The Big Lie of Foreign Aid and International Charity
Michael Maren went to Kenya in 1977 to work for the Peace Corps, and has spent much of the last twenty years in Africa, first as a development and aid worker, and later as a journalist. He has witnessed a wide range of wars and famines, from Somalia to Rwanda, and the sundry efforts of governmental and charity organizations to aid refugees and develop economies. Still, he says that Africa today is in much worse shape than when he arrived. In his book The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (The Free Press, 1997), Maren outlines the ways in which the U.S. Agency for International Development, CARE, Save the Children et al. have actually contributed to the economic, social and political problems in underdeveloped nations, even as they were trying to alleviate them.Maren today lives in New York City and spends much of his time in Africa. He spoke with Stephen Hubbell, Middle East correspondent for The Nation from 1989 to 1993 and a contributing editor of Harper's, at Maren's New York apartment. Steve Hubbel: You spoke at the Cato Institute last week.Michael Maren: The inevitable question from the audience is "Are you saying that we should just let people starve to death?" Somebody always says that, and there's nothing in anything I've written that says we should let people starve to death, that we shouldn't help people. What I'm saying is that what we're doing isn't helping people, and, in fact, it's hurting people. People are having trouble making that conceptual leap -- that helping people is hurting people. They want to believe that Save the Children saves the children, that CARE cares, that Feed the Children is feeding children, whatever. SH: Did the process of becoming jaded about foreign aid and development assistance begin when you were in the Peace Corps or later?MM: About a year after I got there I realized that as a Peace Corps volunteer in this little village, I was a political pawn. This was in Kenya, a village that at the time was very isolated. I was there to teach, and what I learned was that I was at that school because the people in the village bribed some people from the Ministry of Education when they'd learned that white teachers were available. Everybody wanted a white teacher, and schools competed with each other for students, so when they knew there was a white teacher coming to that school, they got a lot more kids applying, and a lot more money. They were supposed to build a new classroom for me, and a bunch of material had arrived -- cement, stones -- and the next morning it was all gone because the headmaster was building a little shop for himself in the market. And nobody cared; the people just rolled over for this stuff. And that's when I started thinking about development and what it was. What I realized was, there was this thin kind of layer of pond scum over the village social pool, a group of people who were more westernized. They knew how to operate the mechanisms, how to talk to the government, they spoke English very well. They were the people who were contractors, owned shops in the village, happened to be the headmaster of the school, the preacher and all. They were part of the patronage system that kept the whole country running, and they were the people who benefited from any projects. If money came to the village, it came through them. And I was part of them. SH: To what extent, if at all, did your Peace Corps handlers have any sense that your presence in this village was only tangentially educational?MM: They knew. Peace Corps volunteers used to get together in our time off and talk about how you couldn't teach, the whole system was idiotic. I was teaching The Merchant of Venice to kids who could not read a second-grade primer. And this was the national curriculum. We were teaching physics to kids who'd never seen a light bulb. It was a waste of time, and they weren't equipped to learn, and it was too late to back up and give them 10 years of education at that point.SH: So you decided, even though the Peace Corps was jading, that the circumstances of the life weren't bad, and you went into aid work. At which point your expertise added up toÉMM: To nil. I was a smart guy, but I had a degree in English, and I heard by chance that Catholic Relief Services [CRS] needed somebody who knew the countryside to take this job starting up work programs in Kenya. [There was] a million-dollar budget and tons of food coming in, and we were gonna build roads and dig wells and go to villages with bags of food and all kinds of stuff. My job was to drive around the country going to places where projects had been proposed and approve or disapprove them. My real job was to just approve them and keep the food moving. Don't turn down projects was the idea. But I did take it somewhat seriously and turned down a couple of projects, which got me in trouble. They wanted me to go and make sure the projects actually existed, and they'd ship the food out. A lot of money was involved, which CRS had to spend. SH: Let me understand a little more thoroughly why it is that an organization like CRS or the Peace Corps spends so much money in payoffs, bribes -- costs that are prior to actually doing business in a country.MM: It's not fraud per se. I think one of the misconceptions about these charities is that they run on donations from the public. They don't. They run on contract. CARE, CRS, World Vision, Save the Children [STC] -- they are government contractors more than charities. They get government contracts to do stuff, and the more they do, the more money they get. Contracts always include a certain percentage that goes to salaries, to pay administrators and office costs back home, so that they're perfectly willing to take on anything, because it's cash flowing through the organization. SH: I had this picture of development and aid workers being often insufferably pious, a little sanctimonious about