The New York Times Book Review

Bad Samaritans

Byline: By Raymond Bonner

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

By Michael Maren.
302 pp. New York:
The Free Press. $25.

If famine and war seem to be the fate of African nations, those heart-wrenching full-page newspaper ads, television commercials and direct-mail solicitations are our response. But Michael Maren warns you to resist letting your heart strings pull your pocketbook. Aid is not only ''incompetent and inadvertently destructive,'' he concludes in ''The Road to Hell.'' ''It could be positively evil.''

Mr. Maren, a magazine journalist, knows whereof he muckrakes. He first went to Africa in the Peace Corps, in 1977. Then, thinking that he might be able to make a difference, he stayed and worked with some of the most reputedly humanitarian of the humanitarian organizations; most of the time he worked in Somalia. With that experience, supplemented by years of exploring the subject of humanitarian aid as a journalist, he has concluded that the billions of dollars spent on alleviating famine and helping refugees have made people dependent on food aid, discouraging them from growing their own and destroying communities and cultures in the process. Aid has driven local pharmacies out of business, unable to compete with free drugs given by large American companies. And it has perpetuated refugee camps, instead of encouraging people to return to their homes.

If Mr. Maren is disillusioned, even more is he bitter and angry, and his sometimes strident tone weakens his case. ''The Road to Hell'' is not a balanced book; it largely ignores the good that aid does, which it must sometimes -- even Mr. Maren says that 100,000 lives were saved in Somalia. But Mr. Maren's mission, which he accomplishes beyond a doubt, is to force us to think about humanitarian intervention in uncomfortable ways.

One of the many strengths of the book is that we hear what Africans think about aid. A Somali refugee told Mr. Maren how he took a second wife with a nice little business he was able to establish with food aid. He bought donated food from other refugees (there was an excess because the refugee numbers were inflated, by a Government that wanted the aid and by aid organizations that got more money to support the inflated population) and sold it to local residents. He used the proceeds to buy other products, such as kerosene and soap, which he also sold, cheaper than local merchants could. Good entrepre-neurship, but not the kind that aid organizations advertise.

It is almost impossible to learn about humanitarian organizations in any meaningful way -- Mr. Maren makes clear that you should not rely on those surveys that evaluate charity groups on the basis of how much they spend on overhead as opposed to programs. He found a trove of damning information in memorandums and reports in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He discovered, for example, that CARE got $16 million from the high commissioner's office, with nearly $2 million of that for expatriate salaries; in no documents was there any discussion about repatriation of the refugees.

Mr. Maren focuses most of his damning details on CARE and Save the Children. It will be argued, of course, that it is not fair to taint all humanitarian organizations because of the transgressions of a few. Sadly, however, the performance of those two groups is representative, as anyone who has seen the aid agencies at work in the field knows. During the refugee crises in Rwanda, for example, more than 100 humanitarian groups invaded, creating the most indecorous scenes of public relations officers shoving and pushing to get their group on television or into a newspaper, and bad-mouthing the work of competing charities.

With Washington more and more reluctant to commit troops or resources in humanitarian crises, the job of helping the victims of war and famine will fall to nongovernmental humanitarian organizations. ''The Road to Hell'' will not be the last word on the subject of humanitarian aid, and it shouldn't be. But Mr. Maren and his conclusions will have to be heard whenever the issue is aired, lest more money be wasted and fewer people actually helped.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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