Road to Hell Reviews

The New Yorker


by Philip Gourevitch

In Biafra in 1968, a generation of children was starving to death. This was a year after oil-rich Biafra had seceded from Nigeria, and, in return, Nigeria had attacked and laid siege to Biafra. Foreign correspondents in the blockaded enclave spotted the first signs of famine that spring, and by early summer there were reports that thousands of the youngest Biafrans were dying each day. Hardly anybody in the rest of the world paid attention until a reporter from the Sun, the London tabloid, visited Biafra with a photographer and encountered the wasting children: eerie, withered little wraiths. The paper ran the pictures alongside harrowing reportage for days on end. Soon, the story got picked up by newspapers all over the world. More photographers made their way to Biafra, and television crews, too. The civil war in Nigeria was the first African war to be televised. Suddenly, Biafra's hunger was one of the defining stories of the age—the graphic suffering of innocents made an inescapable appeal to conscience—and the humanitarian-aid business as we know it today came into being.

"There were meetings, committees, protests, demonstrations, riots, lobbies, sit-ins, fasts, vigils, collections, banners, public meetings, marches, letters sent to everybody in public life capable of influencing other opinion, sermons, lectures, films and donations," wrote Frederick Forsyth, who reported from Biafra during much of the siege, and published a book about it before turning to fiction with "The Day of the Jackal." "Young people volunteered to go out and try to help, doctors and nurses did go out to offer their services in an attempt to relieve the suffering. Others offered to take Biafran babies into their homes for the duration of the war; some volunteered to fly or fight for Biafra. The donors are known to have ranged from old-age pensioners to the boys at Eton College." Forsyth was describing the British response, but the same things were happening across Europe, and in America as well.

Stick-limbed, balloon-bellied, ancient-eyed, the tiny, failing bodies of Biafra had become as heavy a presence on evening-news broadcasts as battlefield dispatches from Vietnam. The Americans who took to the streets to demand government action were often the same demonstrators who were protesting what their government was doing in Vietnam. Out of Vietnam and into Biafra—that was the message. Forsyth writes that the State Department was flooded with mail, as many as twenty-five thousand letters in one day. It got to where President Lyndon Johnson told his Undersecretary of State, "Just get those nigger babies off my TV set."

That was Johnson's way of authorizing humanitarian relief for Biafra, and his order was executed in the spirit in which it was given: stingily. According to Forsyth, by the war's end, in 1970, Washington's total expenditure on food aid for Biafra had been equivalent to "about three days of the cost of taking lives in Vietnam," or "about twenty minutes of the Apollo Eleven flight." But Forsyth, who was an unapologetic partisan of the Biafran cause, reserved his deepest contempt for the British government, which supported the Nigerian blockade. Even as Nigeria's representative to abortive peace talks declared, "Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it," the Labour Government in London dismissed reports of Biafran starvation as enemy propaganda. Whitehall's campaign against Biafra, Forsyth wrote, "rings a sinister bell in the minds of those who remember the small but noisy caucus of rather creepy gentlemen who in 1938 took it upon themselves to play devil's advocate for Nazi Germany."

The Holocaust was a constant reference for Biafra advocates. In this, they were assisted by Biafra's secessionist government, which had a formidable propaganda department and a Swiss public-relations firm. The cameras made the historical association obvious: few had seen such images since the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Propelled by that memory, the Westerners who gave Biafra their money and their time (and, in some cases, their lives) believed that another genocide was imminent there, and the humanitarian relief operation they mounted was unprecedented in its scope and accomplishment.

In 1967, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the world's oldest and largest humanitarian nongovernmental organization, had a total annual budget of just half a million dollars. A year later, the Red Cross was spending about a million and a half dollars a month in Biafra alone, and other N.G.O.s, secular and church-based (including Oxfam, Caritas, and Concern), were also growing exponentially in response to Biafra. The Red Cross ultimately withdrew from the Nigerian civil war in order to preserve its neutrality, but by then its absence hardly affected the scale of the operation. Biafra was inaccessible except by air, and by the fall of 1968 a humanitarian airlift had begun. The Biafran air bridge, as it was known, had no official support from any state. It was carried out entirely by N.G.O.s, and all the flying had to be done by night, as the planes were under constant fire from Nigerian forces. At its peak, in 1969, the mission delivered an average of two hundred and fifty metric tons of food a night. Only the Berlin airlift had ever moved more aid more efficiently, and that was an Air Force operation.

The air bridge was a heroic undertaking, and a stunning technical success for a rising humanitarian generation, eager to atone for the legacies of colonialism and for the inequities of the Cold War world order. In fact, the humanitarianism that emerged from Biafra—and its lawyerly twin, the human-rights lobby—is probably the most enduring legacy of the ferment of 1968 in global politics. Here was a non-ideological ideology of engagement that allowed one, a quarter of a century after Auschwitz, not to be a bystander, and, at the same time, not to be identified with power: to stand always with the victim, in solidarity, with clean hands—healing hands. The underlying ideas and principles weren't new, but they came together in Biafra, and spread forth from there with a force that reflected a growing desire in the West (a desire that only intensified when the Berlin Wall was breached) to find a way to seek honor on the battlefield without having to kill for it.

Three decades later, in Sierra Leone, a Dutch journalist named Linda Polman squeezed into a bush taxi bound for Makeni, the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front rebels. In the previous decade, the R.U.F. had waged a guerrilla war of such extreme cruelty in the service of such incoherent politics that the mania seemed its own end. While the R.U.F. leadership, backed by President Charles Taylor, of Liberia, got rich off captured diamond mines, its Army, made up largely of abducted children, got stoned and sacked the land, raping and hacking limbs off citizens and burning homes and villages to the ground. But, in May, 2001, a truce had been signed, and by the time Polman arrived in Sierra Leone later that year the Blue Helmets of the United Nations were disarming and demobilizing the R.U.F. The business of war was giving way to the business of peace, and, in Makeni, Polman found that former rebel warlords—such self-named men as General Cut-Throat, Major Roadblock, Sergeant Rape Star, and Kill-Man No-Blood—had taken to calling their territories "humanitarian zones," and identifying themselves as "humanitarian officers." As one rebel turned peacenik, who went by the name Colonel Vandamme, explained, "The white men are soon gonna need drivers, security guards, and houses. We're gonna provide them."