what they do. Sure, they inhabit this special zone of privilege, but at the same time, they view themselves as deliverers of a kind of civilization.MM: Well, it's missionary work, essentially. The thing is, it's more than pious. There are some really good people out there doing aid work, but I have to say -- and this mostly comes from experience as a journalist -- that without a doubt, some of the most sanctimonious assholes I have ever met in my life, some of the worst people, and I mean really bad people, work for charities and aid organizations on the ground. SH: What attracts them to it?MM: Power. They have very few special skills; they have strong desires to be in places like that; they have a sense of adventure. But there's no specific skills that are really necessary. But you walk in there and you have life-and-death power over people's lives. And all of a sudden you have a 22-year-old aid worker telling 12,000 refugees to get over here, to get in line. It gives you a real sense of power. I'd get to these villages, and people would know I'd be coming, and whoever wanted the project would meet me with dancing children singing songs with my name in them and stuff. They'd give me goats; they sent hookers over to my room at night.SH: What did you do with the goats? MM: I didn't do anything with the goats or with the hookers. The goats I always refused or asked to give them to the poorest person in the village, because I didn't know what to do with a goat. I went to a village one time, and I had a pickup truck with my sleeping bag and a bunch of other stuff in the back. I came back one day and there was this goat sitting in the back of my truck eating my sleeping bag, munching on its feathers, and I was really pissed off. Nevertheless, I was having a very good time. The cost of owning your own vehicle in Kenya, especially at that age, was prohibitive to most people, and I got to drive around for an entire year. It was magnificent. Pot was about $35 a ton, so I drove around and smoked big reefers and listened to rock-and-roll and watched animals and camped out.SH: So after CRS you stayed on in Kenya?MM: No. I really wanted to stay, but if you're gonna move up in the ranks of development -- the hierarchy is volunteer, which I did, and then non-governmental organization [NGO], where the money is a lot better. There was a big growth opportunity in Somalia at the time -- this was the end of 1980, early 1981 -- and I jumped on it, being a food monitor. They had tons and tons of food up there going to ethnic Somali refugees from Ethiopia who'd been living in refugee camps in Somalia, escaping the Ogaden war of '77-'78. And the U.S. government requires that if they're gonna ship food into a situation, there must be food monitors to count the bags and make sure that all the food, or as much as possible, was getting to the people who were supposed to be getting it. SH: So you were keeping everybody honest, essentially.MM: Well that's what I thought. I took the job fairly seriously, and I got a really nice house in Somalia on the beach and was in charge of the refugee camps' food, as a U.S. government employee. And it didn't take me too long to figure out that about two-thirds of the food was going missing, and it wasn't just the food. I mean trucks would leave the port and disappear. They'd never find the trucks again. Or [the food] was getting to the camps, and a lot of it was getting stolen in the camps. [Later, during the U.S. intervention], there were almost no cases of private stores being looted, private trucks being attacked by gangs. It was all aid convoys. Because people's attitude was, "They're gonna take it over to those people, we might as well take it." And it was also a big scam because there weren't nearly as many refugees in the camps as [the NGOs] said. And I wrote all these reports, and after a while realized what my job really was, which was to write the damn reports and shut up. The law required that the reports be written, but nobody was gonna do anything about the reports. I wrote a long memo to the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] right before I quit, which I quote in the book. And I just said, this is being manipulated for political purposes and they're not necessary and they're hurting people. They're turning what were refugee camps into pounds that were being used cynically by the government to move various ethnic groups around. SH: In order for an NGO or a governmental organization like USAID even to be in country, there has to be the permission of the local government. Are you assigned some parallel relationship with an existing Somali government organization?MM: One of the things that happens when you're doing aid work in a country like Somalia -- when it did have a government -- you had to deal with the ministries of planning, agriculture, finance, any number of ministries. The idea was to make aid money flow to as many places as possible, which gave them more opportunities to skim it, which was the point as far as they were concerned. But the aid money kept coming in because the U.S. government had a political and strategic interest in Somalia: It was all about a military base in northern Somalia, and so the U.S. was not gonna tell Siad Barre, the dictator, that he could not have his food aid. So all this aid money came through from the U.S. government that was subcontracted to NGOs, largely CARE. But what became obvious was that they were delivering through refugee camps that should not have existed. There was no reason for the refugee camps to be in existence at that time.SH: The conditions that made it necessary to have the camps no longer existed, so they should have been shut down.MM: They should have been forcibly shut down by 1981, when there was peace. But there was a memo that I found from CARE, dated '85 or '86, where they boasted they finally had the food-delivery mechanism running smoothly. So this is like five years later, and