It can't be easy being from Zimbabwe, that unfortunate, landlocked former British colony in Southern Africa that inspires exasperated sighs, endless clichés and colorful superlatives.
It's bad enough that the country has the highest inflation rate in the world, 8,000 percent, as reported recently on BBC radio's website; that four in five people are said to live in poverty; that life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, if not the lowest; and that "there is virtually nothing to buy in stores," according to Reuters.
With those mind-boggling statistics as a backdrop, a well-meaning effort to help Zimbabweans by one do-gooder in wealthy, charitable America ends up seeming like an insult.
I was driving south on Interstate 95 in Connecticut some weeks ago and happened to catch a radio interview with a young American musician championing a romantic charitable cause. The man announced with obvious youthful enthusiasm that he was helping to collect shoes to send to the poor in Zimbabwe.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT made me cringe. A country's economy is collapsing, its infrastructure is in ruins, millions have no basic political freedoms, and all one wants to offer is a pair of used sneakers? This kind of handout strikes me as an improper, impractical and a counterproductive form of charity -- a perversion of the core function of aid.
The poor of Zimbabwe, of course, need to protect their feet from disease and the sharp thorns of acacia trees, and they'd gladly accept free shoes from anybody. But handouts of shoes take the idea of aid a little too far.
What would a single pair of used Nikes do for a poor woman who can't find or afford bread in a collapsing economy? At best, it would provide only a couple of weeks of protection for the feet as she walks miles upon miles every day in search of food and fuel.
In a region where tropical rainstorms drench denuded lands and turn many rural roadways into impassable muddy tracks, a pair of shoes would last, what, a week? And then what? Would the musician then hold another funds drive to send another pair of shoes to replace the ruined pair?
Material aid of this kind betrays a major misunderstanding in the West about the true needs of the poor in Africa, and we should do everything we can to discourage it.
Unfortunately, the act of charitable giving, while reflecting a genuine concern for the needy, is also a way for Westerners to soothe their own souls -- a way to try to reduce the guilt they feel about having too much in a world so full of needy people. Whether the charity actually helps seems to be beside the point.
WHILE WE'RE ON the subject of charity, let me also add my voice to those who have said that the whole enterprise of aid for Sub-Saharan Africa should be re-examined. Some people have suggested an end to aid altogether, even emergency or disaster aid.
As Kenyan economist James Shikwati told Germany's Der Spiegel in 2005, "Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems."
Opponents of aid for Africa cite instances of aid money that ended up in the European bank accounts of wealthy, politically well-connected Africans, and the sacks of grain intended for famine victims that ended up on sale at African shops and open-air markets, some still in bags clearly labeled "Not For Sale."
Some critics, including Shikwati, have said that charity groups are huge self-perpetuating bureaucracies that promote dependency and provide well-paying jobs for Westerners who enjoy life in the tropical sun and don't want to become unemployed any time soon.
Zimbabwe is poor and its population is not free. Zimbabweans need our help, and some charities provide services there that preserve lives and enrich those lives in other ways. But the last thing the land of cliches needs from us is our used shoes.
We can help, not by offering old shoes, but by exerting more pressure on dictator Robert Mugabe to loosen his grip on power and exit the political stage, by encouraging more foreign investment to boost the country's economy, and by supporting Zimbabwe's independent media.
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