After returning from yesterday’s AID conference in New Haven, foreign aid was on my mind. Fighting for What’s Right (see link), one of AID’s exciting upcoming initiatives, is tackling the tricky topic of global development. In the organizing session we held for Fighting for What’s Right, the enthusiasm among the 400+ conference attendees was palpable. So I figured it was high time to re-familiarize myself with the issues at hand. In my readings, two main points have emerged.

1. We are at a historic moment.

Never in my lifetime has so much attention been centered on the developing world. There is a big sense of momentum, tons of media attention and a groundswell of support for increasing foreign aid. The ONE Campaign (link) and all its high-profile advocates, such as Brad Pitt and U2, are bringing the developing world, and Africa in particular, to the world stage through concerts, wristbands, commercials and the like. This is great! What is perhaps even greater is the way that so many diverse groups of people, from Pat Robertson to Puff Daddy, are coming together to challenge our government to address global inequalities.

I see in these efforts a hopeful, non-partisan recognition that in our increasingly interdependent world, Americans must work together with people in other nations to solve world problems including AIDS and extreme poverty. Susan Rice had a good piece about this in the Washington Post (see link). But I also start to see shades of complexity that the public campaigns to make poverty history do not always seem to account for. As I read more and more about global development, I began to ask myself: Will this actually work? I think and hope it will, but we have to be careful. This brings me to my second point.

2. Just because we’re at a historic moment doesn’t mean that success is pre-determined. We need to be smart about this.

My starting point, as it often is, on the hunt on more information about foreign aid was my alma mater Northwestern University. The NU Program of African Studies hosted a conference two months ago on the topic of Aid, Governance and Development in Africa with many luminaries from the academic and policy worlds (found at link). The conference attendees recently published a report of their proceedings entitled “Smart Aid for Africa,” which can be downloaded from the website.

Attendees at the conference concluded that while increased attention to Africa is a good thing, increased foreign aid is not a panacea. Indeed, increased aid can sometimes exacerbate existing structural problems and undermine the institutional capacity of African states to manage economic growth (see this landmark book link). What the conference attendees suggested would be better is a form of “smart aid,” which would ensure better results in terms of African capacity, governance and institutions. Smart aid would incorporate lessons learned from the past, including one on the importance of differentiating between different countries in Africa, which we should acknowledge is not a monolith.

This statement that better aid, not necessarily more aid, is the key to making poverty history that has also been argued in my recent copies of The Economist
(at link) and Foreign Affairs (at link). Their arguments boil down to the idea that foreign aid and development policy should be helping Africa help itself. This has also been touched upon in two of my favorite blogs this summer (see link and also link).

But I’m still waiting to hear an explanation of exactly *how* aid can be made smarter that isn’t extremely theoretical. How are we going to make sure that, unlike in the past, increased foreign aid goes to the right people and help builds the right kind of structures in African countries?