“In the end, whether it is rich businesspeople donating their money for the reconstruction of a national monument or ‘average Joe’s’ trying to help others in need, foreign aid is, and always will be, flawed.”
Almost three-and-a-half decades ago, the air was filled with hope and compassion. In London, hundreds of people chorused to a song about Christmas and healing the world; in Philadelphia, a song about unity and change made thousands raise their voices. Meanwhile, entire communities and countries in Africa were fighting for survival in an epidemic of famine and poverty. Millions of dollars were raised, but the suffering didn’t stop.
Three months ago, a wind of solidarity and faith traveled with the sound of reggaeton. In Colombia, hundreds sang and danced their hearts out to songs about Latinidad and happiness. Meanwhile, across the border in a hunger-stricken Venezuela, people were thirsty for freedom and justice. Millions of dollars have been raised, but the suffering continues.
Foreign aid and donations are flawed. Still, they are not easy to handle, nor should be criticized as lightly as many have. I will not get into the nitty-gritty of how foreign aid and donations work, but it is important to mention that there are many ways they are provided. Foreign aid can be transformational or marginal, focusing either on specific issues of specific groups or in aiming for economic growth. While transformational aid intends to fix larger problems, it needs a large and practically flawless organization to handle capital or material resources. On the other hand, marginal foreign aid seeks immediate benefits and usually gives donors or volunteers nice memories or pictures of their kindheartedness. As I see it, there are three main problems with foreign aid: the white savior complex, corruption and lack of transparency, and the political interests shadowing any type of help.
White Savior Complex
You are a young white male traveling to an African country to see people die before your eyes. You need to help them. You might not be an expert, but you are quite influential. After visiting Ethiopia and watching real-life starvation, in 1985 artist Bob Geldof organized a series of concerts to raise money for famine relief in Africa. He allegedly raised $127 million USD. Thousands of people gathered in Philadelphia and at Wembley; dozens of artists expressed their concern and support for those who were suffering and even made songs about it. Similar to Geldof’s idea and creation of, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, in the United States, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie came up with a successful campaign to fight famine in Africa with the song, “We Are the World.” Everyone who was anyone sang a verse of the songs.
The white-savior complex has prevented foreign aid from working, making it more about the donors than about the causes.
Live Aid, both in 1985 and 2005, white-washed real problems of real people in impoverished countries in Africa by using photographs of these people and their inhumane living conditions to launch one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in history. The artistic aristocracy stood before a microphone and sang without understanding how little they were helping African families—and how much they contributed to the soft power of their countries. The awareness created through the concerts and pop-songs built the soft power of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom so they could easily wash their hands if any of the projects were unsuccessful or if they continued with a neo-imperialistic conquest of Africa. A year after the 1985 Live Aid, Spin and BBC published an exposé of what had happened with the million dollar donations, stating that they were not purposefully managed and did not contribute as much to the cause as was promised.
There is still no clear evidence on what happened to all of the money. Surely, countless vulnerable African communities are not better off. Any sort of foreign aid should benefit a defenseless group or community without having perverse interests or white-savior narratives behind it. More than 50 years after African independence movements, there is a long list of failed projects that have neglected to improve the conditions of hundreds of communities. The greatest success of the Live Aid events was extolling European and American celebrities and leaders, rather than actually giving reparations or real help to the countries that were colonized, abused, and damaged by Western nations. Sadly, neither a catchy song nor a million dollar donation is enough to make up for years of mistreatment, poverty, and abandonment. The white-savior complex has prevented foreign aid from working, making it more about the donors than about the causes.
Corruption and Transparency
The white-savior complex is not the only problem that foreign aid faces. In countries like Mexico, bad administration has little to do with good intentions and knowledge. Instead, it is mostly linked to corruption. After the 2017 Puebla earthquake, approximately 1.8 million USD was donated from all around the world. Mexicans united in solidarity to take out the rubble, build shelters, and collect provisions for those left without a home. More than a year has passed since the tragedy, and hundreds of citizens still remain homeless. They are constantly robbed and mistreated in the shelters initially set up by the Mexican government. Simple tasks like ensuring the availability of construction materials were not taken care of by the State in moments of crisis. Instead, it turned a blind eye to its responsibilities, leaving private organizations alone in the administration of funds.
According to the Instituto Belisario Domínguez of the Mexican Senate, 12 countries donated capital resources to Mexico, and 69% of national donations for earthquake relief were given by the organization Fundación Carlos Slim. According to an extensive report by the former organization, up to today 345 new houses have been built, 42 hospitals and clinics are now fully functional in Chiapas and Mexico City, and 179 schools have been rehabilitated. Fundación Carlos Slim’s report breaks down how resources have been used and how much money has been spent. However, apart from this brief document, there is little information about the remaining 30% of foreign aid given to Mexico after the earthquake. The civilian organization FUNDAR claimed that it has been practically impossible to physically and financially trace the use of capital resources by the government, due to a lack of transparency in information. Much of the data available for public consumption is inconsistent, untraceable, or incomplete. Whether it is a private or a public donor, information on how donations are being used should be available to the public.