they're worried about making the system work, not about taking care of these refugees and getting them out of the camps. And anyone who's ever been in a refugee camp knows that they're very politically charged places. Refugee problems are political problems. NGOs look at them as logistical problems. If you're an NGO, a refugee camp presents you with [issues such as], how do you move the food, how do you do medical care, how do you do this well so there's more money, more money, more personnel, more Land Cruisers, we need more trucks, we need more Land Cruisers and by the way we need more Land Cruisers. And that's how NGOs think about these problems. They don't think about the political problems: How do we get the government to shut these things down? And then the refugee camps in Somalia, as in other places, also became armed camps [for] the Western Somalia Liberation Front, that was supposed to be fighting for freedom from Ethiopia but was essentially a government hit squad. The camps were put in strategic positions on land generally inhabited by clans that the president was having political problems with. There was one clan that was the president's sworn enemy in this one town, and he literally displaced the entire town with refugees from the Ogaden clan -- his mother's clan -- and all this was assisted by NGOs that at first didn't realize what they were doing. But anyone who was paying attention would've known. And there were memos flying around, some of which are in the book, that show people did know that the situation was completely political and that what they were doing was feeding the problem, and still nobody did anything about closing the refugee camps until 1989. And by then it was too late -- the government was collapsing, and Somalia had been pushed over the edge by these political problems caused in part by the refugee camps.SH: The most devastating parts of your book concern two organizations which I think most people probably feel pretty benevolently toward: Save the Children and CARE. When they go to people in the U.S. to advertise for their programs, they show a single image, almost always a hungry child.MM: Starving baby pictures, yeah.SH: What you're saying is that if the camera pulls back from the starving baby, there are other people standing around.MM: I was here [in New York] during the beginning of the Somalia crisis [in the summer of 1992], and I saw on TV all these people starving to death. [Researching the book,] I made a point of going to Reuters in Nairobi where they have all the raw footage. I watched the entire tapes, from beginning to end. Hours and hours of tape. And what you see is the camera on the starving baby, which was the footage edited into the news program, but then the camera pans away or pulls back, and you see there's people going about their lives. There's people driving cars, smoking cigarettes, and so on. What you can do with a camera in a refugee situation is you can compress the hunger. You can package it, frame it, and it always looks worse than it is. It looks like you're taking part in the liberation of Buchenwald, when in fact it's a lot more complicated. The raw footage shows, or if you're there -- and I've been in numerous famine situations over the years -- you realize that it's all part of an economy, that there are people who are eating. And it becomes very clear that this is not a food shortage; this is a political problem or an economic problem -- that's why people are starving to death. And that's more complicated than the message these organizations drive home, which is "This baby is starving; send money and we'll bring him food." The starving baby picture is a lie. Which isn't to say there aren't people starving in these situations; there always are and sometimes lots of them.SH: Standing in the background perhaps are militia members who skim off the top of any food aid that arrives, and village elders who themselves are tied up with the government and make sure some of the aid is funneled to the government.MM: Oh, sure. We tend to look at this as surplus food. You move that into a poor country, and it represents a lot: money, power and control. It's like, you want to do business on the docks of Brooklyn, you gotta know who to pay off. And it's the same thing in any of these situations: You've gotta go through the local leaders; you gotta deal with them, you gotta let them take their cut. Somebody always gets rich off a famine. There's never been a famine situation that didn't make somebody rich, and it's not always just local people on the ground; there's foreign contractors and shipping companies. Most of the money that goes into it ends up back in the U.S. in the form of cash, contracts and salaries. SH: In order to do humanitarian aid work in Somalia or Kenya or Liberia or Rwanda, you inevitably have to help one side in a civil war against the other.MM: You do. Biafra was the beginning; that was the real awakening to people, when the Nigerian government starved people to death in Biafra on purpose. And groups like the Red Cross wouldn't go work in Biafra because they couldn't cross the Nigerian government. And that's always gonna be the case. No rebel group's gonna let you cross its lines so you can go help people who are supportive of the government, and vice versa -- even if those people are starving to death.SH: So the possibility of doing aid work for the benefit of the common people in a situation of civil war is almost nil.MM: It is nil. You can't do it. You have to make a moral decision about who's gonna get fed, or at least admit that you're getting involved politically. But very few charities are willing to do that. The other side of it is, if there isn't a war situation, you're always supporting the status quo -- the government in power. If you're doing aid work in Kenya, you're supporting the government of Kenya, which itself is the reason for most of the problems in Kenya. They're the ones who