Pulitzer Center Update

In Focus: Foreign assistance in East Africa

Image by Jeff Barbee, Pulitzer Center grantee reporting from Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park.

The New York Times today covered East Africa's biggest new development: Plans are underway for construction of what will become the region's largest port in Lamu, Kenya. Promising swift growth for Lamu, a U.N. World Heritage site possessing rare traditional Swahili charm, the port will likely jump-start lagging regional economic development. But the boost may come at steep costs to environmental and cultural preservation.

Blueprints for the port, heavily funded by Chinese investments, raise recurring questions underlying the foreign assistance debate. The term"aid" implies intention to benefit the receiver whereas "investment" recognizes intended gains on the part of the giver. Yet injecting foreign dollars into a developing economy, under either name, can produce arguably comparable impacts. The cost-benefit analysis of foreign assistance is nothing new to East Africa's economy; the results tend to be a mixed bag.

In his blog on international development, Chris Blattman references a sound bite from Kenyan author Benyavanga Wainaina, asserting the "power to help is just about as dangerous as hard power," likening international benevolence to a new era colonialism. This is not to classify aid as good or bad, but rather an admonition of the potency and complexity of its impact.

The question then becomes, what constitutes successful aid? According to Alanna Shaikh for Aid Watch, the key lies in identifying the endgame; success cannot be achieved without specifically defined purpose.

In Africa Can...End Poverty, Shanta Davarjan notes high unemployment rates, especially stubborn in conflict zones, are among major challenges facing the region in the upcoming decade. Foreign investment generates jobs; employment opportunities created by the Lamu port would extend to fragile areas including southern Sudan and Rwanda.

Alex Thurston captures the debate succinctly: Foreign investments will likely cause food production in the horn of Africa to skyrocket in the coming year, but will it "prove to be a beneficial form of development or a damaging form of exploitation?"

Foreign assistance made big news this week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech on Development in the 21st Century - read the transcript on ForeignPolicy.com. For a great round-up of 2009's foreign aid headlines, also check out Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network's Modernize Aid blog.