A License to Meddle

by Sasha Alyson

U.N. agencies and global NGOs require two things to keep the money rolling in:

1. Donors who believe there’s a dire need, which can be solved only by Western expertise.

2. Permission to set up shop in various countries of the South.

The second is easy: They bribe the government, though it’s never called a bribe. It takes the form of per-diem payments for attending a workshop, consulting fees to government officials, mobile phones so you can be more productive, or, in one case where UNICEF revealed more than it should have, “vehicles… to facilitate the syllabi review process.”(1)

The first is also easy, but requires different techniques. Donors aren’t looking carefully; they know little or nothing about the situation. Just give them a reason to believe what they already want to believe: That the global South is a basket case, and will remain so without Western aid and know-how. Even a flimsy rationale, with a child in the center of the photo, provides a license for aid agencies to meddle. And the rationales have gotten pretty flimsy as they discover that emotional appeal is all they really need. Three examples:

Collecting water

“Women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water,” says UNICEF.(2)

So what?

This is like telling us, “It would take 3 billion hot dogs to circle the globe.” We have no idea what that means for an individual person, or hot dog.(3)

Two real issues are:

(1) Is there a problem? Do a lot of people spend excessive time collecting water? In fact, it appears that most spend less than 20 minutes on this task.(4)

(2) Where a problem exists, has UNICEF been able to fix it? Repeatedly, UNICEF mentions its “solutions.” I clicked to see them and got more vague claims, heart-warming anecdotes, plus one bewildering new statement: “In 8 out of 10 homes without running water, it’s the girls who spend hours every day lugging heavy containers over rough terrain.”(5)

Wrong. Nobody else, including UNICEF, believes that 80% of water collection is done by girls. The U-Penn study I’ve used found no country in which water collection was primarily the responsibility of children; in most cases, children did it less than 20% of the time. Where did this “8 out of 10” figure come from? Do they still do 3-martini lunches at the UNICEF copywriting office?

And why are we expected to not care about men and boys who do this work? While UNICEF doesn’t offer hard data about water collection, my hunch is that somewhere in the UNICEF files is some hard data… showing that donations go up if you feature women and girls that Westerners can feel sorry for.

Decision-making skills

In a report about “Rural Africa’s Water Crisis,” funded by seven European governments, a London think tank describes water disputes in a Nigerien village and concludes that “Like many villages in Africa, this one needs outside help if it is to restructure the internal rules and pricing policy of its ‘water supply cooperative’.”(6)

But not just any outside help. The report doesn’t suggest that villagers ask for advice from neighbors who have worked out similar difficulties, nor that such skills might exist in Niger. “Current management theory can offer insights here,” it says. Clearly, it believes a European team, well versed in the latest theory, is needed.

But Nigeriens were solving problems on their own, long before Europeans arrived. Not always well perhaps, but neither were Europeans, as two of the bloodiest wars in history can attest. To suggest that Nigeriens can no longer do it without management advice from Europe is quite a stretch. To even conclude that one village needs outside help would require a deep knowledge of that village; to conclude it for the whole of Niger, which has several large ethnic groups, would be quite a jump. The London think tank draws this conclusion for the entire continent of Africa. Meanwhile, the U.K. took 4-1/2 years to decide about Brexit, and still hasn’t finished, because some of the thornier issues just got kicked down the road yet again. The U.S.A. has shocking levels of poverty amidst plenty yet Western Europeans aren’t analyzing this and sending their advisors to help. That would be offensive, that would annoy an ally, that would infringe on sovereignty, we do those things to Africa, not within our own community. This goes beyond paternalism, there’s an element of bullying as well.

STEM Graduates

“Many more women than men graduate but far fewer achieve STEM degrees,” announces the 2018 GEM Gender Review from a UNESCO-affiliated agency.(7)

So what?

And: “In Chile, Ghana and Switzerland, women account for less than one-quarter of all STEM degrees. By contrast, women in Albania, Algeria and Tunisia are more likely than men to earn a STEM degree.”

This may be interesting, but again: So what? Does this require U.N. intervention?

As a matter of fact: Yes. The U.N. failed to stop the genocides of Kosovo and Rwanda, but as for wagging a finger in Africa, and getting paid for it, that’s a different matter. The U.N. calls for the “Gender Parity Index” to fall between 0.97 and 1.03, and seems ready to apply this to just about anything. If there are 96 women with STEM degrees for every 100 men, then gender equality is lacking. Decisive action is needed.

Or not. They won’t do anything about Switzerland’s dismal showing. They’d be told, quite rightly, to get lost. They only work in poorer countries where officials depend on a steady stream of aid income, and where a small budget can buy off most of the people who would otherwise say, “This is a scam.” Nor do they show any interest in cases (as here, in the overall graduation statistics) where males are disadvantaged. There are good reasons, I believe, to be concerned about gender equality. But do we really want the U.N. deciding when and where it matters, and where not?

The GEM Report joins a vast library from which aid agencies can pick-and-choose data in support of whatever intervention they choose. And they DO intend to intervene, salaries depend on it. The GEM report says “the international community can apply legal tools when it puts in motion the monitoring mechanisms of a legally binding treaty, performance tools when it withholds external financial assistance from a country due to its poor track record in gender equality,” and so on. They relish their sense of power. But don’t worry, if you’re in Switzerland, they won’t use it on you.

And let’s not forget that report-writing produces good jobs for those with the right connections. The outgoing GEM director, under whom this report was prepared, was American. The incoming director was European; so too the head of UNESCO.

And as for those statistics….

In reading any of these numbers, bear in mind that some U.N. and UNESCO statistics may be solid. Some are definitely junk. There’s no way to know which is which. I’ve explored this in several stories.(8)

Notes and Sources

  1. Somebody at UNICEF was more transparent than the boss probably had intended. Details in: Bribes — legal and otherwise.
  2. UNICEF has often repeated this phrase, including in a tweet, and on this press release: “Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls.”
  3. By the way, it would actually take just a quarter of a billion hot dogs to circle the globe – unless your hot dogs are only a centimeter long. But I’ll bet most people didn’t catch this. Our minds simply don’t process numbers so far outside our reality — whether they are about water, or hot dogs.
  4. The best data I can find is in Safe Access to Safe Water in Low Income Countries: Water Fetching in Current Times, by Susan Sorenson, Christiaan Morssink and Paola Abril Campos, University of Pennsylvania, 2011. In 44 countries surveyed, the mean time to go, collect water, and return, was less than 20 minutes. According to UNICEF, “This responsibility contributes to significant time poverty among many of the world’s poorest women and girls.”
  5. From The Water Burden: Girls and Women Lack Safe Water, which is not only wrong, but also highlights UNICEF’s apparent belief that only half the the population matters.
  6. Where every drop counts: Tackling rural Africa’s water crisis, International Institute for Environment and Development, March 2009. Funded by the national aid agencies of Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, the U.K., Norway, and Switzerland.
  7. Global education monitoring report gender review 2018: Meeting our commitments to gender equality in education. The GEM Report is described as an “independent annual publication… facilitated and supported by UNESCO.”
  8. •The UNESCO Institute for Statistics produced education statistics for “sub-Saharan Africa” – despite having data for only 4 of the 47 countries in that region: Out of Thin Air.
    • In one report, the UNESCO office shows no grasp of basic statistics concepts: Sherlock Holmes and the Telltale Clue.
    •The U.N. routinely produces statistics not to aid planning or analysis, but as a means of controlling policy: Why do UN agencies fabricate data?

Related stories