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Is Foreign Aid Needed When a President of an Aid Dependent African Nation (Liberia) Allegedly Buys a Pair of Shoes for $11,800 U.S. Dollars?

NEW YORK – Over the past years, a few high-profile defenders of foreign aid, such as tech billionaire Bill Gates and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and others have insisted that health initiatives, in particular, have saved millions of lives, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. Gates also says that successes such as anti-HIV/AIDS and anti-polio campaigns have increased political stability, extended economic opportunity, and enhanced U.S. popularity. Others sharing similar views as Gates and Sachs have advocated for the United States to expand its international aid commitments to foreign countries, many of them run by corrupt and irresponsible leaders.

However, some public policy professionals, commentators and analysts, and many in the United States Congress, past and present, have criticized U.S. aid as wasteful spending. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute once argued before Congress [PDF] that USAID has little to show for much of its spending and that the aid structure established by the 1961 foreign assistance law is increasingly dysfunctional.

Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo once wrote that despite more than $1 trillion in aid flowing to Africa in past decades, real per capita income on the continent has not improved since the 1970s.  Nobel laureate Sir Angus Deaton argues that aid gives a lifeline to corrupt governments, insulating them from the political pressures that would create a better functioning state.  Moreover, while critics such as Easterly, Deaton, and Moyo commend Gates and Sachs support for actions such as life-saving humanitarian assistance, they argue that it is a small fraction of total aid spending.

Since taking office in 2016, President Donald J. Trump has sought deep cuts in U.S. foreign aid spending, targeting to slash nearly a third of the budget. In the President’s 2018 speech before the UN General Assembly, he said, “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.” However, Congress, the branch of the U.S. government that sets federal funding, disagreed with the president, mainly maintaining the current levels of funding in the 2017 and 2018 budgets. 

Besides, there has long been broad bipartisan agreement on the moral and strategic implication of foreign aid. Aid levels rose sharply after the 9/11 attacks, with policymakers seeing global economic development as a way to promote U.S. national security.  Despite the Congressional refusals to limit U.S. foreign aid, President Trump is repeatedly calling for deep cuts to foreign assistance programs, continuously raising pointed questions about the role the U.S. should play around the world.

According to Manji Firoze, since its inception, the logic of international aid from the West has been to integrate African economies into a global capitalist system, which relies on Africa’s resources for its growth. But the more significant issue and question is: Is it a good thing for the United States to collect tax dollars from its citizens and residents (some of whom are farmers, low-income working-class families, and individuals) to give aid to poor African countries whose leaders and officials are over-the-top in wealth and opulence at the expense of their people? The obvious and perhaps moral answer would be no.

The truth is that much of Africa counts on foreign aid, despite economic growth in parts of the continent significantly outpacing the global average in most instances.  According to a 2014 report, Africa receives about $133.7 billion each year from official aid, grants, loans to the private sector, and remittances. Almost all African presidents, their officials, relatives, and associates live excessively and in glamour.

For example, George M. Weah, the President of Liberia, one of the poorest and aid-dependent countries in the world, allegedly bought and wore a pair of shoes valued at $11, 800 United States dollars during his country’s 2019 Independence Day celebration in the capital, Monrovia. Assuming he knows or does not know, an estimated 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line, of whom 1.3 million live in extreme poverty, according to the Liberia Country Programme – World Food Programme.

Liberia’s president George M. Weah
President George Weah and First Lady Clar Weah
  1. Liberia: Seasonally Adjusted Poverty – 64 percent (United Nations),–2017
  2. Liberia: Non-Seasonally Adjusted Poverty – 85 percent (Poverty in Liberia |ChildFund

The list below indicates the top 10 Causes of Death in Liberia – Source: GBD Compare 2018, Liberia:

  1. Malaria
  2. Diarrheal diseases
  3. Neonatal disorders
  4. Lower respiratory infections
  5. ischemic heart disease
  7. Stroke
  8. Tuberculosis
  9. Sexually transmitted diseases
  10. Cirrhosis

Besides, Liberia has a fragile health-care system, a development that is dangerous for the average Liberian.  In fact, some Western experts who have worked in Liberia say that people there are dying of preventable or treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and the effects of high blood pressure and diabetes, such as strokes because no real or excellent medical services exist according to a Washington Post’s article by Lenny Bernstein.

 “If you stub your toe now in Monrovia, you have a hard time getting care, let alone having a heart attack or malaria,” said Sheldon Yett, the Liberia representative for UNICEF once told the Washington Post. “It is a tremendous threat to children and a tremendous threat to families.”

During the administration of ex-Liberian president and Harvard graduate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s educational system was a mess. Today, it is far more than a mess with several serious challenges. These challenges include poor learning outcomes, overage enrollment, a massive number of out-of-school children, wasted government’s resources because of ‘ghost’ teachers and unskilled teachers, and many unqualified teachers, according to Education in Liberia | Global Partnership for Education

It is widely reported and believed that civil servants in Liberia, including teachers, nurses, sanitation and maintenance workers, local government employees and others have not taken pay for months and the government is behind in paying vendors. Also, the upcoming national budget has a massive shortfall and has been delayed for presentation to the country’s national legislature on multiple occasions.  Liberia’s international donors and partners, notably the European Union, China, Japan, and in particular the United States, which supports Liberia through multiple agencies, sponsored most capital development initiatives in the country. These U.S. agencies include the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with a plethora of other agencies and autonomous organizations, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Peace Corps, and the African Development Foundation, involved in aid work. 

USAID’s development partnership with Liberia dates back to the very founding of the Agency in 1961. As the largest bilateral donor to Liberia, the United States plays an influential and vital role in many aspects of Liberia’s development and progress but internal corruption in the Liberian society and by various Liberian governments and leaders have hampered U.S. commitment and generosity in and to the country.

Though aid remains a small percentage (1.2 percent share in the U.S. federal budget) of the overall U.S. budget, some politicians and economists in Washington, D.C. and other parts of the United States have criticized the spending as ineffective.  

The purchase of a pair of Italian shoes for $11,800 United States dollars by the leader of a U.S. aid-dependent country like Liberia is not just immoral, callous and irrational; it undermines the struggles of hard-working low-income American families and individuals. These Americans toil every day, paying federal taxes, part of which the U.S. government uses as foreign aid to most poorer and corrupt nations.  It is also an absolute disregard for the gravity of the problems that these aid-dependent nations face every day in addition to perpetuating uncontrollable corruption.  Hence, the best way to stop these unjustifiable behavior and actions is for the United States and the international community in general to reconsider giving any aid to countries where leaders are irresponsible and out of touch with the reality around them.  Liberia appears to be a case study.

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Ben Mabande

Ben Mabande is a researcher and senior contributing reporter with Globe Afrique Media.
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