Monday, December 22, 2008

Unintended Consequences

Today on the way into work, I was listening to a report on Somalia on NPR. And aid worker who was being interviewed said that some 2.8 million Somali's are directly dependent upon foreign aid for food. The picture is beyond what I can imagine. They also said that the Ethiopian troops will be pulling out soon and that the possibilities are anything but pretty. I've been rolling that thought around in my head in conjunction with the line from the Brooke Fraser song Albertine, "now that I have seen, I am responsible. Faith without deeds is dead."

The question, of course, is what deeds are helpful and what deeds have unintended consequences. Africa is a continent with incredible resources. It is also a continent with a terrible history and incredible entrenched problems. I now that colonialism is a major if not the major contributor to those problems, but it is not the only one and at some point, African leaders must take responsibility for the future of their nations and their people. Simple answers, while they seem helpful, may in the end only serve to perpetuate the problems or even make things worse. What US government actions can help to stabilize things and which might increase the violence or strengthen the power of the Islamists.

I think of the scenario with fair trade coffee as an example of unintended consequences... As people of faith and compassion, we want to be fair, so we purchase only fair trade coffee. The farmers who are selling their coffee through a fair trade cooperative suddenly find themselves doing quite well compared to their neighbors growing beans which are a staple in the community. As the local bean farmers watch this, they do the logical thing, pull up the bean plants and put in coffee. Their income goes up but suddenly the entire community is dependent upon imported food and the whims of the international coffee market. Those who do not grow coffee are unable to afford the imported food and if the price on coffee drops, everyone is in a crisis. Have we helped the situation by buying free trade coffee? Yes... and no...

I wonder whether in Africa by doing what seems right and compassionate, we have supported a system of radical unfairness and violence. I wonder whether we have turned peoples into beggars who were once strong and proud. I don't know what the best answers are. I am sure than none are easy or painless.


Michael Mahoney said...

You've touched on a very key point. Unfortunatly, the fault lies less with the typical western consumer than with the intrenched and largely self-serving and corrupt governments in those countries.

During my mission time in Central America, I saw the same thing in the sugar industry. Belize has become so dependent on sugar exports that when the price drops, it is a disaster. Thousands and thousands of acres are devoted to cane fields, not staples, the sugar company has the government in it's pocket and the common citizen can barely get by.

Is it our fault for taking sugar in our coffee? (or drinking coffee at all?) Not so much - but western consumerism and the "get it now" attitude have certainly contributed; whether it be a cane field, a coffee plantation or a textile sweatshop.

The situation in Africa is unique. The governments, especially in sub-Saharan Africa are universally bad. I suppose Nick Champlin could give a lot of insight into that.

That Baptist Ain't Right said...

I don't know what the answer is to the problem of world poverty. I certainly don't know how to solve Africa's problems. The only way I can reconcile my conscience is do what I can with what projects I am involved --- & leave the rest to hope.

Good post.