Kenneth W. Harrow, Professor of English, Michigan State University, responds to Theroux's editorial:

Theroux's jeremiaid against aid to africa is marked by deadly contradictions. He begins by establishing his bona fides and questioning those of others like Bono. And he sets out prescriptions based on those qualifications. The answers to the issues he raises can't be anecdotal, but he offers us only anecdotes. For an economics answer, of which Jeffrey Sachs has made many, one could read many articles, as in this link:
for the economics arguments, i like this article

The underlying argument, however, is ideological, in the sense of ideology as a constructed vision of the world the acceptance of which functions so as to permit the reproduction of the existing capitalist system. Thus, belaboring the poor for their failures, as used to be done by referring to “welfare queens,” functioned to deflect attention from the inequities in the very system of production that resulted in the impoverishment of a percentage of the propertyless. Similarly, Theroux belabors the corruption in the system of aid to Africa, writing: “But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions [to Africa’s problems]. 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. If Malawi is worse educated, more plagued by illness and bad services, poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early 60's, it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.”

When Theroux writes that he wouldn't send money to a charity or foreign aid to a govt unless every dollar were accounted for, he erects a standard of perfection that is not met by government agencies or aid efforts anywhere. Every system has a measure of imperfection. When universities waste money on some minor or ill-conceived effort, even on purchasing luxury items unnecessarily, we don't condemn the entire system out of hand. There have been numerous accounts of charities that developed problems; we don’t dismiss them roundly. More importantly, we don’t focus upon the problems of one aid agency as indicative of a systemic failure. We set about correcting as much as is humanly feasible, recognizing that every system has an element of waste.

Most of us in universities work with granting agencies, like Ford or Rockefeller or the NEH, at one point or another. There is no granting agency that doesn’t commit an enormous percentage of its grants to the institutions that administer the grants. Such percentages can normally range from 50-70%. This goes for “overhead.” The result is that major portions of grant funding goes to an institutional administration that has nothing to do with the project, yet we don’t condemn all granting agencies as a result. Nor do we set out the assumption that the system is hopelessly corrupted, that all people working within it are incompetent and corrupt. We don’t set a standard of perfection for such agencies such as Mr. Theroux would set for African aid agencies or governments.

I have recently traveled to Cameroon and Nigeria, and am now living in Senegal where I am teaching for the year. In the first two countries, I was overwhelmed by impressions of decay in the infrastructure, roads, buildings, and universities. And even more was I troubled by the desperation of the intelligentsia in both countries, despair with their own governments and their own futures. They looked continually to outside aid to resolve their problems. So the pattern Sembene describes in his film “Guelwaar,” the open hand reaching out and saying thank you, was there on display. And there were the western campaigns, as those against aids, that were boldly displayed everywhere as well. That the donor mentality was debilitating couldn’t be disputed.

However, there are clearly people coping as best they can. Here at the Universite Cheikh Anta Diop the current political and social configuration has resulted in open admissions to the university, resulting in the quadrupling of the numbers of students in the past 10 years, while the budget has not changed. The facilities and faculty can’t properly cope at all. Yet people do it as best they can. I don’t see anything in Mr. Theroux’s piece that recognizes this factor of coping, of making do, of struggling through a difficult period.

Most importantly, and the real reason I am writing this, is that he puts the blame entirely on African actors, as if the appalling, desperate economic situation that is driving this entire sad state were occuring in a vacuum! Every article in the press, here, about peanut prices, about cotton production, about costs of imported manufactured goods, attests to a larger global system structured so as to make it impossible for Africa to move beyond desperate financial states. If you grew cocoa beans 50 years ago, anywhere in Africa, and wanted to refine them into chocolate and sell it to Europe, you would have faced impossible tariff barriers. So the cocao or coffee had to be shipped to Nestles’ plants in the Netherlands or Switzerland, where they were turned into finished products, and then shipped back to Africa, along with the result of the world. That intolerable situation still prevails, and what makes it worse is that first the colonial powers and more recently international financial institutions have set in place and imposed this agricultural system on Africans. Africans were forced to grow crops like cotton and produce quantities of rubber or peanuts, thus turning them away from other forms of productive agriculture, or other forms of economic development.

