacy organizations. And that’s nice. But these kinds of actions have real consequences for the people they purport to help. And often, that help isn’t so much a help. So, instead of watching a 30 minute video, I recommend giving some serious thought to the kind of structures this Western conception of help really helps.

Written by R. A. Stark

March 8, 2012 at 12:17 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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