Paul Theroux on Bono and the “More Money” Posse

Travel writer Paul Theroux has a scathing op-ed in today’s NY Times about Bono and the advocates of “more money” for Africa which he believes are responsible for contributing to a sense of helplessness and dependency in Africa.

I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children’s Village. I am speaking of the “more money” platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.

But are they? Had Bono looked closely at Malawi he would have seen an earlier incarnation of his own Ireland. Both countries were characterized for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather. Malawi had a similar sense of grievance, was also colonized by absentee British landlords and was priest-ridden, too.

Africa has no real shortage of capable people – or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa’s belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be – something they never get credit for. Again, Ireland may be the model for an answer. After centuries of wishing themselves onto other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation. In a word – are you listening, Mr. Hewson? – the Irish have proved that there is something to be said for staying home.

Theroux’s anger is driven by his recent tour of Africa documented in his travel book Dark Star Safari, a harrowing account of Theroux’s overland trip through Africa where he served in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the 60’s (ed. note: I served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador). Theroux found Malawi much worse than when he left it. Theroux blames this on the inattention outsiders paid to local corruption and the bad leadership those governments have perpetuated on their people. I agree with him, but the fecklessness of past and present generations of African leaders (and the resilience and resourcefulness of the people notwithstanding) may not be overcome without some significant outside aid. Theroux seems to recognize this by identifying categories of humanitarian aid he is in favor of (affordable drugs), but it is fairly difficult to draw a clean line between the kinds of support Bono and others are trying to provide and the items Theroux would support. Indeed, the case that Sachs, Bono and others make is that there are enough well-run governments in Africa who can take advantage of the fresh start provided by debt relief, fairer trade rules, and AIDS prevention and treatment programs. I am perhaps less sanguine than Sachs and Bono about the capacity for African governments to use large tranches of new money at the moment, but the new institutional arrangements like the Global Fund and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers provide some hope that this latest push to support Africa will not be like the past. I would hope that it is better, but I’m not convinced that blanket dismissals like Theroux’s are helpful. As good as his writing is, he has perhaps gotten a bit too cynical and sweeping in his tone.

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3 Responses to “Paul Theroux on Bono and the “More Money” Posse”

  1. Yet, some amount of critical response is needed in light of the magnitude of increased aid and poor track record of the global assistance industry. Credible democratic checks and incentives, the hallmarks of good governance, must be insisted upon and made transparent. Recipient governments must be held accountable, their programs must be transparent and the cash traced to the individual as much as possible. For far too long we have turned a blind eye to corruption. Theroux’s cynicism will only fester as long as the donor community does not create structural mechanisms a la MCA to select trustworthy governments and then hold those recipient governments accountable for performance.

  2. Global aid is a noble cause mared by poor execution. I worked for an NGO in southern Mexica and saw first hand how millions of dolars were being taken from aid agencies such as USAID and after multiple years there was absolutely nothing to show for it. The worst part is that USAID never checked to see how there money was being used.

  3. I think what they need is to educate good values about leadership and survival issues because they will not really grow if they keep asking help for the rest of their lives unto the next generation. I agree with Paul they should learn to stand on their on feet, giving them always what they need sometimes wouldn’t help because you are making that person dependent to you, just give them something to start with, so they will learn and grow as a responsible and a good person.