Colonel Vandamme called aid workers "wives"—"because they care for people," according to Polman, and also, presumably, because they are seen as fit objects of manipulation and exploitation. Speaking in the local pidgin, Vandamme told Polman, "Them N.G.O. wifes done reach already for come count how much sick and pikin [children] de na di area." Vandamme saw opportunity in this census. "They're my pikin and my sick," he said. "Anyone who wants to count them has to pay me first."

This was what Polman had come to Makeni to hear. The conventional wisdom was that Sierra Leone's civil war had been pure insanity: tens of thousands dead, many more maimed or wounded, and half the population displaced—all for nothing. But Polman had heard it suggested that the R.U.F.'s rampages had followed from "a rational, calculated strategy." The idea was that the extreme violence had been "a deliberate attempt to drive up the price of peace." Sure enough, Polman met a rebel leader in Makeni, who told her, "We'd worked harder than anyone for peace, but we got almost nothing in return." Addressing Polman as a stand-in for the international community, he elaborated, "You people looked the other way all those years. . . . There was nothing to stop for. Everything was broken, and you people weren't here to fix it."

In the end, he claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special "cut-hands gangs" to lop off civilian limbs. "It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate," he said. "Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn't have come." The U.N.'s mission in Sierra Leone was per capita the most expensive humanitarian relief operation in the world at the time. The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.

Is this true? Do doped-up maniacs really go a-maiming in order to increase their country's appeal in the eyes of international aid donors? Does the modern humanitarian-aid industry help create the kind of misery it is supposed to redress? That is the central contention of Polman's new book, "The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?" (Metropolitan; $24), translated by the excellent Liz Waters. Three years after Polman's visit to Makeni, the international Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone published testimony that described a meeting in the late nineteen-nineties at which rebels and government soldiers discussed their shared need for international attention. Amputations, they agreed, drew more press coverage than any other feature of the war. "When we started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us," a T.R.C. witness said. The authors of the T.R.C. report remarked that "this seems to be a deranged way of addressing problems," but at the same time they allowed that under the circumstances "it might be a plausible way of thinking."

Polman puts it more provocatively. Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow horror, she argues, is "the logic of the humanitarian era." Consider how Christian aid groups that set up "redemption" programs to buy the freedom of slaves in Sudan drove up the market incentives for slavers to take more captives. Consider how, in Ethiopia and Somalia during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, politically instigated, localized famines attracted the food aid that allowed governments to feed their own armies while they further destroyed and displaced targeted population groups. Consider how, in the early eighties, aid fortified fugitive Khmer Rouge killers in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, enabling them to visit another ten years of war, terror, and misery upon Cambodians; and how, in the mid-nineties, fugitive Rwandan génocidaires were succored in the same way by international humanitarians in border camps in eastern Congo, so that they have been able to continue their campaigns of extermination and rape to this day.

And then there's what happened in Sierra Leone after the amputations brought the peace, which brought the U.N., which brought the money, which brought the N.G.O.s. All of them, as Polman tells it, wanted a piece of the amputee action. It got to the point where the armless and legless had piles of extra prosthetics in their huts and still went around with their stubs exposed to satisfy the demands of press and N.G.O. photographers, who brought yet more money and more aid. In the obscene circus of self-regarding charity that Polman sketches, vacationing American doctors turned up, sponsored by their churches, and performed life-threatening (sometimes life-taking) operations without proper aftercare, while other Americans persuaded amputee parents to give up amputee children for adoption in a manner that seemed to combine aspects of bribery and kidnapping. Officers of the new Sierra Leone government had only to put out a hand to catch some of the cascading aid money.

Polman might also have found more heartening anecdotes and balanced her account of humanitarianism run amok with tales of humanitarian success: lives salvaged, epidemics averted, families reunited. But in her view the good intentions of aid—and the good that aid does—are too often invoked as excuses for ignoring its ills. The corruptions of unchecked humanitarianism, after all, are hardly unique to Sierra Leone. Polman finds such moral hazard on display wherever aid workers are deployed. In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good.

"Yes, but, good grief, should we just do nothing at all then?" Max Chevalier, a sympathetic Dutchman who tended amputees in Freetown for the N.G.O. Handicap International, asked Polman. Chevalier made his argument by shearing away from the big political-historical picture to focus instead, as humanitarian fund-raising appeals do, on a single suffering individual—in this instance, a teen-age girl who had not only had a hand cut off by rebels but had then been forced to eat it. Chevalier wanted to know, "Are we supposed to simply walk away and abandon that girl?" Polman insists that conscience compels us to consider that option.

The godfather of modern humanitarianism was a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant, who happened, on June 24, 1859, to witness the Battle of Solferino, which pitted a Franco-Sardinian alliance against the Austrian Army in a struggle for control of Italy. Some three hundred thousand soldiers went at it that day, and Dunant was thunderstruck by the carnage of the combat. But what affected him more was the aftermath of the fight: the battlefield crawling with wounded soldiers, abandoned by their armies to languish, untended, in their gore and agony. Dunant helped organize local civilians to rescue, feed, bathe, and bandage the survivors. But the great good will of those who volunteered their aid could not make up for their incapacity and incompetence. Dunant returned to Switzerland brooding on the need to establish a standing, professionalized service for the provision of humanitarian relief. Before long, he founded the Red Cross, on three bedrock principles: impartiality, neutrality, and independence. In fund-raising letters, he described his scheme as both Christian and a good deal for countries going to war. "By reducing the number of cripples," he wrote, "a saving would be effected in the expenses of a Government which has to provide pensions for disabled soldiers."

Humanitarianism also had a godmother, as Linda Polman reminds us. She was Florence Nightingale, and she rejected the idea of the Red Cross from the outset. "I think its views most absurd just such as would originate in a little state like Geneva, which can never see war," she said. Nightingale had served as a nurse in British military hospitals during the Crimean War, where nightmarish conditions—septic, sordid, and brutal—more often than not amounted to a death sentence for wounded soldiers of the Crown. So she was outraged by Dunant's pitch. How could anyone who sought to reduce human suffering want to make war less costly? By easing the burden on war ministries, Nightingale argued, volunteer efforts could simply make waging war more attractive, and more probable.

