Every six weeks, we convene as a staff and talk about ideas for shows for the next two to three months. We’re never lacking in ideas, but finding knowledgeable voices that can carry an hour conversation takes some effort. One of the subjects near the top of our list is the ethics of global aid, particularly with Zimbabwe’s recent crackdown on CARE, a multi-national, non-profit organization fighting global poverty.

For me, the subject came to the forefront while reading Paul Theroux’s challenging, insightful travel account in Dark Star Safari. After serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, he revisits Africa and sees a starkly different and yet an eerily similar continent. He’s pretty hard on charitable aid organizations and missionaries, to be sure, and wonders — well, actually posits — whether good intentions have led to an industry that needs to sustain itself in order to carry on its business model:

“…this was the era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount, studied as closely as the coffee harvest or a hydroelectric power project. Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.”

Theroux’s idea that aid and missionary organizations might actually undercut the stability and long-term efforts of people they are trying to help is challenging. The spot of “tough love” seems to be drenched in the hard-nosed, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that I often experienced growing up in North Dakota. I cringed initially. But, some germ made sense. Although I’m not in Africa, I face these tests while walking to work in downtown St. Paul when the same destitute man regularly asks me for five bucks. When do I become that microcosmic institution?

Where is that line and when do good intentions steal a struggling people’s identity, raid an individual’s sense of resourcefulness and pride? When do others who prosper have an obligation to intervene and help those who can’t help themselves because of forces beyond there control — political regimes, long-lasting droughts, diseases, etc.? Who are some of the wise voices you’re reading and hearing about that are immersed in this struggle that can speak personally about these situations?

Share Your Reflection



Another book on the evils of the aid industry is "The Road to Hell". by Michael Maren.

I've become convinced that you can't do development top-down. For an example of a little organization which does integrated village development extremely well, see the Hunger Project, www.thp.org. The key is teaching self-reliance.

It takes awhile even for skilled animators to get people enculturated to accept whatever is, or hope for handouts, but they do it, and in 5 years from the time they begin working with a cluster of villages there is no more hunger and all the stats are better - infant mortality, maternal mortality, HIV rates, etc.

For more documentation on self-reliance see the chapter on the "The Capacity to Aspire" in "Culture and Public Action" by Rao and Walton.

Karl Hess, M.D.

Karl, is Maren's book a scathing critique of international aid? Theroux references this book several times and, on the surface, the title is decisive. I understand he's worked in Africa for quite some time. We would want to get at the values behind these decisions and the moral imperatives that accompany them, but the first-person reflection would be vital in this case.

I'm intrigued by the two titles at the end, are they academic. Who is the intended audience?

I read Road to Hell after a year of doing tsunami recovery work in Indonesia and found much of what he had to say quite valid, yet extremely angry. He takes organizations to task by name (lots of finger-pointing) but one can't argue with his vivid, firsthand accounts. White Man's Burden (William Easterly, the Bottom Billion (Paul Collier) and the End of Poverty (Jeff Sachs) represent the panorama of aid perspectives, to some degree at least. I can only vouch for Easterly's book which is weighty with research but insightful. A show on this topic way want to consider the role local religions (whether traditional or not) play both in community self-care (bottom-up) and as a funnel for international aid money (top-down in disguise). Both non-profits and governments distribute resources through faith-based groups, churches and mosques throughout Africa, and presumably elsewhere as well. Each major U.S. religion has a humanitarian arm and/or separate organization now -- are they doing things differently, from say, the U.S. government because of their faith?

It would be interesting to find out...

First to try to answer your question, BJG, I think faith does affect how a religious organization gives aid. The difference, as Wainaina points out, is that religious organizations are there for the long term. I interviewed Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary-General of Caritas Internationalis (the global Catholic humanitarian network, second largest behind the Red Cross), earlier this year and she said the same thing. She also emphasized that they promote the development of the whole person--their dignity, their responsibility to the community--rather than just provide aid. See the whole interview here: http://www.uscatholic.org/cult....

I also had the opportunity to visit Kenya this fall with a Catholic charity called Cross International (and am currently writing an article on it for U.S. Catholic magazine). I know from interview Knight that the church runs a large portion of the schools in Africa, and when I visited schools in Kenya, I wondered why they don't leave education to the state, which since 2003 has offered free public education. Aren't they just letting the state off the hook for what should be their responsibility?

Then I saw a poster advertising the benefits of Catholic schools and realized the debate of public versus Catholic schools is the same as it is in the U.S. Just as U.S. Catholic schools look for all sorts of funding so they can educate our poor youth, schools in Kenya do, too, because they believe that religious education has a special value.

The one thing I'm not sure Wainaina doesn't realize, I think, is how much religious organizations depend on foreign aid, including aid from foreign governments. His extreme stance might grab attention, but I think he might admit that he's not against foreign aid as much as he is against the way it has been used since colonialism has ended.

The issue raised is one I struggle with sitting on the board of a religious social services organization. These questions are not confined to global aid. In the recent coverage of the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination I saw a video clip of him I had not remembered. In speaking of the unintended consequences of government welfare programs of the 60's he said (paraphrasing): They wanted a husband and father, and instead we gave them a check. While his comment related to government rather than NGO programs, and the context was America rather than Africa, the issues are similar. Vulnerable people need help in the present and it must be delivered in the present. Hungry children must be fed and vaccinated today; we cannot wait for the perfect aid paradigm. But we must do so with an eye on tomorrow. What type of aid will allow this person, this family, this community to move from dysfunctional conditions to a place where they not only no longer need aid (or at least not the same type of aid) but are providing help and assistance to others in a way they were previously not able to do.

