Monday, May 3, 2010

Aid Mentality

Since I've been here, I've had a lot of conversations with other expatriates about the so-called “aid mentality” in Liberia. The idea of the aid mentality goes something like this: Because there is so much aid money pouring into the country, and that money is so poorly monitored, and the perception of the West as an infinitely deep well of finances is so firmly ingrained, many Liberians have grown used to the idea of relying on charity. After years of receiving something for nothing, there is little motivation for people to invest their time and energy into various projects, because why should they bother to work when the West can just give them what they need for free?

Whether or not I agree with the idea (and we'll get to that in a minute), I can definitely see why the concept of the aid mentality is so widespread among frustrated foreign aid workers. It never fails to amaze me how open people are about begging here. When (as happened this morning) a child walks up to me on the street and screams at me to give him my umbrella – with his parents egging him on in the background – I can't help but think, “Have you no shame??” We as Americans have a certain horror of asking for charity; beggars are looked down upon by our society. We pride ourselves on being an independent nation where every man can make something of himself if he works hard enough. But here, there is little to no negative social pressure against begging or accepting charity, and so people feel free to ask – or demand – whatever it is they desire, whether or not their request is reasonable by anyone's standards.

So in part because of many Liberians' willingness to demand resources without qualifications, many Western aid workers end up frustrated with what they perceive as Liberians' reluctance to invest a lot of time and energy into various business, educational, or agricultural endeavors. “They have so much LAND and they don't FARM it!!” I hear expatriates complain. “We try to teach them to farm and they don't want to learn! They just want us to GIVE them food!” And while I am disturbed by the vaguely racist undertones of these arguments, at the same time I feel a similar frustration with my students, as you, dear blog reader(s?), well know. “Why don't they CARE?? Why won't they WORK??” I keep asking.

But I think it's important to remember that in the past 20 years in Liberia (the civil war began in 1989), long-term planning has not exactly paid off. Perhaps it's no wonder that many people are hesitant (either consciously or out of habit) to participate in activities requiring confidence in the long-term stability of one's government. Why invest in a farm if the legal system cannot guarantee ownership of one's land? Why invest in one's education if one cannot get a job with a college degree? In America and other developed countries, there is a certain amount of truth to the fact that hard work leads to success (although of course things are not nearly as fair or as simple as we would like to believe). Here, cause and consequence are not necessarily connected. In a corrupt, dysfunctional system, hard work may lead to nothing at all. A person may work her ass off only to see another person promoted because of nepotism, or to see her house robbed by the desperately poor.

In any case, it's true that an “aid mentality” is a perfectly logical explanation for the attitude of many aid recipients. Human beings are selfish and lazy creatures; if we have a choice between working for something or being given it without working at all, we will certainly choose the former. But that “aid mentality” is not necessarily the ONLY explanation for why people behave as they do, and believing too firmly in its truth may be detrimental. After all, the logical way of dealing with people who have become overly dependent on aid is simple: cut off the aid. That way, people will be FORCED to work. But what if the “aid mentality” is a myth, or if there are other complicating factors at play? Mightn't cutting off the flow of aid in this desperately poor country actually exacerbate some of the problems that so frustrate Western aid workers? Logic does not equal truth, and I think that Westerners need to be careful about accepting the gospel of the “aid mentality” simply because it seems true on the surface.


  1. I like this post. Have you read Dead Aid? I recommend it.

  2. No, I haven't, but I've wanted to! The best aid book I've read so far is Aid and Other Dirty Business by Giles Bolton (I think I mentioned it in an earlier post). I'll have to look for Dead Aid when I get back to the US.

  3. Ill have to get that one for the plane ride over. I find some of these aid books difficult to read so Im always looking for suggestions! Id be happy to send you my copy of Dead Aid.