It might appear that Dunant won the argument. His principles of unconditional humanitarianism got enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, earned him the first Nobel Peace Prize, and have stood as the industry standard ever since. But Dunant's legacy has hardly made war less cruel. As humanitarian action has proliferated in the century since his death, so has the agony it is supposed to alleviate. When Dunant contemplated the horrors of Solferino, nearly all of the casualties were soldiers; today, the U.N. estimates that ninety per cent of war's casualties are civilians. And Polman has come back from fifteen years of reporting in the places where aid workers ply their trade to tell us that Nightingale was right.

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there's no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is, as Nightingale forewarned, that of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst—as the Red Cross demonstrated during the Second World War, when the organization offered its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.

"The Crisis Caravan" is the latest addition to a groaning shelf of books from the past fifteen years that examine the humanitarian-aid industry and its discontent. Polman leans heavily on the seminal critiques advanced in Alex de Waal's "Famine Crimes" and Michael Maren's "The Road to Hell"; on Fiona Terry's mixture of lament and apologia for the misuse of aid, "Condemned to Repeat?"; and on David Rieff's pessimistic meditation on humanitarian idealism, "A Bed for the Night." All these authors are veteran aid workers, or, in Rieff's case, a longtime humanitarian fellow-traveller. Polman carries no such baggage. She cannot be called disillusioned. In an earlier book, "We Did Nothing," she offered a prosecutorial sketch of the pathetic record of U.N. peacekeeping missions. Then, as now, her method was less that of investigative reporting than the cumulative anecdotalism of travelogue pointed by polemic. Her style is brusque, hardboiled, with a satirist's taste for gallows humor. Her basic stance is: J'accuse.

Polman takes aim at everything from the mixture of world-weary cynicism and entitled self-righteousness by which aid workers insulate themselves from their surroundings to the deeper decadence of a humanitarianism that paid war taxes of anywhere from fifteen per cent of the value of the aid it delivered (in Charles Taylor's Liberia) to eighty per cent (on the turf of some Somali warlords), or that effectively provided the logistical infrastructure for ethnic cleansing (in Bosnia). She does not spare her colleagues in the press, either, describing how reporters are exploited by aid agencies to amplify crises in ways that boost fund-raising, and to present stories of suffering without political or historical context.

Journalists too often depend on aid workers—for transportation, lodging, food, and companionship as well as information—and Polman worries that they come away with a distorted view of natives as people who merely suffer or inflict suffering, and of white humanitarians as their only hope. Most damningly, she writes: "Confronted with humanitarian disasters, journalists who usually like to present themselves as objective outsiders suddenly become the disciples of aid workers. They accept uncritically the humanitarian aid agencies' claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic skepticism."

Maren and de Waal expose more thoroughly the ignoble economies that aid feeds off and creates: the competition for contracts, even for projects that everyone knows are ill-considered, the ways in which aid upends local markets for goods and services, fortifying war-makers and creating entirely new crises for their victims. Worst of all, de Waal argues, emergency aid weakens recipient governments, eroding their accountability and undermining their legitimacy. Polman works in a more populist vein. She is less patient in building her case—at times slapdash, at times flippant. But she is no less biting, and what she finds most galling about the humanitarian order is that it is accountable to no one. Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.

Since Biafra, humanitarianism has become the idea, and the practice, that dominates Western response to other people's wars and natural disasters; of late, it has even become a dominant justification for Western war-making. Biafra was where many of the leaders of what de Waal calls the "humanitarian international" got their start, and the Biafra airlift provided the industry with its founding legend, "an unsurpassed effort in terms of logistical achievement and sheer physical courage," de Waal writes. It is remembered as it was lived, as a cause célèbre—John Lennon and Jean-Paul Sartre both raised their fists for the Biafrans—and the food the West sent certainly did save lives. Yet a moral assessment of the Biafra operation is far from clear-cut.

After the secessionist government was finally forced to surrender and rejoin Nigeria, in 1970, the predicted genocidal massacres never materialized. Had it not been for the West's charity, the Nigerian civil war surely would have ended much sooner. Against the lives that the airlifted aid saved must be weighed all those lives—tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands—that were lost to the extra year and a half of destruction. But the newborn humanitarian international hardly stopped to reflect on this fact. New crises beckoned—most immediately, in Bangladesh—and who can know in advance whether saving lives will cost even more lives? The crisis caravan rolled on. Its mood was triumphalist, and to a large degree it remains so.

Michael Maren stumbled into the aid industry in the nineteen-seventies by way of the Peace Corps. "In the post-Vietnam world, the Peace Corps offered us an opportunity to forge a different kind of relationship with the Third World, one based on respect," he writes. But he soon began to wonder how respectful it is to send Western kids to tell the elders of ancient agrarian cultures how to feed themselves better. As he watched professional humanitarians chasing contracts to implement policies whose harm they plainly saw, he came to regard his colleagues as a new breed of mercenaries: soldiers of misfortune. Yet, David Rieff notes, "for better or worse, by the late 1980s humanitarianism had become the last coherent saving ideal."

How is it that humanitarians so readily deflect accountability for the negative consequences of their actions? "Humanitarianism flourishes as an ethical response to emergencies not just because bad things happen in the world, but also because many people have lost faith in both economic development and political struggle as ways of trying to improve the human lot," the social scientist Craig Calhoun observes in his contribution to a new volume of essays, "Contemporary States of Emergency," edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Zone; $36.95). "Humanitarianism appeals to many who seek morally pure and immediately good ways of responding to suffering in the world." Or, as the Harvard law professor David Kennedy writes in "The Dark Sides of Virtue" (2004), "Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be."

Maren, who came to regard humanitarianism as every bit as damaging to its subjects as colonialism, and vastly more dishonest, takes a dimmer view: that we do not really care about those to whom we send aid, that our focus is our own virtue. He quotes these lines of the Somali poet Ali Dhux:

A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.

He works more tirelessly than even you,

But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever.

