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If I speed through the red lights to get a sick child to the hospital, and I wipe out three pedestrians on the way, does that make me a hero?

Stories and case studies

Like most people, we once assumed that international charities and development organizations wanted to help solve the problems facing people in poorer countries.

We once assumed that aid groups wanted to solve problems. But that assumption simply did not fit with the facts that we saw.

But over time, that assumption simply did not fit with the facts that we saw. And so we developed a new model, which better explains the behavior of NGOs : Like any organism, they want to survive. Donors are the key to their survival, so their actions focus on keeping donors happy. Actually fixing the problems they claim to address would put them out of business, so they don't try to do that.

As we continued to read, investigate, and discuss, we were startled at the level of connection between the non-profit world, and multi-national corporations. Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of the charity CARE, is also on the Coca-Cola board, and led programs at the Gates Foundation.(1) The Gates Foundation gave a $4.8 million grant to Vodacom to expand into Tanzania.(2) The American government's USAID program pushes for U.S.-based agribusiness to expand its influence in developing countries.(3)

It's a vast subject, full of interlocking interests and hidden motives. The best way to understand it all is to combine two perspectives.

First, look at the general dynamics: How an economy is hurt when foreigners arrive to give things away, why INGOs are motivated to not actually solve the problem they address, what motives really underlie many activities that are pitched as "helping the needy." That's all in the "Colonialism gets a facelift" section of our site.

Then, look at actual stories that illustrate these concepts. Abstract ideas are easier to understand when we see them in action. Stories alone can be misleading; you can find an anecdote to make practically any point you want. There's an anecdote somewhere to show that Mussolini was a nice guy. (Or maybe that's pushing the point; we actually haven't looked.) Stories are most useful if they help us visualize and understand a theory that is also supported by other evidence.

Our menu shows stories we have assembled so far. If you have tips for other stories, please send them to us.

Notes and Sources

1. How can someone claim to simultaneously promote public health, while also serving on the board of a corporation whose marketing relentlessly undermines public health? All too easily. Socializing with other well-connected rich people generates big donations to your cause. Since charities are largely judged not by what they achieve, which is hard to measure, but by the size of their budgets, this becomes an appealing path. Nutritionist Joan Nestle explores these links in Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), page 330. (back)

2. This was reported on the Gates Foundation website; and also, with more context, in Linsey McGoey's No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. (back)

3. David Rieff documents many of these connections in his thoroughly researched book The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century. (back)