Charity versus development: The aid industry’s bait-and-switch

by Sasha Alyson

The United Nations pursued its Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015; now it pursues its Sustainable Development Goals.

Official American aid flows through USAID – the U.S. Agency for International Development. Other Western aid agencies have also claimed, in their very names, to promote development: The Australian Agency for International Development, the French Development Agency, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (formerly Department for International Development), and so on.

And then, in the name of development, these agencies usually offer charity instead. But charity and development are entirely different. One keeps the patient comfortable, the other tries to cure the disease. Theoretically they might co-exist. More often they are opposites, sometimes enemies.

“Development is about countries becoming prosperous, democratic and capable, like being able to deliver the mail, having police forces that work and kids who get educated,” says Lant Pritchett, a development economist at Oxford. “Charity work is helping people cope with the fact that they live in places where they don’t have those things.”

Charity assumes its recipients are weak, unable to help themselves. UNICEF endlessly reports on the “needy” people that your donation will help.(2) Development rests on the belief that — sometimes only after certain obstacles are removed — people have the ability to help themselves.

Charity is easier. Development is hard – many would say impossible – to offer from outside. Charity provides a quick, good feeling and makes friends. Pushing for development may do neither. Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the Brazilian archbishop and leader in the liberation theology movement, captured this tension: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Charity feels better. A Newsweek writer tells us that:

“Our national generosity makes me proud to be an American. When visiting some of the poorest places on Earth, I’ve seen the people whose lives have been saved by U.S. foreign assistance. They are children with HIV/AIDS who are healthy due to antiretroviral drugs. They are widows who have been brutalized by war who have safe places to live. They are families in regions with parched earth, failed crops and heartbreaking famine who are fed with grain that comes in sacks with USA logos.”(3)

But those are all acts of charity, not development. Meanwhile, the good karma masks harsher realities. The U.S. did help pay for many people to get HIV/AIDS medicines, but others have died because U.S. policy values drug patents over human life.(4) U.S. food relief is actually aid to American farmers and shippers; giving the money to desperately hungry people, to buy local food, would save far more lives while also supporting, rather than undermining, farmers in those countries

And war widows? American companies haul in some $40 billion a year by selling more than half of the world’s weapons of war.(5) In Laos and Cambodia, people are still killed by unexploded cluster bombs that American warplanes dropped a half-century ago in a secret war. Cleaning up these UXOs would be neither charity nor development, merely The Right Thing To Do. But giving something to a war widow generates better photo ops for Newsweek, at a much lower cost.

These USAID efforts may have benefited some people, or they may have just filled well-connected pockets. But despite what the letters in USAID stand for, these were not development. They did not change, or even address, the underlying problems which will continue to create a role for more charity.

On the contrary. In the spirit of good-heartedness (and also self-promotion) aid agencies routinely cross the line – from helping with what people need but cannot do for themselves, into the far bigger territory of promoting dependency because that’s an easy route for both giver and getter. Handouts provide short-term cover-ups of the worst symptoms, thus reducing pressure to identify and solve the underlying problems. Furthermore, oppressive governments have learned to milk the aid cow. They demand all sorts of benefits, from free travel to consulting fees to mobile phones and cars, from NGOs that operate on their turf. Catering to the aid industry is more lucrative, in the short run, than developing their country’s capacity to provide for its own needs.

Done thoughtfully, charity has a role in the world. But it’s not development. USAID isn’t alone in pulling these bait-and-switches. Bill and Melinda Gates regularly present their foundation as doing “development” work. Bill Gates, claiming to refute the belief that “Foreign aid is a big waste,” lists nine examples (all funded by his foundation) which he feels prove the value of aid.(6) All nine are charitable in nature. They strive to improve health. None address the underlying reasons that outside assistance is needed. None is about creating a world where people have greater control over key aspects of their lives and don’t need assistance from billionaires. The rich are being nice, and sometimes they like being nice. As long as aid means charity, the poor will get crumbs only if and when the rich feel like tossing a few over the fence.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

CF Kahn, @citizenkahn76: One of the most horrendous concepts ever, is the “problem tree”. Its focus on what’s not there, kills self-esteem & makes external support seem inevitable. Prosperity can not exist without identifying/exploiting one’s strengths… The concept goes far beyond the aid industry & is found in all branches of social science. An (old school) social worker will analyse an underperforming kid from a “problem perspective”, just as much as old school African leaders will define policies based on gaps/problems.

Abdisalam Yassin, @AbdisalamYassi1: It isn’t only the aid industry that’s baffled by the empty circle they’ve created, it’s also the people that they’re supposed to help. The circle goes nowhere, while the aid industry and corrupt local governments stand at opposite sides and pretend that it’s moving. No development.

Aba_Wukau, @AWukau: Aid to Africa can be equated to the prison industry in the US. Make money by decimating others and feel good while doing it. A Perpetual money making machine. Nature won’t even allow a perpetual motion machine. Impossible! Africa/ Africans wake up!

Notes and Sources

  1. Harvard Professor Slams Obama’s World Bank Nomination, by Susan Adams, Forbes, 23 March 2012.
  2. In UNICEF Needs the Needy I’ve highlighted UNICEF’s compulsive use of the word needy: Needy families, needy women, needy girls. Clearly, UNICEF has tested the waters and found that this pulls in donations, but at a great cost to human dignity.
  3. U.S. Foreign Aid: One Percent Saves Lives, by Leith Anderson, Newsweek, 22 March 2017.
  4. One of the U.N.’s MDG goals was to “provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.” By helping to get HIV/AIDS drugs to more people, the U.S. prevented both a greater human toll, and also a public relations fiasco for Big Pharma, without making the wide-ranging changes that were called for by the MDG goal.
  5. The Obama Administration Has Brokered More Weapons Sales Than Any Other Administration Since World War II, by William D. Hartung, The Nation, 26 July, 2016.
  6. 3 Myths That Block Progress For the Poor, by Bill and Melinda Gates, 2014 Gates Annual Letter.

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