The face of aid

“The nature of the ties linking the African with the European has not really changed since the first Portuguese ships went sailing down the west coast of the continent: the sophisticated magic of the white man remains irresistibly alluring to the black.” (Shiva Naipaul)

In all the debates about aid, its visual impact is rarely remarked upon. In rural areas, aid probably looks like a good thing. When you see that a donor has dug a well for your village, you may feel grateful to and enthusiastic about the donor (that is, if you don’t feel embarrassed that your community has failed to dig its own well – a fact rammed home in nearly every village in Guinea-Bissau by a billboard placed next to each well proclaiming that it was a gift of the Kuwaiti, Spanish, Portuguese or American people).

But in cities, to which young Africans are migrating in droves, the visual effect is more ambiguous. When the urban African looks at aid, he sees aid workers and missionaries driving around in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers or Hiluxes. He sees them staring at laptops or chatting on snazzy mobile phones. He sees them dining in expensive restaurants or drinking in smart cafes. And he sees their glittering air-conditioned offices and villas, with iron gates and security guards.

In countries like Senegal, where there are tourists and Western businessmen, aid workers do not stand out. But in poor, remote, unvisited Guinea-Bissau they play an important part in shaping perceptions of the developed world (Guinea-Bissau has no cinemas, precious few internet cafes or televisions, and no press to speak of). And, as they have done for centuries, Africans see all this opulence and want a part of it. Guinean politicians, grown rich on drug money, purchase Land Cruisers and build gated villas. Ordinary citizens spend more than they can afford on mobile phones. And young Guineans, who until recently have not joined the West African exodus to Europe, have begun to talk about taking the boat to Spain – a journey which at least one in six of the many Senegalese who attempt it does not survive.

Of course, foreign aid workers are not the only cause of this new yearning, but it is likely they play some role. Many young Guineans I spoke to, who do not want to risk the trip to Spain, are desperate instead to work for foreign NGOs or the UN. It could be argued that giving young Africans something to aspire to will hasten progress and encourage hard work. Maybe so, but is owning a mobile really progress when you can’t afford your daughter’s $10-a-month school fees (as one mobile-owning mother in Bissau complained to me recently)? And in a country like Guinea-Bissau where aspiration is outpacing people’s capabilities and even well-intentioned governments are struggling to manage expectations, are ostentatious displays of affluence the best way of promoting peaceful development rather than the violent upheavals Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry and others are beginning to experience?