The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects
of Foreign Aid International Charity
Every few years, a major publication critiques
the aid industry not merely on the merits of specific projects, but on the principles on
which aid agencies do their business. The Road to Hell, by Michael Maren, a former
relief worker turned journalist, takes the hardest look yet at how NGOs and
the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) design
and conduct relief and development projects. Like its predecessors-- Graham Hancock's
of Poverty in 1989, Francis Moore Lappe in the 1970s and the Paddock Brothers in the
1960s, Maren's book provides useful insights into the most serious failings of the aid
system, yet neglects to give any credit where credit is due.
The book also offers an enlightening case study
of frustrated aid efforts in Somalia from the 1979 crisis with Ethiopia through the famine
of 1991-93. The presentation is replete with original quotes and first-hand observations,
drawn from Maren's NGO and USAID assignments in Somalia and Kenya. It is his longer
historical sense, beyond any one crisis or any one set of projects, that is Maren's strong
Maren's central criticism of the aid business is
its insincerity. This insincerity, he argues, alienates aid workers themselves and
reinforces an ongoing myopia about how best to adapt foreign aid.
In Maren's analysis, the trust between NGOs and
the American public is betrayed because NGOs do not reveal to the American public how
problematic aid work is. In their advertising, the goal is not to make us think about
hunger and poverty. It is to relieve us of the burden of having to think about it.
By use of behind-the-scenes vignettes of NGO
staff working for Save the Children, CARE, USAID and other agencies heavily involved in
Somalia, Maren suggests that the aid community is more concerned with fund-raising and
image than in beneficial impact. He tells how NGOs focus too much of their energy on
playing the game of getting donations, and too little on building on past performance to
improve effectiveness of programs. Referring to the home office training of one NGO, Maren
recounts, "There was (only) one practical thing taught in (the home office):
They were shown how to pose children for photographs to go into brochures
and ads." He recounts the tendency of some NGOs to jetting into a crisis to be part
of the spectacle of compassion, and then leaving swiftly, along with the TV cameras.
Alternately, NGOs frequently blunder in their
sincere efforts to help: Maren recounts how one NGO airlifted into Goma over 250
doctors and nurses who had none of the skills that were really needed.
Maren's harshest criticism is toward those
bureaucrats in the aid system who wield authority without humility and who pretend to be
wiser than they are. Referring to one U.S. Ambassador to Somalia: "He had the useful
skill of projecting an enigmatic half smile whenever confronted with questions he didn't
want to or more likely couldn't answer. Most of the assembled press corps interpreted this
as a sign of higher knowledge."
Somalia provides Maren an excellent, though
extreme, case for long lists of "unintended consequences" of foreign aid. He
shows how the relief aid in 1979 helped create and bolster the corrupt regime of President
Siad Barre. Later, the United States inadvertently resurrected General Aydeed: his
tribesmen joined forces only when Aydeed focused their attention on the common U.S. enemy.
Ironically, while U.S. troops sought futilely to rid Somalia of him, each bloody
confrontation raised his profile farther.
According to Maren, it was the inept conduct of
aid in the 1980s that led to famine in Somalia in 1991 and 1992. Maren is on strong ground
when he makes the case that supply-driven dumping of commodities in the 1980s led to
Somalia's vulnerability to crisis in the 1990s. The humanitarian aid system was able to
provide Somalia with plenty of food aid when it wasn't needed, but then unable to provide
it when it was needed during the critical period of December, 1991 through September,
Though acknowledging that the aid effort saved
over 100,000 lives, Maren indicates that now little evidence remains of the U.S.
intervention, and little trace of the $4 billion that was spent.
More than other reviews of famine in the Horn of
Africa, Maren shows keen insights into the dynamics of crises. Reviewing the forced
relocation of famine-affected populations in northern Ethiopia, Maren writes, "The
government had launched a cynical campaign: First you starve them, then attract them to
central areas with food, then cart them off to where you want them. That had been the
government's plan, carried out with the assistance, unwitting sometimes, of local foreign
charities using monies donated by schoolchildren and old ladies and working-class families
Most of the recent literature on Somalia has
attempted to interpret why international intervention failed. Mohamed Sahnoun's focus on
the tentative, ponderous, inflexible way the UN reacted (Mohamed Sahnoun, 1994,
the Missed Opportunities, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace). Jonathan
Stevenson's 1995 Losing Mogadishu: Testing U.S. Policy in Somalia (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press) focuses
instead on the particular role of the U.S. military and its alternately cautious and
aggressive rules of engagement. Maren's book goes one step further by giving some of the
perspectives of everyday Somalis receiving aid. The Road to Hell depicts Somali
leaders who, more often than not, are part of the relief system, either as employee or
refugee leader. However, Maren's book does not venture into the broader countryside and
explore the extent of risk or need in the population. Maren generalizes from a few
examples to indict the entire aid effort. By extension, it is also difficult to generalize
about aid in general, based only on Somalia, which remains an extreme case of local
manipulation of aid.
For all its insights, Maren's book is misleading
in the extreme in the overall picture it leaves about the community of aid professionals.
Most unfairly, Maren conveys a view (which he certainly doesn't believe) that aid workers
are unaware themselves of these many pitfalls and tradeoffs that Maren recounts. Maren
implies that only he and a select group are concerned about dependency, overpopulation,
unsustainability, political manipulation of aid and the many myths about the Third World
cherished by the public. The key difference between Maren and the community he chastises
is that current aid workers keep trying to put forward solutions, not give up, and write
critiques that cater to the foreign policy isolationists who prefer to believe that all
aid is without long-term benefit.
Curiously, Maren concludes that NGOs cannot be
trusted to monitor themselves, and are best evaluated by journalists. Since few
journalists have any of the technical expertise necessary to interpret project data,
epidemiologic trends, or economic effects, Maren is encouraging more of the simplification
that already exists.
Hansch is a member of the
Hunger Notes editorial board, is affiliated with the Congressional Hunger Center, and has
written extensively on refugee nutrition and health issues.
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