Now their productivity, dependent upon a globalized economic system in which they are completely dominated, is at a catastrophic level. And the dominant neoliberal ideology that governs the World Bank and IMF insures that whatever profits are to be realized from major exploitative systems, from whatever natural resources are available, will go to increase the disparity between Africa and the west, and within Africa between the wealthy few and impoverished many.

These decisions do not take place within a vacuum, yet the Theroux piece ignores this entirely. He writes, “Many of the schools where we taught 40 years ago are now in ruins - covered with graffiti, with broken windows, standing in tall grass. Money will not fix this. A highly placed Malawian friend of mine once jovially demanded that my children come and teach there. "It would be good for them," he said.” The problem is that it costs money to fix schools, and the money isn’t there. Unless an accounting begins with the systemic structures that generate money it will be incomplete and biased. The bias here falls on corrupt African leaders. Theroux needs to realize that the leaders might be inadequate, but that they are in fact less in control of their national resources than ever before; that there are now mafia types taking control of business efforts at every level, and which the leadership could not control even if they wanted to. Every major industry, every burgeoning enterprise, becomes susceptible to the wild capitalism of the current period. You can read that wild capitalism in the uncontrolled exploitation of resources everywhere in Africa, with war and poverty now far worse than ever in African history. It is written on the landscape with the palatial residences and ever-more present guards, the first-class lives of the few.

He writes, “Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed.”

It is self-sufficient only on the level that the sharks of international capital have left the niche markets of unimportant value, while the lakes and forests continue to be depleted, while the mines and their diamonds and gold continue to enrich the most monstrous arms trade ever seen anywhere. Who controls the Russian dealers in East Africa? Who controls the drug trade here in West Africa? Who runs the cotton and coffee businesses world wide? Not the presidents of African countries.

It is not that the people of Ireland, or Portugal, are innately more industrious or honest than those in Africa: the barriers that have been erected here in Africa, the astounding exploitation, accounts for vast poverty; in Europe, even those formerly poor countries had the kind of aid and access to markets denied Africans.

Lastly, Africans are treated to unbelievable doses of unreality in the imaging of the U.S., not to mention Europe, so that their current poverty is set off by portraits of unbelievable wealth and luxury in the west. Mr. Theroux then writes, “It is a melancholy thought that it is easier for many Africans to travel to New York or London than to their own hinterlands…. A recent World Bank study has confirmed that the emigration to the West of skilled people from small to medium-sized countries in Africa has been disastrous.”
Easy to travel to New York!! Europe and the US have now set up barriers to emigration, and thus access to their wealth, from all ordinary Africans. Those barriers are incredibly inscribed on the landscape here, where it is almost impossible for ordinary Africans to gain access to foreign embassies, and totally impossible for ordinary Africans to acquire visas. And if they do get visas, it is not work visas. The embassies are surrounded by the same sets of guards and barbed wire as are to be found around enclaves like Melilla or Ceuta, and now that lie between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. Between the U.S. and Africa the barriers rise to the sky, and are guarded by heavily armed forces. Never have I seen such a fortress world, nor such a fortress mentality as now exists. Try to attend a university in the west; unless you are a wealthy African, it is impossible. And even financial means will not guarantee access. Poor farmers who can no longer make a living in africa, and want to try their luck up north, face guns and barbed wire and considerable risks of death. Perhaps Ireland would be different today if their ancestors had faced similar barriers to emigration in the past.

So the result is bad government, repressive government, and corruption, in many African countries. But the real result that stares you in the face everywhere is extreme poverty, the lack of resources for most people; and the leaders don’t have the money on a scale that could deal with the need. Bad as they might be, it isn’t their fault. And the attempt to blame them alone moves the spotlight away from those principally responsible for the governing economic system, those sitting in the boardrooms up north.