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Top five points I took away from last night’s “Can Foreign Aid Really Help Africa?” talk in Seattle, featuring American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger and University of Washington Prof. Dan Chirot:

1) Faith-based organizations are strongly motivated to help the poor, but be wary of those that may also be in it to proselytize. (Coincidentally or not, Jewish groups tend to be relatively better bets here, since unlike Christians, they traditionally don’t try to convert anyone.) On a related note, religious influence may also do more harm than good, such as the evangelical fingerprints — the Rev. Rick Warren’s eventual condemnation notwithstanding —  in Uganda’s harsh anti-gay legislation.

2) When responding to a crisis, aid groups that are already established in a particular region may be better prepared to help effectively, rather than funding a group venturing into unfamiliar territory. Messinger cited the example of the Idaho church members who got in trouble in Haiti last year for trying to evacuate kids who turned out not to be orphans.

3) Talk to communities about what their funding needs are, versus being swayed by special interests, misinformed officials or what donors want to fund. (A donor may insist on funding a new health clinic, but perhaps what that village really needs is more help for its farmers.) Messinger also cited the U.S. example of Hurricane Katrina, in which government officials could have discovered earlier that poor neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward — where few residents had cars — would be difficult to evacuate quickly and smoothly. 

4) In a troubled region where corruption is rampant, it may be better to direct funding to small, local projects — even though these won’t “fix Darfur,” it’s easier to monitor such projects, ensuring high levels of accountability and sustainability.

5) Noting that today was World AIDS Day, it’s great that the disease is no longer a death sentence in America, but it’s still a crisis in Africa — and one that could lead to more drug-resistant strains if foreign aid isn’t applied strategically to provide affordable drugs while also addressing food needs (drugs must be taken with medicine), access to clinics and follow-up care.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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