National Catholic Reporter

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity

by Mark S. Muldoon

Since the advent of television, one of the most evocative images to fill the screen has been that of the starving and bloated African child in the arms of an emaciated woman. Associated with this image are the names of non-governmental organizations -- NGOs -- that we have come to trust as the purveyors of mercy and aid, such as CARE, Save the Children, World Vision, USAID and the various agencies of the United Nations.

Michael Maren's The Road to Hell argues that once we go beyond the image and follow the path of well-intentioned donations from the head office to the field, the real recipients of foreign aid are not the dying children and famished mothers. Maren's central thesis is that international aid and charity constitute an industry, "a self-serving system that sacrifices its own practitioners and intended beneficiaries in order that it may survive and grow."

This thesis is not new. Since the early 1950s, many have questioned the validity and success of international relief intervention. Maren's account, however, is an end-of-the-millennium exhibit of just how "positively evil" international aid can become.

His prime example is Somalia.

The history behind the 1992 famine in Somalia, and the disastrous U.S. military intervention a year later, began in 1977. At that time, ethnic Somali refugees fled Ethiopia in the wake of a short but brutal war between these two nations. The war itself was fueled by Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the number of refugees increased, aid started to pour into the country.

In 1981, Maren left the Catholic Relief Services in Kenya to become a food monitor for USAID in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. From this vantage point, and a follow-up investigation 12 years later, Maren unravels for us the complex web of factors that eventually turned international aid into a nightmare.

First, while still in the field, Maren discovered that the number of refugees was being artificially inflated. This, in turn, raised the call for more aid. On the other hand, about two-thirds of the relief food was being stolen. Most of it was taken straight from the dock at Mogadishu, or from one of the many refugee camps, by the Somali military. The food was sold at a profit on the black market and some of the proceeds used to buy arms.

Second, relief organizations in the area did not appear troubled when it became impossible to identify and count the real refugees to determine whether the food was really reaching the intended beneficiaries. The reason for this was simple, according to the author: The primary aim of relief agencies is to remain financially solvent. "NGOs are accountable to accountants ... and least of all to the victims." What concerns relief organizations more is the grooming of the public's perception that most donated money really goes to feed the hungry when, in fact, there is no guarantee that it does.

Third, throughout the decade, a growing surplus of donated food destroyed the economy of local agriculture because "food was dumped into Somalia as fast as donors could get it there." By 1988, "the growth of food aid in Somalia was 14 times higher than the growth of food consumption."

In the end, the few who were rich became richer and the thousands of poor became poorer -- creating a need for more and more aid, more and more NGOs.

In the chapter "Pigs at a Trough," Maren asks the key question: Who really benefits from transforming such countries as Somalia into "an aid-dependent 'kleptocracy'?"

The answer is "America's merchants of grain." Government subsidies, agribusiness and NGOs are all implicated in a cozy loop of advantage and profit. Humanitarianism is not the driving force behind aid; it is profit to the suppliers, contractors and distributors.

Maren ends the book on what I believe to be the darkest issue, namely, the new but subtle marriage between the arms industry and NGOs. While aid organizations like the Red Cross traditionally resisted military protection, Somalia became a test case for a possible liaison. In Maren's estimation, this will be a win-win situation for NGOs and the military-industrial complex in the future. Why?

On the one hand, where the military intervenes to protect aid convoys and the like, the press is sure to follow. The result is more of what everyone desires: More publicity results in more pictures of starving people, which leads ultimately to more donations to NGOs.

On the other hand, munitions manufacturers no longer sell armaments to post-Cold War armies, but to "peacekeepers" who engage in humanitarian missions. "From the military perspective, the NGO relationship gives them credibility as humanitarians and opens up new vistas of intervention."

When I began to read this book, I was secretly searching for evidence that the author was just an angry young man, venting his frustration for having his ideals tarnished in this less-than-perfect world. This is not the case. Maren's work is a superb and detailed account of something terribly wrong. Ultimately, the "global fixit industry" fixes little but itself.

Copyright 1997 National Catholic Reporter
National Catholic Reporter

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