Dozens of Mexicans have been pushed into criminality after losing everything to the natural disaster; others are still waiting for freshwater and functional public services, and the new administration says to be more transparent than ever but is still unwilling to share real numbers. All of the above is a consequence of the lack of transparency in resource administration, and sadly, it may prevent future donations from happening. Foreign aid will continue to be futile as long as corruption exists, as long as the information is not made available to a public who wants to be conscious of how these resources are distributed.
On February 22, the Venezuela Aid Live concert was organized in Cúcuta, Colombia with two main goals: to achieve awareness of the serious humanitarian emergency Venezuelans are experiencing and to raise funds to alleviate some of the most urgent needs. Similarly to Syria, Venezuela is facing one of the worst refugee crisis in history, with more than 3 million people fleeing the Latin American country since 2015. The Organization of American States expects that the crisis will reach 6 million displaced Venezuelans by 2020.
The event was organized by Richard Branson and Bruno Ocampo, two businessmen interested in philanthropy. In an interview, Branson claimed that Juan Guaidó—recognized as the legitimate president of Venezuela by several nations—and opposition leader Leopoldo López asked him to organize the concerts. Apart from the awaited reunion of the reggaetoneros Chino & Nacho, people expected that the concerts would raise enough awareness to change President Maduro’s stance on allowing aid inside the country. Venezuela Aid Live seemed like another example of whitewashing the suffering of a developing country, but it was much more.
Nevertheless, the good intentions were not well received by many. Artists like Roger Waters criticized the organization, saying that it was a politicized event. Whether or not Waters was right, the political situation in Venezuela has sparked very different opinions on whether there is an interest of countries like the U.S. or Russia in intervening. There is also the question of if the donations were actually going to make a difference in a country heavily controlled by the President Maduro’s dictatorship and in which humanitarian aid has been kept outside the borders and even destroyed. After a humanitarian convoy was set on fire before arriving in Venezuela, Vice President Mike Pence blamed “the tyrant in Caracas” for the tragedy. However, other sources claim that the fire was accidentally caused by opposition protestors; either way, Venezuelan’s were left without the provisions collected during Branson’s concerts.
The organizers launched a web page to receive donations. They even posted answers to questions about transparency and administration. Their answers were vague and did not fully ensure that the money would reach the hands of the hungry and vulnerable, nor if their plan to fund a social development project for helping expatriates return home would actually work. In the end, there were reports that Maduro’s government did not allow humanitarian aid to cross through the Colombian border, making hundreds of items go to waste. Additionally, the expected sum of 100 million dollars is yet to be reached; there is no more than 3% already raised.
Less than a week ago, Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó convinced civilians and rogue military to take the streets against the Maduro regimen. There have been dozens of injured, and the possibility of a successful coup is still on hold. The interests behind the organization of Venezuela Aid Live are similar to those backing Guaidó: the possibility of U.S. economic and political intervention in Latin America. There was never a clear channel on how the donations would be distributed or a neutral statement of helping Venezuelans without engaging in political interventionism. Of course, the dictatorship needs to end, and with it the suffering of thousands. However, a concert will not solve any of these problems. As long as political interests shadow humanitarian causes, foreign aid will never help those in need.
I have nothing against donations and aiding those in need—I applaud them. However, I do believe that any type of fundraising or foreign aid should be done consciously, be well-administered, and focused on achieving tangible results that can later be quantified. It is key to be aware of how much you’re actually helping, instead of detaching yourself from the problem and thinking you’ve actually achieved something in the comfort of your home and with a credit card.
I believe the changes and transcendence expected to happen after major events like Live Aid ‘85, ‘05, and Venezuela Aid Live, have done very little for the needy. However, they have done an excellent job in extolling leaders and personalities, making their donations front page news. Likewise, in cases like the reconstruction of communities after tragic natural disasters, many donations have been lost to corruption or the lack of information by government sources. I also argue that political interests influence whether aid really gets where it needs to be. Take Venezuela, for example: the nation is fighting between a ruthless dictator and the interest of the U.S. in intervening—once again—in Latin America. Aid needs better administration and accountability channels, but these should not prevent people from contributing to change.
In the end, whether it is rich businesspeople donating their money for the reconstruction of a national monument or “average Joe’s” trying to help others in need, foreign aid is, and always will be, flawed. You can donate to both the reconstruction of a major monument like Notre Dame or help to end world hunger. There is nothing wrong in choosing one over the other. What is shameful is criticizing people’s choices on Facebook or Twitter without really having an idea of how resources are administered to achieve tangible goals. Foreign aid will never be flawless. It has room for improvement, for good intentions to be transformed into actions; it should not continue allowing corruption and politics to domineer causes.
Verónica Lira is an honors graduate with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey, who is currently focusing on gender studies and developing student programs against gender violence. She can be reached on Twitter @vero_alo.