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

by Michael Maren

New York: The Free Press, 1997. Hardcover, 287 pp. ISBN: 0684828006.

Reviewed by Steven Hansch

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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 Lords 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 suit.

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, 1992.

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 in church.

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, Somalia: 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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