Letter from a Young Aid Worker

I received this email last month from a Peace Corps Volunteer recently returned from Senegal:

Michael,

Thank you for sending along your email address. I read your Might interview a few months ago and shortly afterward picked up The Road to Hell.

I left for PC Senegal in Sept. of 2008 and lasted about a year before coming home. The sentiments from your Might interview and your book struck me because I share so many of them. I've often reflected on my PC experience since returning from Senegal, and I've tried to write about it at various points with varying degrees of success. So it was heartening to read your words and relate to them so much.

I'm convinced that most foreign aid, whether 'official development assistance' from rich govts to poor ones or NGOs planted in Haiti, does more harm than good. Personal experience and a background in economics and an independent study of aid (I guess you could put me squarely in the Bill Easterly camp) have led me to this conclusion. It seems to me that most aid is given to meet donors' needs, doesn't have proper local context or long-term incentives to be successful, and helps us sleep well at night on our clear consciences back home in the West.

I have ranted about these issues on random blog posts and even in an op-ed I wrote last year about Haiti. But I also recognize that the demand for aid is probably not getting any smaller any time soon -- governments have all sorts of political and diplomatic reasons for giving it, corporations have to get rich off of the aid racket, and individuals will always feel the need to "do something" or "take action" for those poor souls in "Africa."

I'm currently working as a research assistant at a think-tank in DC, working mostly on tech policy. I am passionate about aid, however, and sometimes find myself ranting at friends/sisters who are wearing TOMS shoes.

Do you think it's worth it to try to change minds on the aid issue? I've often thought about ways to try to do so, which range from looking to work for an organization that fights to reduce aid / limit bad aid (if any actually exist) to traveling back to sub-Saharan Africa and interviewing locals about their thoughts on aid and writing / podcasting / filming them.

But at other times, I think I should just say Fuck It and get on with my life -- after all, who can ever convince people that aid is harmful when the other side can just show a 30 second clip of starving kids with a Bono voice-over telling them to give money to X organization or children will die?

I'm curious to get your thoughts on this, because I can't tell whether you wrote about aid for a while and then turned wholly to writing screenplays and running writing conferences or you're still interested in aid stuff. I think Easterly et al. do great work revealing many of the harms of aid, but I also think that much of that work is confined either to academia or the blogosphere.

I wish there were effective ways at least to swing the mainstream pendulum slightly toward a more skeptical view of aid, and I'm curious to get your thoughts on these issues.

Please excuse the length of this email, and many thanks for reading.

My best,

Tate Watkins

Tate,

This may be a subject better suited to a phone call than an email exchange.  My short answer to your question is that it's definitely worth trying to change minds.  Minds to get changed; policies take longer. When I published my book my editor wanted me to be more optimistic. He wanted me to provide solutions, i.e. more things that WE can do.  But I don't think WE can do anything.  We'd be better off focusing on things we should stop doing, such as sucking up half the world's resources and subsidizing our own production of crops that are more efficiently produced in the developing world.   But that's a harder sell. People would rather send 20 bucks to an NGO and get on with their lives.

I'm still doing this "work."  I was on the BBC last week talking about Haiti and the 3000 NGOs that have invaded that country.  But, no, I'm not doing research or traveling in Africa these days.  I did that for nearly 20 years, and now I'm married with a young kid and I'm enjoying that part of my life. But life is longish...relatively.  You can do both.  Spend some years trying to change minds, talk to the people with the TOMS shoes or the Save the Children ties, and self-rightous attitudes.

I do think that I succeeded in changing a number of minds over the years. Certainly a generation of aid workers has read my book.  When the issue of the negative impact of aid is raised there are a large number of people who yawn and say, yeah we know that. That only seems like old news because of the work of myself, David Reiff, Philip Gourevitch and others.  (Did you see Gourevitch's article in the New Yorker in October or so? )

There really is no organization that does this work.  There should be.  Bill Easterly is the closest thing to a professional naysayer we've got. I suppose that having a university affiliation is necessary to really follow this calling.  That's never interested me, so I get to write movies and run literary events, both of which are passions of mine.

You have inspired me to pick up this ball again.  I've been meaning to get my blog back up and running, and I'll do just that.

If you don't mind, I'll publish your letter to me and this response on the blog,  It might start an interesting discussion.

Very best,

Michael

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