Thursday, May 5, 2011

getting off 'the road to hell'

This week I read The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren. From the first few pages where Maren paints a negative picture of Peace Corps volunteers (I'm a returned Peace Corps volunteer, Tanzania 06-08) I was torn between wanting to throw the book out the window and being really captivated. I'm glad I read it because it forced me to really think critically about foreign aid. Moving forward I will only donate to an organization if I have detailed knowledge of their projects/operation.

Most of the book features Somalia aid work by Save the Children and CARE. To give a really brief summary..... the book claims the aid work is making things worst, keeping evil governments in power and making slaves of those in refugee camps. Maren basically says aid workers/orgs care most about attracting funding. They don't care if their projects fail or if most of the "free food" goes to rebel army groups etc. Plus they often lie about where money is going.

After reading the book, I was left feeling cheated by all the ads I have viewed throughout my lifetime calling for my donation. I started to wonder if my past donations to UNHCR, CARE and the Red Cross etc. were wasted. So I enlisted Facebook for help. I posted "To anyone who has read 'The Road to Hell'. The book was written in 1997, are NGO/charities still this bad?" and the universe answered.

I forgot I have a lot of friends in international development. Watch this video about the importance of learning from failures and read some of their thoughts below.
  • Not all aid orgs are evil, some believe in accountability, openness and innovating: Engineers Without Borders publishes failure reports annually
  • EWB also created Admitting Failure inviting others to admit their failure so everyone can benefit and not repeat mistakes.
  • One friend works for CARE now and says they are much different now. Plus the picture Maren painted of its employees is not accurate.
  • When faced with the problem: give food to people who need it but some rebels will get some of it OR give no food whatsoever and chance people starving to death...what would you do?
  • We do need more oversight/regulation of the whole field. Also more follow through and maintenance (Pumps and pipes fail within months of installation, but the installing NGO or GO never goes back to make sure things are still running smoothly.)
  • A lot of people out there make their livings off of criticizing aid/development (Bill Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Mahmood Mamdani) while seldom offering solutions for fixing what's wrong.
  • NGOs are dependent on donors for funding, and donors often give money for specific purposes. Everyone wants to give money to help build schools and all of the other high-profile projects. But where's the money to increase protection for aid workers in conflict situations, for example? There are so many areas that are underfunded by donors because they aren't attention-grabbing, but they may be equally important as other stuff. NGOs often push for unrestricted donations, but ultimately that's the donor's choice.
  • There's still too much focus on providing basic necessities (food/water/shelter/medicine) in refugee camps and not enough on psychosocial support and livelihood support. "We're so concerned with how people are dying, but not with how they are living".
  • Aid absolves African govs of accountability to its citizens and cuts the african entrepreneur out of the decision making process. Why should the govt sit with its people to find ways of increasing revenue yet they can do that with the IMF? Africans don’t want handouts, we want opportunities to trade, just like everybody else. There's more poverty in India and China than continental Africa combined in terms of absolute numbers, and yet you don’t see images of their children requesting aid. Instead, their govs astutely figured out that wealth is a function of income-generating jobs, not donations. The entire framework of aid must change from POVERTY ERADICATION to WEALTH CREATION: there's a big difference. Instead of handing out mosquito nets, give small loans to African entrepreneurs who want to set up a mosquito net manufacturing store. Check out, its brilliant.
  • Overall, I think the development "industry" is headed in the right direction. There is also now actual science being done and submitted in refereed journals looking at and comparing different aid techniques. I think the next decade will be a good one for development.
Picture: This picture is from Engineers Without Borders. It summarizes how it might not be as "sexy" to sponsor spreadsheets/maintenance/a teacher's salary as it is to help build a new school or water well, but we need less "hardware" (building/installing) and more "software"(people with skills)

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