In May of 1996, in the hill town of Kitchanga in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo (then still called Zaire), I spent a night in a dank schoolroom that had been temporarily set up as an operating room by surgeons from the Dutch section of Médecins Sans Frontières. A few days earlier, a gang from the U.N.-sponsored refugee camps for Rwandan Hutus—camps that were controlled by the killers, physically, politically, economically—had massacred a group of Congolese Tutsis at a nearby monastery. Members of the M.S.F. team had been patching up some of the survivors. A man with a gaping gunshot wound writhed beneath the forceps of a Belarusian doctor, chanting quietly—"Ay, yay, yay, yay, yay, yay"—before crying out in Swahili, "Too much sorrow."

Everyone knew that the Hutu génocidaires bullied and extorted aid workers, and filled their war chests with taxes collected on aid rations. Everybody knew, too, that these killers were now working their way into the surrounding Congolese territory to slaughter and drive out the local Tutsi population. (During my visit, they had even begun attacking N.G.O. vehicles.) In the literature of aid work, the U.N. border camps set up after the Rwandan genocide, and particularly the Goma camps, figure as the ultimate example of corrupted humanitarianism—of humanitarianism in the service of extreme inhumanity. It could only end badly, bloodily. That there would be another war because of the camps was obvious long before the war came.

Aid workers were afraid, and demoralized, and without faith in their work. In the early months of the crisis, in 1994, several leading aid agencies had withdrawn from the camps to protest being made the accomplices of génocidaires. But other organizations rushed to take over their contracts, and those who remained spoke of their mission as if it had been inscribed in stone at Mt. Sinai. They could not, they said, abandon the people in the camps. Of course, that's exactly what the humanitarians did when the war came: they fled as the Rwandan Army swept in and drove the great mass of people in the camps home to Rwanda. Then the Army pursued those who remained, fighters and noncombatants, as they fled west across Congo. Tens of thousands were killed, massacres were reported—and this slaughter was the ultimate price of the camps, a price that is still being paid today by the Congolese people, who chafed under serial Rwandan occupations of their country, and continue now to be preyed upon by remnant Hutu Power forces.

Sadako Ogata, who ran the U.N. refugee agency in those years, and was responsible for all the camps in Congo, wrote her own self-exculpating book, "The Turbulent Decade," in which she repeatedly falls back on the truism "There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems." She means that the solution must be political, but, coming from Ogata, this mantra also clearly means: no holding humanitarianism accountable for its consequences. One of Ogata's top officers at the time said so more directly, when he summed up the humanitarian experience of the Hutu Power-controlled border camps and their aftermath with the extraordinary Nixonian formulation "Yes, mistakes were made, but we are not responsible."

It is a wonder that the U.N. refugee chiefs' spin escaped Linda Polman's notice: it's the sort of nonsense that gets her writerly pulse up. But Polman does effectively answer them. "As far as I'm aware," she remarks, "no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone for complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes."

Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed. When a mission ends in catastrophe, they write their own evaluations. And if there are investigations of the crimes that follow on their aid, the humanitarians get airbrushed out of the story. Polman's suggestion that it should not be so is particularly timely just now, as a new U.N. report on atrocities in the Congo between 1993 and 2003 has revived the question of responsibility for the bloody aftermath of the camps. There can be no proper accounting of such a history as long as humanitarians continue to enjoy total impunity.

During my night at the schoolroom surgery in Kitchanga, the doctors told me about a teen-age boy who had been found naked except for a banana leaf, which he had plastered over the back of his head and shoulders. When the leaf fell away, the doctors saw that the boy's neck had been chopped through to the bone. His head hung off to the side. I saw the boy in the morning. He was walking gingerly around the schoolyard. The doctors had reassembled him and stitched him back together. And he was not the only one they had saved. This was the humanitarian ideal in practice—pure and unambiguous. Such immense "small mercies" are to be found everywhere that humanitarians go, even at the scenes of their most disastrous interventions. What could be better than restoring a life like that? The sight of that sewed-up boy was as moving as the abuses of the humanitarian international were offensive. Then, later that day, the doctors I was travelling with told me that, to insure their own safety while they worked, they had to prove their neutrality by tending to génocidaires as well as to their victims. And I wondered: If these humanitarians weren't here, would that boy have needed them?

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Cleveland Plain Dealer



One of the most remarkable financial scandals of the century came to light two years ago when the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy went bankrupt after bilking dozens of well-known donors out of millions of dollars. In an elaborate Ponzi scheme, the Philadelphia-based organization used contributions from one individual or group to pay off another - until the money ran out.

By the time Pennsylvania attorney general's office caught on, the foundation had persuaded an honor roll of donors to write huge checks in the belief that their cash would be matched by an anonymous patron, effectively doubling their tax deductions. As John Hawks tells it in "For a Good Cause?," New Era fraudulently obtained a reported $517,000 from stock picker Peter Lynch, $3.2 million from former Treasury secretary William Simon and at least $3.5 million from philanthropists Laurence and Mary Rockefeller.

All of which raises the question: If financial experts as savvy as Lynch and Simon were so easily taken in, how can the rest of us be sure we won't be gulled when we give money on a more modest level?

The authors of two books on the subject suggest that we can't. Both argue that charitable giving has become an underregulated, out-of-control growth industry that often preys on unwary donors. And because the crisis has tangled political roots, solutions are likely to be hard-won, although the authors agree that more vigilant watchdog groups might help to ease the crisis. Americans got a glimpse of the problem when they read about former United Way President William Aramony, who was convicted on 25 criminal counts after using his organization's money to pay for luxuries such as an $80,000 sunroom for his girlfriend's home in Florida. But other betrayals of trust are perhaps more disturbing, because they do not involve one executive's greed so much as a well-entrenched pattern of deception, negligence or corruption.

Hawks, a Kentucky writer and editor, traces the evolution of philanthropy from a cottage industry to a multinational business in "For a Good Cause?" The practice of granting tax exemptions to charities, begun early in the 20th century, has led to a cozy relationship between nonprofit organizations and the government that includes direct federal aid; Hawks says that CARE gets 78 percent of its money from the government and Save the Children, 60 percent.

Such federal handouts have all but eradicated the line between public and private giving. Groups that were intended to offer an alternative to the welfare state have come to depend so heavily on the government that they are now an arm of the welfare state. The charities have become major recipients of charity. The symbiosis might matter less if the government kept a closer eye on the nonprofits. But Hawks shows that they have a startlingly free reign: Nonprofit status is easy to get, rarely revoked and subject to so little oversight that charities routinely default on their legal responsibilities.

