No one is surprised when a rich country spends hundreds of millions of dollars in aid of a poor country. It is only to be expected; it is the right thing to do, as long as everyone in the rich country has enough to eat and a roof over their head.
For decades, the United States has been spending oodles of money on Uganda on an annual basis. The money comes from US taxpayers, and Uganda needs it.
Last week, the US embassy in Uganda released its third annual report in which the US government explains how it invests the money. A whopping $896 million (but sadly $22.4 for each Ugandan if you divide the sum among Uganda’s 40 million people) was spent in Uganda in the Fiscal Year 2018.
The budget has increased significantly, considering that in 2016, the US “invested nearly $500 million in the country’s health sector—more than what the government of Uganda had budgeted—in areas such as anti-retroviral therapy, tuberculosis treatment and malaria eradication,” according to US ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac.
A huge chunk of the money Uganda receives from the US government is spent on health and education. The US prioritises health and education largely because—and this was once pointed out by ambassador Malac in an op-ed in the Daily Monitor—”health creates wealth”.
Ugandans should be eternally grateful to the US government. They are receiving money they would be hard-pressed to raise themselves given the fact that their country has meagre financial resources.
But there are hard questions we need to ask about what motivates countries like the US to donate. Is it really altruistic motivation or are there opportunistic and strategic motivations?
The US may be a fabulously rich country, but the irony is that it does have desperately poor people, just like Uganda. People in States such as Mississippi and Alabama live in homes that do not even have flushing toilets.
Los Angeles and San Francisco in California, the richest State in the United States, are teeming with homeless people. Official figures show 130,000 people are homeless; some 90,000 are unsheltered.
The problem does not affect only African-Americans, who account for a large proportion of the poor in the US and one of whom, named Ben Carson but not poor, is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also affects White Americans who are generally thought to live in relative comfort.
A Vice News video shows a middle-aged White woman in California who has to work 10 jobs to make about $2,000 a month. She sleeps in her car.
Mr Carson has done little or nothing to fix the homelessness crisis, which was on the lips of president Donald Trump as he visited California this week. “We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One, according to The Washington Post.
So why does the US give away money that its own people badly need? The answer has much to do with clout. All countries in the market for clout do what the US does.
India, for example, has 270 million people living in abject poverty, according to the World Bank. But it does give away money its poor wish they had. When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited Uganda last year, he pledged $200 million for the development of Uganda’s agriculture and the dairy sector. Yet Indian cotton farmers keep killing themselves because they can’t repay small loans.
India received foreign aid for decades—$55 billion between 1951 and 1992, according to The Economist—and apparently learned lessons about what donor countries stand to gain from aid recipients.
Aid recipients kowtow to donors, and donors often dictate how aid recipients should manage their affairs. It is hard to find a country that wants to be a force to reckon with, a country that wants to meddle in other countries’ affairs, that does not do foreign aid.
The US tops the list. Even if the number of the poor on its soil increased, it would still donate money. Politically, that may be a good thing to do; morally it is not.
The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk