Saturday 26 November 2011

Feeling good, doing harm - aid edition

Brian Stewart reviews a new book by Samantha Nutt.
Every so often a new book arrives with the force of a much-needed whack over the head.
That's the jolting effect of Samantha Nutt's Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, which is causing a sensation within the increasingly troubled world of humanitarian aid.
Written by one of Canada's most influential humanitarian activists, it's the clearest examination I've read in quite a while of the economic incentives — and our own Western inadequacies — that fuel the seemingly intractable violence in so many war-torn countries, particularly in mineral-rich Africa.
A medical doctor and the co-founder of War Child Canada, Nutt is someone who speaks with remarkable moral authority, after spending more than 16 years struggling to help the most vulnerable targets, children and women, in the world's most dangerous conflict areas.
On a still larger scale, Nutt warns of a growing trend towards aid competition that harms far more than it helps as the sector becomes dominated by two extremes.
At one end of the spectrum is "a virtual fiefdom of large aid organizations," while at the other is "an abundance of novelty start-ups … led by students, celebrities, and other assorted individuals" with little relevant training or experience.
Meanwhile, "the space between them is rapidly evaporating."
Some of her criticism will sting many of those who acted with the best intentions.
For example, she cites the current trend towards "volunteer tourism," in which high school, church and college groups spend a few weeks building schools or orphanages in an impoverished locale, as a classic case of good intentions breeding bad results.
These groups, she says, "make a spectacle out of poverty and expose overseas communities — especially children — to exploitation and abuse."
What's more, "a revolving door of unskilled workers on the ground in two-week increments is more a burden than a benefit to any community."
Other targets are the giant fund-raising charities that spend huge sums to promote "child sponsorship" through images that portray people as pure victims, passive recipients of charity.
"These are the vestiges of neo-colonialism, cloaked in altruism…. precisely why these appeals are highly effective."
Unless you have specialist skills in demand in poor countries, you're likely deluding yourself if you think your tourist visit is doing any particular good. Which is fine if the work is better than nothing and if it no donation would otherwise obtain. But if Nutt's right that it's more burden than benefit, the delusion is harmful.

I'll have to add the book to the queue.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Eric,

    I used to consult for an IT company in the pacific region fishing industry, and we used to see some blatant examples, from an Economist's perspective, of foreign government domestic trade support masquerading as foreign aid. The Europeans were the worst. The company I worked was a world leader in fishing vessel monitoring systems, but elsewhere around the world indigenous solutions had evolved in different countries as well. The products were of different capabilities and there were some very dog systems out there.

    One example of misaligned trade motives was a European country offering to a small Pacific Island nation a long term loan on very favourable terms. The catch was the loan could only be used to buy this absolute dog of a system which used technology a good decade behind cutting edge specifications. It "looked like" aid, because the Euro country was helping the poor Pacific Island to manage its fisheries. But in effect it was a subsidy to the foreign manufacturer to continue trading, and maintain profitability, through dumping its inferior product on poor countries.

    There were other examples I saw, like Asian countries supporting their domestic industry through funding through "aid" capital development within other poor countries, like road or airport building. If they had those countries best intentions at heart, the work would have been delivered from local providers, and stimulate employment activity in the recipient country.