It would be an understatement to say that my article “Celebrity Stunts of Altruism are Killing Livelihoods in Africa,” didn’t get any link-love. It went beyond that. It kick-started a wide-ranging debate that touched on all sides of Ashton Kutcher, malaria, foreign aid, and Africa’s place in the aid debate. I have been really humbled by the response, and from both sides of the issue. An overwhelming majority of you took the time to post thought out, meaningful responses to the post and defended your positions passionately whenever challenged. Some of you even picked up where I left off and spun your own blog posts on the issue, replete with even more insightful comments. It was the hot topic for a few days, and rightly so. Today, the whole saga culminates with World Malaria Day, as we turn our attention to the notorious malaria-spreading vector, the mosquito.
Invariably, the world’s attention will also turn to Africa, And rightly so. So I want to push the debate a little further, and hopefully I’ll address some of the comments from the previous article.
Africa is the last remaining unconquered malaria strong-hold. Malaria is very disruptive to all areas of society. From keeping an able work-force bed-ridden to downright killing those without strong immune systems, especially children. But it’s nothing new to us. Malaria has been around for centuries. Africa has been dealing with malaria way before Vasco Da Gamma rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and it was there when King Leopold plundered Central Africa. It was there during slave trade and there during colonial rule. Malaria doesn’t happen once a year. It’s not another fabricated day to feel-good-about-yourself for us. Malaria happens to us everyday. Starvation happens to us everyday. War happens to us everyday. And for that matter, diarrhea happens to us everyday as well. All of the above equally lethal.
I don’t mean to belittle the severity or nastiness of malaria, I’ve succumbed to that vector bug many-a-times! A few years ago, I was somehow particularly vulnerable on a trip to Uganda. I was down for the count twice with bad episodes of malaria during my trip. I got well-enough just in time to fly back in good shape. Two weeks later I was being rushed to the hospital. After a quick diagnosis, I was quarantined for 10 days. Every doctor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and their interns came to poke, prod, “ooo” and “aah” like they just discovered a lost primate. And they all charged me for the privilege. My hospital bill could have bought enough bed nets for all of Malawi.
Yes! Malaria is a serious concern. My stance in my previous article is something I will always defend. It’s time for Africa to start manufacturing it’s own solutions to it’s most pressing problems. Our ability to do so is hampered by our dependency and largely, the West’s insistence that Africa needs more, aid. I’ll let Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, articulate why Africa doesn’t need more aid. I will say this… there is no magic bullet to fix this problem, but that’s not a reason to keep doing the wrong thing. There are better solutions to be had than just throwing nets at the problem. No amount of congratulatory chest-thumping is going to change that reality.
For the last 60 year’s, developed nations have been throwing aid money at Africa as the panacea to all it’s ills. For all their efforts, we still have anaemic industries, and decrepit civil services infrastructures, like health care. Had the aid empire done it’s job properly, Africa would have adequately dealt with the malaria problem. Surely throwing a good portion of that $1 trillion and a chunk of that 60 years could have solved the problem by now. Surely after 60 years and $1 trillion in foreign aid, there should be a mature healthcare system in Africa to tackle malaria without the need for Malaria No More. Surely there should more than ONE bed net factory in all of Africa with enough manufacturing capacity to deliver bed nets.
Malaria is something we can do something about. Just because we can’t right now, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start the journey to self-reliance. True, we don’t have adequate bed-net manufacturing facilities, so let’s invest in more facilities to address this market need. We aren’t growing enough artemesia and pyrethrum to adequately supply the bed net manufacturing process, you say? Pay more farmers a decent wage to grow more. More capacity means cheaper costs of manufacturing. Basic, laws, of economics. Supply and demand. Market solutions. There are more ways to fight malaria than handing out imported bed nets.
Dambisa Moyo echos my opinion about aid effectiveness in her book, Dead Aid, the unintended effects of continually letting Western organizations trump solutions for Africa. Here’s an except:
There’s a mosquito net maker in Africa. He manufactures around 500 nets a week. He employs ten people, who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of fifteen relatives. However hard they work, they can’t make enough nets to combat the malaria-carrying mosquito.
Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses, and goards Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the afflicted region, at a cost of a million dollars. The nets arrive, the nets are distributed, and a ‘good’ deed is done.
With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly put out of business. His ten workers can no longer support their 150 dependents (who are now forced to depend on hand outs), and one mustn’t forget that in a maximum of five years the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use.
So what then to replenish the nets? Relaunch the Hollywood machine for another 100,000 nets? Or will Hollywood, after realizing nets don’t fixt the problem, now launch a new campaign to, as my friend Michael commented on my Facebook stream, “train the mosquitos not to bite humans?” If something isn’t done to change the status quo, it’s going to continue being an aging problem. It’s time we [Africa] stood up and said thank you very much, we’ll take it from here. After 60 years and nearly $1 trillion in aid projects that go no where, we’ll take it from here.
Malaria No More (MNM) has raised millions off commercializing the bad news about malaria. I commend them on their astute use of social media and marketing savvy to bring attention to their cause. Bravo. But it’s not enough. MNM claims to be working with ONE manufacturing facility in Tanzania. One? Out of 53 countries and they are working with one facility? How much of those millions of donor money do they spend on their NY and DC offices? MNM was started by Wall Street cats. It’s a self-sustaining celebrity-driven money machine! Therefore, it’s sexy to have your head offices in Washington and New York. Not so sexy to have your head quarters at the heart of your problem in Nairobi, Kampala, or Accra. It’s sexy to have celebrities trumping your cause for the day, but you can’t be bothered to have a single African on your board of directors. Paternalistic much? Investing donor capital to build entire manufacturing facilities in Africa is not sexy, (forget that it’d be more beneficial in the long-run to do so than signing a lease in NY and DC). Selling Africa’s sad story, apparently, is.
Before anybody goes slamming me on my stance, ask MNM to show you their budget. Some financial transparency please? 100 million nets by 2010 is great. What about the other 700 million sub-Saharan Africans? Oh, right. We’ll just sit around drinking tea and crumpets, waiting for Ashton Kutcher to deliver a net. One lump of reality or two?
CORRECTION: (My esteemed colleague here at PD was kind enough to point out a factual error)
TOTALLY not true. Malaria is a huge problem in all under developed equatorial areas including Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Southern Mexico, India, Southeast Asia… etc. I can’t stand behind that statement in your article… Would be great if you could revise… perhaps the issue is bigger in Africa, I don’t know, but Malaria is holding strong in Central America and often goes untreated … those governments are not much better at dealing with it than African governments are.