A Complete Waste of Money That Succeeds Primarily At Keeping Westerners Employed
September 29, 2010 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Michael Maren, an outspoken critic of foreign aid and development assistance, gave an interview to Might Magazine about the flaws in the current models for aid to Africa.
posted by reenum (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure it is an interesting interview, but it seems like a bit of stretch to say it is about "the current models for aid" when it was published in 1997.
posted by ssg at 8:01 AM on September 29, 2010

If you want more current criticism of development from someone who doesn't want to abandon the entire system, just change it, try Blood and Milk.
posted by Xurando at 8:24 AM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aid that does not empower the local people does not accomplish a lot. But I can think of a few organizations with the goal of enabling people to help themselves.

Oklahoma University Water Center Organization has the goal to provide clean water to people by using local, cheap and sustainable technology and labor.

Microloans have been discussed here several times.

Help in providing local, sustainable energy is the goal of barefoot engineers, discussed here and here.
posted by francesca too at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2010

To Help? or To Hinder?
posted by adamvasco at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2010

Paul Theroux's Dark Star, a story about revisiting Africa thirty years after working there in the Peace Corps, draws essentially the same conclusion. Although there are celebratory moments in the book - Theroux loves much about the continent - he is disgusted with the current state of affairs. Of course, his story is told less polemically than the post above, with more of a sense of a novelist's eye for detail. A great book.
posted by kozad at 8:52 AM on September 29, 2010

As someone born in Africa, I agree completely. Africa suffers from people thinking "There is never enough to go around" and "Me and my family come first" which is understandable, but undermines almost all government and aid efforts. Corruption is the main problem, and what is needed are strict anti-corruption laws and a bunch of people to enforce them that are not corrupt.
posted by meepmeow at 10:03 AM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Man, I *just* read an essay yesterday saying the best way to help places like Africa would be to reward domestic business innovation to create cheap products for Africans to buy.

The entrepreneur that creates a dirt-cheap water purification machine that never breaks down would do more for everyone than if he took all of his research and development money and spent it on bags of rice.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:17 AM on September 29, 2010

a dirt-cheap water purification machine that never breaks down

Or a pony.

However, the "filter your water" movement does seem to have had some success in getting rid of the guinea worm.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:24 AM on September 29, 2010

Spot on article.

In Kidal, Mali, there were quite a few NGOs that were subcontracted by a group called Proman, some mysterious organization that seemed like the dirty secret of the development world. In short, Proman finds expatriate employees for the projects, and collects a percentage of the salary during the contract. In practice, this leads to hyperinflated salaries for expatriate staff (such that one friends' contracted project was reprimanded for asking for too little money!).

Spend enough time in Africa and you'll be hard pressed to find an NGO worker who doesn't agree with everything in the above article. In my two years, I was hopeful that I would meet an idealistic fighter; instead I encountered the cynical and the hopeless. About the only enthusiastic people I ever met were newly minted Peace Corps volunteers. But they were quickly, ahem, "broken."

"There is never enough to go around" and "Me and my family come first"

A lot of the problems are societal. At the base, the Africa I know suffers from immense poverty. It's not always the starving famine kind of poverty, but can be the no job for seven years poverty, sitting around the family home poverty, making tea all day poverty, hopeless no where to go poverty. Familial obligation means the first time anyone succeeds (and families are big), you help those in your family. As such, corruption isn't really corruption -- but part of the working business model.

Aid work deals with this in a simple way -- more money invested in "projects", with the full realization that only a small portion of that money will reach the intended goal. The unfortunate reality is that more often, none of the money ever reaches the goal, and the ubiquitous African "project" becomes a keyword for money.

(A common conversation:
Friend: "Let's start a project."
Me: "Really? Great. What's the problem? What do you want to solve?"
Friend: "Ummm. You know, a project."
Me: "Yes, but what's the project going to do?"
Friend: "You know, people in the states fund our project...")

I'm back to Africa in a few months time, and when I consider going back, it's with some trepidation. There's so much hustle, so much of everyone getting theirs, and almost none of the collective solidarity present in Latin America. It's a divided place by virtue of the vast varieties of languages, ethnic groups, and tribes and castes within said groups. I feel that sometimes we're looking in the wrong direction -- because if you try to find the hope in aid projects, in collective organizations, in barefoot technologies, in educational initiatives, you'll be left cynical and burnt.

But Africa does have amazing strengths -- in the villages, especially, no one would ever go hungry. There is amazingly strong dedication to religion and morality, especially in the North to Islam, and the precepts of offering charity. And most importantly, the immense love for the family. If foreign aid has failed Africa, I would challenge it to recognize the realities and draw on the inherent strengths.
posted by iamck at 11:45 AM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

However, the "filter your water" movement does seem to have had some success in getting rid of the guinea worm.