Federal law requires nonprofit groups to keep their last three years' tax returns on hand and to show them to anyone who asks to see them (documents that can also be obtained directly from the IRS). But the IRS has so few field examiners for charities that many groups file no or incompete returns: In the last year for which figures are available, only 133,157 of the country's 1.2 million nonprofits filed the proper tax forms.

All of this makes it easier to understand how the Aramony and New Era scandals could have arisen. But Hawks relies so heavily on second- or third-hand sources for his information that his "For a Good Cause?" - though a useful distillation and analysis of widely known facts - reveals little that has not appeared elsewhere.

Michael Maren offers a much more complex assessment of charities in The Road to Hell, a chilling expose of the effects of groups such as CARE and Save the Children in Africa, written by someone who observed them at close range. Maren, a New York writer, spent more than 15 years in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, aid worker and journalist; for part of that time, he was a "food monitor" for the United States Agency for International Development, a job that required him to ascertain whether or not donated food reached its intended recipients.

Those experiences have given Maren a rare insider's view of the effects of international-relief efforts, particularly in Somalia, the focus of his book. They have also left him angry about what he perceives as the waste, corruption and destruction of local economies fostered by the recent influx of aid to Africa.

At times, Maren's anger weakens his argument that ill-considered relief efforts have done as much harm as good. But his book is a nonetheless compelling indictment of good intentions gone awry, solidly documented by interviews with aid workers and quotes from confidential memos from files at the Geneva office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While working in Somalia during the dictatorship of Siyaad Barre, Maren found that a huge portion of the food sent to the country, perhaps as much two-thirds, was stolen by the government or its foes and sold or traded for guns. The result, a Somali political leader told him, resembled "a mini arms race fueled with food."

Even so, enough free food arrived in Somalia to drive local merchants out of business and wipe out generations-old methods of coping with famine. Many representatives of CARE and Save the Children scarcely cared, Maren says, because the surfeit of food safeguarded their jobs even as it ruined indigenous economic systems.

Maren believes that we need "a truly independent agency" - without people from CARE or Save the Children on its board - to rein in the "relief circus." But he sounds pessimistic about the prospects for change, and he makes it hard not to share his view. If it took the American judicial system years to catch up with an $80,000 sunroom in Florida, how long will it take the prosecutors to overtake more extensive breaches of trust occurring an ocean away?

Copyright 1997 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

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Socialist Review

Published December 1997

Hurting, not helping

Clare Fermont

Clare Short proudly announced recently a new white paper on international development, modestly called 'Eliminating World Poverty'. She explained how Britain will be pouring more aid into the developing world, which will be targeted at the poor rather than linked to British trade deals as in the past. On the face of it, this sounds great.

It seems obvious that rich people helping the poor must be a good thing. As so often, however, the common sense view of the world is wrong. When the help comes in the form of overseas aid, or is organised as 'charity', it is always a menace.

Anyone who doubts this should read a marvellous new book, The Road to Hell, by Michael Maren, an experienced aid worker in Africa who is now an investigative journalist. He shows how aid is the modern form of colonialism, a 'humanitarian' cover for maintaining imperialist domination.

His most striking example is the heartbreaking story of Somalia. In the Cold War years the US government poured aid into the country to prop up the dictator Siyad Barre. The food aid fed Barre's troops and allowed him to buy off a large loyal circle, who sold the food on the black market. The aid organisations didn't care. As long as they were offloading their charity, no one asked them any questions.

The non-governmental 'charity' organisations (NGOs) were essential to the scam. As journalists arrived in the capital, Mogadishu, the charities enthusiastically led them to images of despair. Pictures of the norm -- Somalis rioting or going about their lives as usual ­ would not have brought in new donations. So photos of helpless black people were flashed around the world, reinforcing the idea that 'Western civilisation' was needed to save Africans from their own failings.

Soon Somalia had been turned upside down by the NGOs. Rents rocketed in Mogadishu as the NGOs spent half a million dollars a month on their houses, often the old colonial mansions. The government printed money at will to cope with the aid projects, so inflation soared. By the early 1990s the 'relief industry' accounted for two thirds of the economy. A country that had always managed to feed itself was now almost totally dependent on aid, and factions began to jostle for control of the free food bonanza.

Internal conflict broke out in 1988. Tens of thousands of people were killed, many more became refugees and there was widespread hunger. By mid-1992 the famine had eased and conditions were improving. Yet at the end of the year President Bush decided military intervention was needed to 'save' Somalia, and US and UN troops were sent in. On 3 October 1993 around 700 Somalis were killed in a botched attempt by US troops to abduct General Aydeed, an opposition leader. Five months later US forces withdrew, leaving the country in tatters. A total of $4 billion of aid was spent in Somalia, and the people are now immeasurably worse off than before the aid and charities arrived. Meanwhile, crisis had erupted in Rwanda, so the NGOs abandoned Somalia and moved on like vultures to their next victims.

The US has unashamedly used food aid to further its imperialist aims since the Second World War. At that time the government was confronted with the 'problem' of a vast surplus of grain. In a sane world the surplus would mean cheaper and plentiful food for everyone. But under capitalism such an option is not possible ­ falling prices mean falling profits.

At first the surplus was stored. But by the early 1950s the stores were rotting and overflowing. The federal government had to create demand. Europe didn't need grain, so there was only one place to go ­ the Third World. The problem was that the states emerging from colonialism had little foreign currency, and the US grain exporters had no use for weak Third World currencies. So the US government became the middleman and absorbed the weak currencies. The mechanism adopted was Public Law 480 of 1954, which proudly states that its purpose is to 'make maximum efficient use of surplus agricultural commodities in furtherance of the foreign policy of the US'.

By 1956 trade under Law 480 accounted for 32 percent of total agricultural exports. Income to farmers increased by over $600 million in the programme's first three years as food prices rose. But the main advantage to the US was increasing its international influence in the postcolonial world. Senator Hubert Humphrey spelled this out in 1958: 'There needs to be a greater recognition and acceptance of Public Law 480 as a government-wide instrument of international economic policy in support of our foreign policy objectives, rather than the narrower concept of it being merely an agricultural surplus disposal programme.'