are choking off farmers and not allowing them to sell grains or coffee or whatever to the highest bidder. They're the ones who are stifling the entire economy.SH: So STC makes no mention of the political situation in countries where the aid eventually is sent. Do you get the feeling the NGOs themselves carry the same what-me-worry attitude on the ground in the countries they serve? MM: Well, there's a huge division in aid organizations between the people on the ground and the people at headquarters, always. I've been in a hundred situations where I'm in a country and I'm with a bunch of aid workers at night, and we're usually drinking after a hard, hot day, and somebody starts talking about maybe we shouldn't be here, maybe we're just fucking the situation up more than it already is, we're not doing anything good, we're making things worse. But they get up in the morning and go to work anyway. That message never gets to the top. The sense of ambiguity and complexity of it -- people in headquarters don't want to hear it. They have other concerns, which are more projects to keep paying salaries at headquarters and let's put a happy face on it for the public. And they're right in that you can't sit down with the public and have a complicated appeal. You have Sally Struthers with a little baby saying, "65¢ a day to save this baby's life." That's pretty direct. It's a lie, but it's direct. You're not gonna be able to discuss the political situation in Zaire: People in Zaire are suffering because of this, and in another country for another reason -- which is the truth. SH: In your book, you describe a real unwillingness to accept that there is -- in what appears to our eyes to be chaos -- social order, a very sophisticated social order. And when the aid organizations come in, they ignore that social order and simply dictate terms as if what they've come into is abject chaos.MM: Yeah, the aid organizations do what they do wherever they are. They know how to set up refugee camps, so they do it. And they also horribly underestimate the local people, the skills and abilities of the local people, and the ability of the people to save themselves and to take care of themselves. If I learned anything in the Peace Corps, it was that people basically know what they're doing. Ads that we see for these organizations tend to give the impression that all these Africans are a bunch of infants. That they're gonna starve to death if we don't send a bunch of 25-year-old volunteers over there to take care of them. The ads really rely on something I find somewhat racist. The whole aid industry is built on this conceit that Americans can go into a village of Africa and, by virtue of some innate quality of American-ness, have something to offer people, something that you can teach people there. As if these people couldn't survive without you. And that's sort of the hidden attitude when I get these questions: Aren't these people gonna suffer if we pull the aid organizations out? And I always have to say, "Do you really think people can't take care of themselves?" Where do people get the idea that Africans are gonna really suffer if a bunch of American volunteers go home? It's an absurd notion. SH: What about the programs? Building schools, teaching people how toÉMM: Development is done in terms of projects. Projects are designed by accountants. If you read a project proposal, it says it's a three-year project: In the first six months we're gonna show this, after a year we'll be at this point and we'll have spent this much money. Anyone who's been overseas working knows that this is not development. This has nothing to do with helping people. It's about building stuff. But economic development has nothing to do with putting pipes in the ground or building buildings. Economic development is a way of thinking about your resources, and this is something that's not going to change because a bunch of Western volunteers are going over there. You're dealing with massive economic problems in countries that have no economies for the most part, countries that are paying out more than their GNP to the International Monetary Fund. By us sending volunteers in there to take over social services, we're really not making things any better for anyone. SH: The blanket response to your book is, "Sure, in any enterprise there are bad apples, bad projects, some who are unwilling to see the negative ramifications of what they're doing. But we shouldn't abandon the whole aid project just because there are some bad apples here and there, in fact, most of the people in aid are well-intentioned, good-meaning types."MM: I think it's exactly the opposite. Every organization has some projects that are working well in some places, but I would say that most aid projects are absolute failures, complete wastes of money that succeed primarily at keeping Westerners employed. And the proof of that is if you look at the long term. I mean, you can always show that an aid project has succeeded over six months. If your goal in an aid project is to put pipes in the ground, then you can say, "Look, there are pipes in the ground; that's success." What you don't do is go back in five years and see what's happened to those pipes. Well, what happened to it? A couple of tough guys in the village came and took over the water system, and they're selling water to people. I've seen this happen over and over again. The poor people in the village aren't getting any water, and they're still walking down to the damn river and drinking awful water, because you're not looking at the political context into which you put those pipes. You build a road somewhere and the people who benefit are the people who have cars. But if you're shortsighted enough to think that the goal of the project is to get the road built, then you're going to look at the project as a success, and you're not going to look at the overall damages and the effect that project has two, five, 10 