Africa film screened at Pitt questions effect of foreign aid on continent

By Mollie Durkin

Even when aid to Africa was at its peak, poverty rose on the continent, according to one African… Even when aid to Africa was at its peak, poverty rose on the continent, according to one African economist.

So what are we doing there? Last night, Pitt students came together to find out.

Louis Picard, Director of International Development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, sponsored the viewing of the film “What Are We Doing Here?” on campus. The film explores the effects of foreign aid on African countries — and they don’t seem pretty. Over the last five decades, the charity given to Africa has been ineffective and often detrimental because it ends up in the wrong place, according to the filmmakers.

The film follows Brandon, Nicholas, Daniel and Tim Klein as they trek 15,000 miles from Cairo to Cape Town in search of an answer to the question: What are we doing here?

The Klein family, composed of three brothers and their cousin, shot about 350 hours of video over the course of six months — all on a $10-a-day budget.

Picard said the event was directed toward students pursuing a degree in International Affairs or those interested in foreign aid.

Anne Marie Toccket, a graduate student at GSPIA, was excited to see the film and learn about the potential alternatives it might offer.

“[Picard] has spent years in Africa, so since he likes this movie, it must be good,” she said. “This is a good opportunity to learn.”

Toccket, like most of the students in attendance, felt skeptical about foreign aid.

In her book, “Dead Aid,” Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, wrote that poverty in Africa rose from 11 to 66 percent during 1970 and 1998 — even though aid flowing to the continent was at peak level during this time.

But the filmmakers assert all charity is not bad.

The men behind “What Are We Doing Here?” are compiling a database of charities and businesses that offer new alternatives to eradicating poverty.

Oxfam America, an affiliate of Oxfam International, and Business Fights Poverty are two of these organizations. Oxfam is an international relief and development organization that aims at saving lives and overcoming poverty, hunger and injustice. The organization works to increase the efficiency of foreign aid by focusing its aid policies and practices around the suggestions and priorities of the impoverished themselves.

Business Fights Poverty is an international, free-to-join network of professionals who are interested in fighting poverty through good business.

Laura Amweg, a graduate of the College of General Studies, recounted her own experience in Africa.

Amweg is part of Student Leaders of International Medicine, a group of Pitt students who visited Malawi last May.

“It’s global change versus global charity,” she said of the duality of foreign aid.

She said the foreign aid that does reach the poor is so minute that it makes little difference.

“Entire villages did not have clean water. It was disgusting,” she said.

Neil Straub, a graduate student of GSPIA, had difficulty pinpointing one specific problem with foreign aid.

“There’s a lot — that’s one of the problems,” he said.