No one believed in this more passionately than President John F Kennedy. Almost his first act after his inaugeration in 1961 was to set up the Office of Food for Peace, whose purpose was to pour cheap food into Vietnam (not renowned then for its poverty). The local currency it raised was mostly spent on financing the American armed forces in the region, whose purpose was to 'contain communism'.

Similarly in former Zaire, US aid flooded in to support the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who pocketed $5 billion for himself and turned what could be one of Africa's wealthiest countries into poverty stricken and anarchic chaos.

The pattern continues. The US government wants to make friends withthe new rulers in North Korea, so for the first time US aid is being sent to the country. Israel continues to receive 200 times more aid per head than Bangladesh. Yet in 1991 Israel's GDP per capita was $13,460, while Bangladesh's was a meagre $220.

Maren graphically describes how the same pattern has been repeated in Africa. A crisis is declared by the Western media. Plane loads of eager white people arrive with their jeeps, bottled water and beer. Towns are overrun with foreigners demanding housing and services, which are happily supplied by the rulers and their sidekicks. Mountains of food are heaped on to the economy, destroying local farming and making the threat of famine a reality. Black market sales finance arms purchases. Corruption and violence increase. And then conflict erupts. It is no coincidence that the three largest recipients of US food aid in Africa have been Somalia, Liberia and Zaire, all of which are now racked by civil war and hunger.

Other examples given by Maren include Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, where NGOs colluded with ethnic cleansing. The government deprived certain ethnic areas of food. The desperate people were lured to the centre of the country by food aid. Then organisations such as Save the Children loaded the refugees onto buses and took them to what were effectively concentration camps.

The truth is that aid is all about the drive by the rulers of rich nations to dominate the economies of the developing world for immediate economic, political or strategic advantage. The financing by Britain's Overseas Development Agency of the Pergau Dam, for example, was bound up with sales of British arms. USAID, the largest US NGO, gives 80 percent of its contracts to US firms, as does the ODA to British firms. Three quarters of the food aid shipped to Somalia went on US flag vessels at grossly inflated prices, reaping rich rewards for US shipping magnates. In fact, around two thirds of all aid is 'tied' to deals which mean the recipients have to buy goods and services from the donor country.

Clare Short says her department will tackle such blatant misuse of aid by ensuring that aid will not be 'tied' but will go directly to help the poor. But a glance at her white paper reveals that the poor should not hold their breath. Firstly, the paper accepts the 'reality' of 'economic liberalisation' and globalisation. The 1997 Human Development Report explains what this 'liberalisation' will mean. 'During 1995-2001 the results of the Uruguay Round of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) are expected to increase global income by an estimated $212-$510 billion.' But not everyone will benefit. 'The least developed countries stand to lose up to $600 million a year, and Sub-Saharan Africa $1.2 billion.' The same report says that the least developed countries of the world, with 10 percent of the world's population, now have 0.3 percent of world trade -- half their share of two decades ago.

Secondly, the white paper says, 'Overall private capital flows have come to dwarf official flows as a source of funds for development... From a business perspective the developing countries contain a majority of the population in the faster growing countries. There is therefore a shared interest in a constructive approach between government and business.' In other words, Clare Short would have us believe that businesses are not motivated by the hunt for bigger profits and cheaper labour, but that they have a 'shared interest' in eradicating poverty.

How does she explain the fact that in 1960 the wealth ratio of the poorest 20 percent of the world's population to the richest 20 percent was 1:30, in 1990 it was 1:60, and in 1996 it was 1:78? The gap between the rich and the poor is growing larger and larger, at a faster and faster rate. That could not possibly happen if the rich and their businesses were seeking to spread their wealth in the interests of the poor.

International charities have similarly disastrous consequences for their supposed benefactors. Maren gives so many examples of the ravaging effects of good intentions that it is hard to imagine a 'good project'. The water well that draws nomads out of the desert and then leads to the starvation of livestock as the nomads can no longer reach seasonal waterholes; the irrigation project that pollutes the water; the new road that throws people off their land and destroys villages; the numerous white elephants that are started by charities, photographed for fundraising brochures, and then abandoned; the big businesses using charities as conduits for dumping surplus produce abroad (all donations being tax deductible), including inappropriate or unsafe medicines.

The horror stories are not the inadvertent consequences of good intentions. They are the inevitable outcome of the colonial attitude that rich people in the West can show the rest of the world how to live.

The Road to Hell by Michael Maren is published by Free Press

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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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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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Foreign Affairs

Charity on the Rampage; The Business of Foreign Aid

by David Rieff

Rieff is a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research. He is currently writing a book on humanitarian aid.

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. BY MICHAEL MAREN. New York: Free Press, 1997, 287 pp. $ 25.00.

Thirty years ago, few people could have identified a humanitarian aid organization other than the International Committee of the Red Cross. Today, humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders have become household names to millions of people in Western Europe and a growing number in the United States.

In Europe, humanitarianism, as Francois Jean, a leading official at Doctors Without Borders, has remarked, "occupies a central place." The contemporary form of humanitarianism, although the brainchild of left-wing French intellectuals of the May 1968 generation, has become so mainstream that France has a junior minister for humanitarian affairs. Things have proceeded more slowly in the United States, where humanitarian organizations have tended to rely on their ties to the State Department and the Agency for International Development (AID) more than their ability to mobilize the general public.

Nonetheless, even if most Americans are not ready to accept that there is a "right" to humanitarian intervention in extreme cases, as Doctors Without Borders claims, aid organizations have captured the public imagination. Here are people engaged in an activity that is wholly admirable, and that one need not view skeptically. Even in the last Congress, where the pressure to cut the foreign aid budget and the State Department's allocations for consular offices was fanatical, appropriations for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance sailed through with bipartisan support. As a bitter State Department official in Rwanda recently told me, "There is money for weapons, and money for starving refugees, and that's about it."

