The Collegian
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Documentary explores how aid affects Africa

With more than one trillion dollars given in foreign aid, why is Africa still so poor? Did that $10 donation ever get to the starving child? Could our good intentions actually be causing more harm than good?

These were the questions posed at the beginning of "What Are We Doing Here?", a documentary film exploring why the charity given to Africa during the past five decades has been largely ineffective and even detrimental.

Students, faculty and community members packed a room in the Tyler Haynes Commons Friday night to watch the documentary and hear from Tim Klein, one of the makers of the film. The screening was sponsored by the Office of International Education and Richmond's chapter of Amnesty International.

Klein, along with his two brothers and cousin, traveled across Africa and created the documentary in an attempt to understand firsthand the failure to end poverty.

He said they were inspired to make the film after being unsatisfied with how Africa was presented to them in other documentaries.

The Klein family traveled 15,000 miles via public transportation from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa using their own funds — a budget of $10 per day. Along the way they encountered countless communities stricken with poverty, famine and AIDS. They interviewed hundreds of Africans, local aid workers and politicians who shed light on the complex problems in Africa.

The Kleins discovered multiple Africans who believed aid organizations should help Africans grow or produce food rather than just giving it, because food aid from the Western world often undermines Africans' motivation to change their circumstances.

Also, many Africans are farmers, and there is no market for them to compete against free crops donated by aid organizations.

The Kleins discovered that much foreign aid money had gone straight to governments that didn't have their people's best interest at heart.

"It's difficult for positive things to happen when governments are working against their people," Klein said in a discussion after the film.

The Kleins found that many problems had resulted from donors not understanding the real problems of the community. Each situation is unique, and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Klein said.

"The irony that some, perhaps much, of our foreign aid, particularly our food donations, do as much harm as good is something we need to think long and hard about," said Rick Mayes, associate professor of political science.

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Sophomore Caitlin Harman said: "All global endeavors require understanding the social and cultural environment in which you are working. This documentary shows that we really don't know what we're doing in Africa."

Harman said a serious rethinking of the aid approach — one that involved talking with Africans — should occur.

Although there is no simple solution to the problem of poverty in Africa, the Kleins hope to raise awareness with the film and challenge viewers to think about what should be done.

The Kleins are currently working on a petition to change the U.S. food aid policy. The petition says food aid should be bought locally in Africa to support industry, rather than be grown in the U.S. and transported, as it currently is. The petition can be signed on their Web site,

Klein was optimistic about successes that have been occurring in various places in Africa.

"There are a lot of positive things going on anywhere you go," he said.

Contact staff writer Anna Kuta at

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