A healthy dose of small good things
A hand-out or a hand-up? The arguments about the benefit of aid in developing countries are well worn, and even though it’s not a crease-free, perfect panacea, Irish Aid in Africa focuses on sustainability
WHEN REUBEN Muteti steps up to the microphone in the grounds of the Mater Hospital in Nairobi, it has to be adjusted downwards. Dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt, he says he is 13 but he looks no more than 10.
Reuben is nervous, but in telling his story he personifies simplicity and innocence. His speech isn’t about hardship and poverty, but he has known both all his life. He was born HIV positive, and is an orphan. His home is a corrugated iron shack in Mukuru, one of the massive slums in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.
Instead, Reuben’s story is about a bus journey he took out of Nairobi with his aunt to visit his grandmother in the countryside. Somewhere along the way he realised that he had lost the bag containing his antiretroviral drugs. He describes the overpowering sense of panic, of how he and his aunt desperately searched for it, to no avail.
“Do you know your medication?” his aunt asked, eventually.
“Yes, I know,” Reuben replied.
They went to the nearest hospital, a long way from home, and when Reuben told the doctors the complicated names and dosages of all the drugs he was on – Stavudine, Lamivudine and Efavirenz – they were able to give him the medication he needed.
“The doctors said to me: ‘Well done. Good boy’,” he says.
The story is not just an illustration of how important it is for kids such as Reuben to take their medication every day; it is a vivid depiction of the sense of panic that overtakes a child when they have lost something or made a mistake and think they have done something terribly wrong.
Reuben’s story affects everyone in the room who hears it. It also strikes a chord with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore, who is in the audience. He hugs the boy. Later, he says it reminds him of something that happened to him during his childhood in Caltra, Co Galway, where his widowed mother brought her family up in modest circumstances. “I remember, as a boy, going to sell eggs and losing the 10-shilling note on the way home,” he says. He is unable to say any more. Reuben’s story is important because it doesn’t highlight the differences between our world and his. Instead, it evokes powerful human qualities of decency and compassion that we share.
In recent years, there has been a rising level of debate and literature that questions the efficacy and ethics of western aid. A good deal of it suggests that aid programmes hinder, not help, have a tendency to corrupt, rather than liberate, and hamper development and growth in African countries.
In her book Dead Aid, Zambian writer Dambisa Moyo makes a compelling argument that aid can have few discernible long-term benefits and can undermine sustainable development. Describing a vicious cycle of aid, she says it helps foster corruption, instils a culture of dependency, and has deleterious consequences for growth.