Small wonder, then, that over the past two decades the established aid agencies have grown enormously, and new agencies, some no bigger than a half-dozen people -- there are no licensing requirements -- have proliferated. In 1982, 144 humanitarian aid agencies were registered with AID; 12 years later, the number had grown to 419. As the British journalist and observer of disaster relief operations Lindsey Hilsum wrote in 1995, "the emergency aid business" grew from "a small element in the larger package of development into a giant, global, unregulated industry worth 2,500 million pounds sterling a year. Most of that money is provided by governments, the European Union, and the United Nations."

Hilsum's comments are quoted by Michael Maren in his new book. Maren is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and AID official in Somalia. His book, although rhetorically over-the-top at times, is an invaluable corrective to the hagiographical accounts of humanitarian aid operations that have been the norm for the past decade. There are sound practical reasons why this has been so. The sites of disaster are difficult to get to, more difficult still to work in, and hardest of all to understand. The press' admiration for aid workers has been genuine and warranted. But there is no use denying that for the press corps, with the exception of the richest newspapers and television networks who can hire their own vehicles and translators, the international aid organizations have shaped coverage of their own stories. Whether it was in Mogadishu, Sarajevo, or Goma, more often than not print and television journalists turned to a member of a humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO) for the story on the ground -- not to mention transportation, lodging, and companionship. The situation is not all that different from the American media and the U.S. military in the early days in Vietnam before the reporters turned against the war.

As a result, the aid agencies' version of a story has often been the one transmitted from the field. Some agencies, Doctors Without Borders being the most accomplished, have become masters of spinning the story of an event to influence public opinion at home. "NGOS need nothing more than publicity," Maren writes, adding unfairly that "their prime interest is in reaching their customers, the donating public." Humanitarianism is a business, as Maren correctly points out, but for most humanitarian aid workers, their "customers," if they even see them as such, are the people they are trying to help.


Maren writes with the fury and disillusionment of intimacy. He knows from the inside how corrupt and self-serving humanitarian organizations can be. But like all jeremiads, The Road to Hell, devastating and enlightening though it is, oversimplifies the problem. For example, Maren calls what happened in Rwanda in 1994 a "relief circus." No doubt he is right. Anyone who says, as I did, the grotesque display of humanitarian agencies' flags flapping alongside each other in eastern Zaire like so many corporate flags in some business park in Purchase, New York, or San Jose, California, realized there was more going on than the simple desire to help. The struggle to stamp out cholera, get the shelters built, and dig the pit latrines was simultaneously a struggle for market share.

In Rwanda in the summer of 1994, as Maren notes, the humanitarians descended en masse, whether or not there was something useful for them to do. Aid workers in Rwanda asserted that the headquarters of several of the most established aid organizations overruled their recommendations not to intervene, insisting that if they were not involved, fundraising would be hopelessly compromised. Most aid organizations now admit that there was far too much duplication of effort and that many agencies performed poorly. The Rwandan government expelled a number of agencies in December 1995, although the fact that those agencies were French, and viewed by the new authorities in Kigali as politically hostile, played as important a role as questions of competence.

Maren is on solid ground when he insists that such dereliction was common. From country-level directors in the field to senior staff in Atlanta, New York, Oxford, or Paris, the pressure to find funding is enormous. Without a donor, whether that donor is a national government, a U.N. agency, AID, or the European Commission Humanitarian Office, virtually all relief agencies would close down. Of the major agencies, only a few retain some real independence. The French branch of Doctors Without Borders continues to receive more than 50 percent of its donations from individual private contributors. And Catholic Relief Services, though it receives considerable U.S. government funding, is able to operate with exceptional latitude because it is substantially underwritten by the American Catholic Church.

But for most agencies, in both the United States and Europe, institutional grants pay for almost everything: salaries, vehicles, housing, and project costs. Agencies boast that they allocate very little to overhead, but what they mean by overhead is usually the cost of running their headquarters. Some groups have small discretionary funds for launching pilot projects, but they are rarely large enough to obviate the need for aid groups to solicit funds through advertising. And sometimes their haste to do so is, to put it kindly, unseemly.

A telling example was the recent decision by the British branch of Save the Children to launch an appeal for Rwandan refugees in Zaire at a time when their fate, and, by extension, what role the aid agencies would play, was unclear. Nonetheless, Save the Children ran an advertisement with a photograph of a pathetic-looking African child that read in part: "Zaire: Desperate children need your help." That was doubtlessly true. But the ad continued, "Save the Children is able to help these children. We are providing high protein biscuits, medical supplies, and blankets to help save lives." That may have been the agency's intention, but when the ad ran in the British press the children in question had been cut off from aid for weeks, and it was by no means clear when or if that would change.

It is this sort of pious hyperbole, what Maren calls "exploitation of children for fundraising," that provokes his indignation. Right or wrong, the agencies usually get away with it, although recently the Rwandan government expelled a European agency for using a pathetic photograph of a Rwandan child in one of its campaigns without first consulting the Kigali authorities. The agency's officials were flabbergasted. No "beneficiary" country had ever dared demand that kind of respect. But then, the experience of Rwanda has been chastening for many agencies, not only because the government has kept the NGOS on a short leash, but because it became apparent that humanitarian intervention in the absence of a political solution solves nothing.

In eastern Zaire, the aid agencies found themselves in the position of feeding not only innocent refugee women and children, but their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands, many of whom had participated in the 1994 genocide. The aid allowed those loyal to the old regime to survive, regroup, and launch guerrilla attacks from the refugee camps into Rwanda. This realization caused a number of agencies, notably the French branch of Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee, to withdraw in early 1995. But while courageous, this withdrawal was little more than a symbolic gesture; other agencies, including other national branches of Doctors Without Borders, were more than willing to fill the "vacancy" left by the departing NGOS. No better proof exists of how delivering humanitarian aid has become a business.

That lesson was driven home last October, when the Rwandan government first orchestrated a guerrilla uprising in the Zairean provinces where refugee camps were located. The aid agencies had been providing the camps between 8,000-9,000 tons of food per month since 1994. As the refugees were driven out, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program warned that more than 150,000 refugees, including 80,000 children, could die within the month. The head of one refugee advocacy group assured a Washington audience in early November that at least 1,200 people were dying every day.