years down the line.SH: Are the aid organizations going to say, "OK, now we understand that we can't just look at the amount of pipe footage in the ground?"MM: No, because they don't have a time frame that's long enough. It's the kind of industry where personnel are changing very quickly, where there's always a new theory of development, a new way of doing things. When I first started out, everybody was talking about meeting basic human needs. So we put pipes in the ground and said we were meeting basic human needs. Within a few years, the new talk was about "women in development," and we were putting the same damn pipes in the ground and talking about how we were helping women in development. Then you had "sustainable development" -- all this crap is just theoretical jargon marketed as a way of collecting funds. You go to a CARE office some place and ask to see a 15-year-old project, and they're probably not gonna know where it is because you're not gonna be able to find someone who's been in the country for more than a couple of years. I started off on this road very uneasy about what was going on, and I couldn't figure out what was bothering me, and it took time to find the theory that explains all of this. And that is: You have to view them as businesses, as contractors. And basically CARE is not a charity, CARE is a corporation that delivers U.S. government surplus to poor countries, and we might be better off just sending it with a shipping company. It'd be a lot cheaper.SH: Well, fine, hospitals are for-profit companies, too, and they make people well.MM: Yeah, and that's the difference. Aid is about people here getting their hands on government money here. Seventy to 80 percent of all aid money stays in the U.S. It goes to salaries, to U.S. corporations; that's what it's about. There are companies like Brown & Root -- which is owned by a company whose chairman is [Secretary of Defense under Bush during the Somalia intervention] Dick Cheney, by the way -- made hundreds of millions of dollars off the Somalia intervention. And they're in Bosnia now as well. The list of private companies making money is huge. We don't look at CARE in that way. We're not willing to say, CARE is making money from this as well. In fact, they are. They're paying their salaries, they're expanding, they're hiring new people, making capital investments -- they're just not paying taxes on it. SH: Are sponsorship organizations by definition a fraud?MM: Any sponsorship is completely bogus. I just saw an ad for Christian Children's Fund on TV a while ago, and it says, "Little Imelda would've starved to death if not for a lady in Seattle who pledged 65 or 70 cents a day" or whatever the fuck it is. And I looked at that and said, "That's a lie." Because it's not like a child is waiting to get into a program, a child is sponsored, a child moves into the program. That's not how it works. There's a whole chapter in the book on STC as a sponsorship organization that shows that there were villages where they raised $10,000 in sponsorship money and spent only $400, on nothing of any consequence, and that's pretty much how sponsorship works. If they can't get grant money to do a project, they're not really gonna accomplish anything.SH: Doesn't it seem to you that these charitable organizations come into a country like Somalia or into poor areas of the U.S. offering the promise of new schools or better health care or food or whatever, and in so doing, they sort of exonerate us from having to worry about the fact that our government doesn't care for the needs of a certain percentage of its population?MM: Or our government is supporting a dictator of a country who's ripping off the national treasury for billions of dollars. The president of Kenya is a billionaire. He's stolen more money than all of these organizations are ever going to bring in. He gets to play with these NGOs.SH: But the presence of Western NGOs means that governments don't have to carry out the obligations that governments should have to carry out. MM: Yeah, it lets us off the hook. "We're doing something. We're building schools over there. That's our obligation to this country" -- when we're pursuing macroeconomic policies that are causing these problems to begin with, such as massive structural adjustments and debt burdens. That's really the problem, and that amount of money dwarfs the money coming in through these charities. You have to think about development in terms of larger economic issues. That's where the problems are. SH: What would happen if these aid organizations pulled out of these countries?MM: I think if all of them went out of business today, there would be very few people who would be any worse for it, and a great number of people would be better off. People know what's best for themselves. They can do what they need to do. In most of these countries -- I'm thinking of Africa -- people are not developing economically because they're not being allowed to. They're being oppressed politically. If you look at the development that's taken place in Asia in the past 15 or 20 years, none of that can be attributed to foreign aid. It's all investment, it all came about through change in government policies that allowed people to invest their money. I had a friend who had a business in Nairobi a number of years ago who said he wanted to keep the business small because if you stuck your head up too high they'd chop it off. The president of Kenya basically stole most of the successful businesses in the country, and now owns them. That's not the kind of policy that's going to foster large economic growth. And if the Asian model is going to apply to Africa, it's got to start slowly, and it has to start with good government. And to a certain extent, NGOs and aid organizations in these countries now help fortify a lot of bad governments.SH: In the end, is there any role for NGOs or charitable organizations in the developing world at all?MM: No.