In Northern Mali, the filters that were distributed from Medicine du Monde. I never saw anyone using them for water, but they were standard in use to filter gasoline -- every gasoline seller had a guinea worm filter to keep particles out of your gas tank.
posted by iamck at 11:48 AM on September 29, 2010

I'm sure it doesn't help that most of the national borders were created by Europeans with no regard to the actual ethnic and religious makeup of the citizenry in the new countries.

It's like putting dogs, cats and mice in a room and telling them that they need to play nice with each other.
posted by reenum at 12:39 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's like putting dogs, cats and mice people in a room and telling them that they need to play nice with each other.

FTFY. I know, I'm being facetious, but they really are people. Those kinds of disturbances probably have less to do with ethnic diversity and more to do with corruption, otherwise New York would have degenerated into civil war long ago.
posted by klanawa at 1:01 PM on September 29, 2010

Wow, I'm happy to have found this article again. I have faint memories of reading it in Might and since then have wondered who wrote it and where I could get my hands on another copy. Haven't reread it yet (and not sure how I'll feel about it now), but thanks for posting it either way.
posted by cowboy_sally at 1:02 PM on September 29, 2010

Oh man, I am so sick of this Dead Aid schtick where everybody gathers round and shares personal anecdotes about their own experience with aid and calls the whole enterprise fucked.

It's a knee-jerk reaction that generalises and stereotypes a huge field, helps people ignore their responsibilities as developed-world citizens in helping the billions we have exploited for centuries and ignores the complex realities of aid, in favour of some World Bank or IMF wet dream and moreover ignores how aid is frequently functioning against the ball-shakingly expensive actions of our nation states that directly work against many of the goals.

Generalisations about aid are as dumb as generalisations about Africa (amazingly, the two often coincide!). Aid is practiced in a trillion different ways in a million different countries - many of them outside Africa, many of them in 'developed' countries - and to write off the whole enterprise displays both a breath-taking and paradoxical naivety and cynicism. It's not like science or maths, there is no "formula" where all aid will suddenly become successful.

Aid functions best with freedom from corruption; strict reporting; auditing and scrutiny; and a commitment to innovation and best practice. But you know what? So does a lot a shit - it doesn't make those things wrong or bad or useless, and it doesn't presuppose that an absence of some combination of the above = total failure. This all or nothing mentality is so destructive and ignorant about how public policy (which is really what aid is) actually functions.

I am definitely not saying that aid is perfect and we don't need to change a thing, but it's equally silly to say aid is hopelessly compromised and ruined.

Also, I love how any American discussion of aid seems to start and end with the frigging Peace Corps. They have an annual budget of like 400 million. It's a drop in the bucket, and acting like peace corps is representative of the entire field of development aid is just silly.
posted by smoke at 5:54 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Knee jerk reactions, eh?

Yes, aid is immensely complex. The damning ineffectiveness and blatant impotence of it is pretty apparent though, from the ground. You know, personal anecdote and all. I would "generalize" that many aid workers relate and agree with this. At least said author does, who just so happens to have spent twenty years living in Africa.

I don't think that the conversation has to be "aid is bad, throw it out" and let's indulge in free market fantasies. But it also doesn't have to treat aid like some untouchable subject because it's all fuzzy and good. I realize that this type of cynicism hurts aid -- after all, it's a business that survives on selling images of bloated bellied big eyed children.
posted by iamck at 9:07 PM on September 29, 2010

Illitch criticized the notion and application of aid (in his experience, US aid to Central America) in the 60s.

The core criticism he developed was that aid, like most modern social inventions, is a "system" and systems eventually end up serving their own ends rather than what they were originally intended.

There are other complex things going on in his model (much of which I cheerfully admit to only glossing over) but over the years I've learned to see that this core criticism can be applied to a great number of systems in our modern world: medicine, education, government. You look for the places where the people are supposed to be served by a system and see how they have become adjuncts to the system, which primarily seems to serve its own ends.

Even knowing this, perhaps international aid can be salvaged, but as pointed out else-thread, without large changes to the global redistribution of capital this is unlikely. If so, aid will continue to be an industry for providing aid.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:16 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the strategic importance of aid is not the fact that it ostensibly helps starving people. Perhaps, instead, the importance of aid is that we keep many nations in a perpetual state of institutionalization. To me international aid is merely one strategy in our bag, among others, to secure hegemony over other nations.

To loosely quote Ronald Regan, we can't measure the success of welfare programs by adding people to the dole. We should measure it by seeing people leave the dole.
posted by Sukiari at 8:41 AM on September 30, 2010

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