That same week, Alex de Waal, co-director of Africa Rights, a London-based advocacy group, wrote presciently that in Africa people "never, never die in the numbers predicted by the aid agencies." As it happened, when the refugees finally did begin to move by the hundreds of thousands, U.N. and NGO officials conceded that they were in remarkably good shape. It is extremely difficult to estimate how many people will die during an emergency or even establish how many died after it has ended. But few NGO representatives are willing to admit as much publicly. An exception is H. Roy Williams of the International Rescue Committee, a man who has probably thought more deeply about humanitarian relief than any other senior American aid official. During the run-up to the intervention in Somalia, Williams told a Washington Post reporter, "I don't think anyone has a clue how many people have died."


Maren's book went to press before the events in eastern Zaire played themselves out, but they only buttress his argument. In The Road to Hell, he writes eloquently of our "sensory confusion," engendered partly by television's sentimental depictions and partly by the fact that since the end of the Cold War most people do not really know how to think about international affairs. In this context, humanitarianism's appeal is obvious. The humanitarians act in our stead, and we have the satisfaction of feeling that humanitarian aid remains an effective response in a world where every gesture seems compromised.

This is the world viewed as a morality play. There are people in need, people from abroad who want to help (and need funding to do so), and the thugs and militia bosses who have caused the suffering in the first place. As President Clinton said when he finally announced that the United States would join the multinational humanitarian military mission in Zaire, "The world's most powerful nation must not turn its back on so many desperate people and innocent children who are now at risk."

In reality, the United States seems to have acted in response to pressure from governments, advocacy groups, and an intensifying media focus. Maren argues that the same pressure drove the humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia and Somalia. In Somalia, too, apocalyptic death tolls were predicted by the U.N. and aid agencies, and American television nightly showed scenes of despair and lawlessness in the streets of Mogadishu. Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) visited the region, as did Bernard Kouchner, then French minister of humanitarian affairs. The media attention eventually forced President Bush's hand.

Maren is not alone in suggesting that the death toll in Somalia was exaggerated, and that, by the time the intervention was under way, the mortality rate from famine and disease was already declining. He is an expert debunker. Yet while The Road To Hell is a useful antidote to the hyperboles of humanitarian aid, the flaws he discerns are not as damning as he imagines. In his obsession with examples of waste, graft, and misrepresentation, there is something of the Pentagon whistleblower's inability to see that although an arms procurement program is corrupt, it does not make weapons systems any less necessary.


The presence of humanitarian aid workers has meant the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of people. Would it have been better if the International Rescue Committee, say, had not restored the electrical system of Sarajevo? I saw the project, which took two years and was accomplished in circumstances of great danger, transform the lives of the people there. Would it have been better if the U.S. military had not been involved in the Goma refugee camps in Zaire in 1994, when the cholera epidemic was at its height? It hardly seems likely, although, as Rony Brauman, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders, has argued, it might then have been preferable for the aid agencies to withdraw en masse, rather than stay on in part for the entrepreneurial reasons Maren excoriates.

What excites Maren's ire is the gap between what the humanitarians claim they accomplish and what they actually do. There certainly are scoundrels in the NGO world, though surely no more than in medicine, law, or other professions. Indeed, it could be argued that in a culture as besotted with money as ours, people who are willing to shelve their careers or perhaps even briefly defer them by serving a short stint doing sanitation work somewhere in Africa are nothing less than remarkable. Most Americans or Western Europeans cannot imagine visiting Burundi or Tajikistan, let alone living there in circumstances that may be privileged by local standards, but are hardly comparable to the lifestyle they could enjoy at home.

My own experience is that while relief workers are too often woefully ignorant of the history and culture of the places in which they work, their dedication and wish to contribute something of value is genuine. That does not mean humanitarianism is the panacea that some of its advocates claim, nor that humanitarian interventions in what are essentially political crises are always wise. The tendency, which Maren identifies, of humanitarian aid agencies to campaign for military intervention is one of the most worrying developments on the international political scene. The idea that troops should be sent to protect relief workers wherever people are dying can lead only to more Somalias or to a kind of Group of Seven military takeover of failed states. Neither is practical or desirable unless one wants to reproduce the entire experience of nineteenth-century colonialism, which, it should be recalled, was also often justified on humanitarian grounds.


This is not to question the basic value of the humanitarian exercise. If there is a profound critique of humanitarianism to be made, it revolves less around the points that absorb Maren and more around H. Roy Williams' compelling insight that the dilemma for humanitarian relief organizations is that they "have no idea how to match our material means to our moral and emotional aspirations." Maren is right to remind us how far the humanitarian organizations have overreached, but in fairness to them, this fact already pervades their own internal debates. Indeed, in France these debates are public, and there is much talk within Doctors Without Borders and other NGOS of the "humanitarian alibi" -- the misuse of the humanitarian idea and humanitarian workers by governments eager to do as little as possible in economically unpromising regions like sub-Saharan Africa.

There are those who believe, and there are moments in The Road To Hell when it seems like Maren may be among them, that the world would be better off without the fig leaf that modern humanitarianism increasingly provides, with the humanitarians serving as our designated consciences. Perhaps. But it is at least as likely that nothing positive would replace the humanitarian system, however flawed and, in some cases, destructive it can be. The dilemma is real, and there is no clear answer. Perhaps the real problem with modern humanitarianism is that it has exceeded its limits, and that, with all its talk of the right of intervention, its campaigning for military deployments, and its indulgence in the worst kind of disaster pornography in advertising campaigns, it needs to become more modest in its ambitions and expectations. A remark by a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bosnia in 1993 is worth recalling here. The mission of the Red Cross, he said, is "to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist."

If West European and North American humanitarians could reliably provide that measure of humanity, they would already have accomplished a great deal. The engaged humanitarianism of the past 25 years is an attempt to go beyond the Red Cross' mission. The French tradition, exemplified by Doctors Without Borders, is an example. The Red Cross is hardly without its faults. During World War II, its tradition of discretion and its refusal to imperil its other activities prevented the organization from going public with information about German death camps. Nonetheless, its ideals and commitment remain coherent. It is doubtful that NGOS that depend on governments for their funding can aspire to the Red Cross' strict neutrality. Perhaps, after a long period of untrammeled growth, aid agencies now need to take a more cautious approach and realistically reassess what they can and cannot accomplish.

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