These issues benefit from theoretical discussions, but as you put your show together, I'd be more interested in hearing from persons who actually have spent significant time helping to operate aid programs--whether overseas or in the US. A combination of academic and actual experience would be wonderful of course. Just don't overlook the voices of the people who face these questions every day as they work in the field with people who are hungry, poor, ill and without hope.

Thank you for bringing to a broader audience this critical issue. International service took form a decade before the Peace Corps emerged, but recently, the idea of combining service with international travel in the form of “volunteer vacations” has given birth to a troubling trend of "for-profit" volunteerism.

As more and more travelers opt for this type of vacation, so too the range of operators expands. Indeed, hastily contrived projects riding the current “voluntourism” trend can, in fact, exploit local people for the benefit of the "volunteer" and leave grossly unfavorable impressions abroad in their wake.

Mutually beneficial international volunteer opportunities are full-time programs, and prepare volunteers to serve ethically and sensitively in the host country. They’re grounded in a long-term community development commitment, and contribute not just volunteer labor, but funds to support the volunteer work projects. Anything less potentially reinforces “Ugly American” stereotypes by simply dressing “do-gooder” programs in humanitarian clothes.

There is a place for outside assistance by short-term volunteers directed by qualified non-profit organizations. Ethical volunteer programs encourage and support local self-reliance. By working side-by-side, American volunteers and rural community members can learn important lessons about interdependence while addressing important community needs. Long-term international partnerships focus on ongoing local investment, and engage volunteers in work projects that honor and support local leaders’ vision, commitment and contributions. I don't believe it's up to us in the economically privileged region of the world to operate out of our arrogence by withholding valuable resources from those who request our help. The key is to operate under the direction and at the invitation of local people on projects they develop and drive. Open-minded, well-directed volunteers can be very useful on these kinds of efforts.

Emergent “voluntourism” offerings – with their implied emphasis on tourism in place of service – erode the foundation supporting true development programs and lead unassuming humanitarians into something far different from what they intend.

Michele Gran, co-founder, Global Volunteers

Michele, that's an intriguing flip-side to a discussion my brother and I were having about his local church's efforts. Your point about operating under the direction of local people resonates with me; it's one of the points I took from our Rural Studio program -- that economically less fortunate recipients of a home are clients, are equals. It changes the dynamic to a degree, non?

The model of our caring for our own children is that of paternalism, but it is apt. Every parent (by right and duty of having various power advantages over our children) should consider the effects of every kind of care we 'give' our children so they can grow to replace us. In many ways, these discussions show how easy it is to forget, overlook, mis-manage, or mis-use those powers, or the situations they cause, to the possible detriment of the recipients. Given that most parents do recognize some of their own childrearing shortcomings, it is surprising to me that this branch of ethics gets such sparse attention.

jrb, I have two young boys now and am thinking more increasingly about the model I'm providing for my children. The oldest is two-and-a-half and he's already parroting many of my verbal behaviors (as well as the physical gestures of SpiderMan). I'm erring on the side of generosity at the moment, but I struggle with the impersonality of handing over some bills and being done with it. I've started introducing myself and asking the person's name, so that, at the least, there's a bit of acknowledgment about being a person -- including myself.

I read Theroux too, and found him to be unrelieveably cynical. He notes, as do a number of observers in recent years, the many failures of Western charitable agencies. But his conclusion--that Africans are so radically "other" in values and outlook that any Western engagement of them is bound to "fall apart" over time, is appalling.

I read his work while visiting friends in Sierra Leone, one of the most devastated places on the continent, with plenty of recent examples of the corruptions of Western aid. But I also saw resilient ordinary people, rebuilding their lives, helping others, living by faith and hope. They too had some access to Western resources, but they owned the processes, made the decisions, and undertook the work.

I was delighted with Mr. Wainaina's outlook. He was really refreshing. He praised African people and institutions, spoke of people of faith who were serving their neighbors well, spreading good will and encouraging the same from others. He exuded good cheer, patience, practicality, respect, and hope. Wonderful. I want to learn more from him.

Many thanks,
Joel Carpenter
Calvin College

After attempting to 'activate' a few art experiences during my teaching career, I learned things about the people I was attempting to 'help' and about myself. Wainaina's insights have helped me organize my inchoate mind enough to perhaps extend my insights and his in a Unitarian Forum talk. Now I have something to SAY instead of simply flashing pictures on a wall. My "Sculpture For The Blind", "ARTISTAS Y NATURALEZA: BOLIVIA", and a series of installations I called 'dogs' might now be bundled more coherently into a topic like: "Fools Rush In: The Artist As An Amateur Moralist.".

Baha'i communities have been struggling with these questions for a long time. As a religion that places the emphasis on salvation not as individual redemption but as the effort to advance civilization (read human well-being, cultural diversity, and global interconnection - not what the West got and the Rest do not), engaging local communities where Baha'is live and at the same time remaining engaged with global problems is central to how Baha'is approach questions of development.

For resources on Baha'i approaches to development, see
The Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland http://www.bahaipeacechair.org...
The Canadian Bahá'í International Development Agency http://www.cbida.ca/
The Mona Foundation http://www.monafoundation.org/
The Baha'i World Center's page on Social and Economic Development http://info.bahai.org/article-...

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