Following World War II, the United States developed a plan to provide foreign aid for Europe to rebuild its economy. The Marshall plan, focusing on transfers of aid and loans to the governments of Europe, was created. The plan was exceptionally successful. The European economies quickly grew and recovered to their pre-war conditions.

With its success, the U.S., and now Europe with them, began to look at how foreign aid could be used to help former European colonies in Africa that had been freed following the war. Their economic indicators showed conditions similar to those Europe had been in post-war, and the now-stable western nations thought that a similar plan of direct investment could help the new nations in Africa in a similar way.

There’s a truth that I fundamentally believe in: those most affected by a problem are the ones who are best able to respond to a problem, as long as they are given the resources necessary to do so. 

It stems from a simple belief that no other person has a more intimate understanding of the hurt and difficulties that a problem causes than those suffering from hurt and difficulties. No matter how hard I try, there will always be an impassable gulf between me and the people who experience issues first hand.

You may not fundamentally be able to know what’s best for an issue. This is something a lot of people, especially college students, tend to be uncomfortable with. Our culture tends to tell us there isn’t anything that we can’t do if we set our minds to it. It causes many of us to have savior complexes. Recognizing that you may not be the best person to address an issue, and that your involvement may even hurt the issue, is hard to come to terms with. But, not being able to can lead to devastating effects.

The plan didn’t work. The development of the Marshall Plan had been created in close proximity and dialogue between the U.S. and Europe. There was no such dialogue between them and their former colonies; instead, there was simply assumptions that what had worked for them would work for Africa, but this wasn’t true. The economies and the development of states in Europe and the U.S. were fairly similar; they had similar mechanisms to control and regulate their economies. The institutions of Europe had centuries to develop before the war, and were well established and trusted by their citizens. All that was needed to restart development after the war was the money to reinstate these institutions.

The African states did not have these institutions. There were no mechanisms but the ones that had been in put place by colonial powers. These weren’t systems that had the peoples’ trust. They had been imposed on top of old systems that had been built before. They relied on foreign values and a foreign understandings of the needs of people. When money poured into the countries, the problems it caused were immediate. The economic programs they built would not connect with the people, and the institutions failed without the people’s trust. Many of the governments crumbled or were overthrown in civil war. Those that didn’t quickly moved to stop using their aid for development, but instead to protect their governments. Foreign aid was directed towards the militaries to put down rebellion. It was used to buy off key groups and industries for support. Dictatorship and military rule became the norm for many of the African states, and development has stalled or even regressed in the decades that have followed.

I bring this example up because it’s an example of how caring about something and having the best intentions for it can go massively wrong when the people most affected by a problem aren’t given the lead. There was no dialogue between the West and Africa about what was needed or about the problems they faced. Africa wasn’t given a chance to build the institutions they needed. The West imposed their ideas of development onto Africa, and Africa suffered because of it. 

The truth is, there is only so much that we can do. Sometimes, the best thing is to simply step back and let others, those who know what they are doing and who are most affected by the issue, do the things that they are best at.

(1) comment

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