In April 2015 a conference organised by the Development Research Institute of New York University, with Bard College and the Rift Valley Institute, addressed urgent ethical questions surrounding foreign aid in African countries.
Africa is the world’s richest continent in natural resources, and a major source of the world’s oil. Economic growth rates in some African countries are among the highest in the world, and the continent’s small but growing middle class is a lucrative potential market. Yet challenges to African development remain enormous. Youth unemployment rates top 70% in many countries, and much of the continent’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of powerful politically-connected elites.
Many of the countries that receive the largest sums of foreign aid and investment are ruled by those who do not share the professed values of the Western democracies that provide the aid. Security forces in these countries have imprisoned, tortured, hounded into exile and sometimes killed government critics. And in rural areas farmers, cattle-keepers, and others are displaced from land they have occupied for generations to make way for development projects that often fail to bring promised jobs and social welfare benefits.
The conference addressed the urgent questions raised by these contradictions. What are the consequences for long-term development? What responsibility do development agencies and foreign investors have to ensure that abuses do not occur and that recipient governments make progress on democracy, human rights, and justice? Speakers explored these questions using detailed case studies from across the continent.