African countries pledge aid to Haiti, but can they really afford it?

Leaders pledged aid to Haiti this week at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but the reaction among average Africans has been mixed. In Congo, news of the $2.5 million aid pledge sparked demonstrations.

Andres Leighton/AP
Employees organize medicines donated by other countries after Haiti's earthquake at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.

To some Western cynics, Africa may seem to be a place where aid dollars go to die. But when the Haitian earthquake struck, African leaders dug deep into public coffers to offer what they could.

The Democratic Republic of Congo – a country that receives billions of dollars in foreign aid after more than a decade of war – offered $2.5 million. Ghana has offered $3 million. Senegal has offered $1 million and land to any Haitian who seeks to immigrate. Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has offered $2 million, and dirt-poor Sierra Leone has pledged $100,000.

Such offers may play well in the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where leaders closed their annual summit yesterday, but the reaction among average African has been mixed. In Congo's capital, Kinshasa, news of the $2.5 million aid pledge sparked demonstrations this week.

Still, African leaders are eager to trumpet their efforts to help Haiti, the world's first black republic and a model for their own moves to break free from European colonial masters.

“Congo isn’t bankrupt,” Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende told the BBC. “Our own problems should not prevent us from helping a brother country.”

African brotherhood

The notion of a common African brotherhood that extends to the Caribbean and Americas remains a powerful symbol here on the African continent. Called Pan-Africanism by some and “negritude” by liberation heroes such as Senegal’s first president, Leopold Senghor, this sense of African-ness has the potential to give developing countries a stronger united voice than individual African nations would have on their own. Whether African leaders can explain this concept to their fellow countrymen – and defend their aid to faraway Haitians – remains to be seen.

The aid pledges from African countries to Haiti are "a very powerful symbol," says Babacar Diop Buuba, a professor at University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. "But the challenge is how to organize it, and how to explain it to the ordinary people. The question is how to help the [poorer] people in Senegal and also assist the people of Haiti.”

Compared with the aid pledges of the United States ($100 million) and the European Union ($575 million), Africa’s aid pledges may seem small. But by the end of the African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, the surge of aid pledges started to resemble a charity auction at a country club.

Pledges roll in

In addition to the pledges mentioned above, South Africa has sent two search and rescue teams, and local aid groups such as the Red Cross have issued appeals for $4 million in Haitian emergency relief. Namibia, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo (a neighbor to the DRC), have each pledged $1 million.

“It’s a matter of prestige” for African leaders to offer aid, says Guillaume Lacaille, an analyst on Central Africa for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “It doesn’t always go well with the people, though. When this was decided, a lot of Congolese reacted negatively to it. But the government has said, this is a matter of pride, we are an African country, and we have to give something.”

This is especially true for the DRC, where President Joseph Kabila will be facing elections in the next two years, and has increasingly been signaling his autonomy from international donor nations and from the United Nations. “This says that ‘Congo is back,’” says Mr. Lacaille. “It is a big country in Central Africa and now you have to count on it."

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