by Sasha Alyson
The more you learn about it, the more intriguing — and terrifying — becomes the role of the aid industry in keeping power in the hands of those who already have it. A lot of money, with a lot of power and hidden interests, determines the destinies of the world’s poorest people.
These pages only scratch the surface of this issue, and offer one perspective: The aspects of aid which “don’t make sense” when we view it as aid, do make sense once we think of it as a way for the world’s richest and most powerful people to maintain control, while offering a karma boost for everyone else. The first section suggests books that are most focused on the aid industry, followed by other relevant works.
The first four books listed were added to this list most recently, in April 2021.
The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World, by Kehinde Andrews. Bold Type Books, 2021.
“It is no coincidence that the UN was originally conceived by the British and Americans, nor that its headquarters are in New York. The principal function of the UN has always been to aid the transition from the old system of imperialism to the new,” writes Kehinde Andrews. He looks at a thousand years of history to show that while racism and colonialism have changed form, they continue to dominate world affairs. The UN, the World Bank, and the IMF all help the West, and especially the U.S., to maintain their power. He also gives attention to China’s growing neo-colonial relationships with developing regions. He’s a powerful writer; I read this in just a few sittings.
Unsilenced: Unmasking the United Nations’ Culture of Cover-Ups, Corruption and Impunity, by Rasna Warah. AuthorHouse, 2016.
In doing my own research, I was shocked to realize how freely various United Nations agencies would distort statistics, and even manufacture numbers, to meet its needs. It turns out I wasn’t the first to notice. Rasna Warah, who worked at the large U.N. campus in Nairobi, had already written: “Many UN agencies manufacture data because that is how they remain relevant, how they push forward their agenda on the international stage, and how they attract donor funding.” She tried to bring greater accuracy and accountability, and to report cover-ups. She – like others before and since – was fired for not being silent.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story, by Arundhati Roy. Haymarket Books, 2014.
With passion and eloquence, Roy describes the devastation brought by capitalism as it spreads its tentacles unchecked… including, in India, “the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves.” And it is aided, often but not always, by large foundations and NGOs, who put a philanthropic spin on the story: “The idea of these foundations, so ordinary now, was in fact a leap of the business imagination. Nontax-paying legal entities with massive resources and an almost unlimited brief—wholly unaccountable, wholly nontransparent—what better way to parlay economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital, to turn money into power? What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world?”
Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, by Fiona Terry. Cornell University Press, 2002.
Humanitarian organizations too often look only at short-range goals, and fail to consider the full implications of their aid, writes Terry, who had an inside view as former head of the French section of Medicins sans Frontieres. The result is that aid often fuels more violence.
Africa’s Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent, by Leonce Ndikumana and James K. Boyce, 2012
Most of us are reluctant to borrow money without good reason, because we know that one day we’ll have to repay it, with interest. But there are two groups who love loans: Those who make a fat fee by authorizing a loan of someone else’s money even if it’s for an illegitimate purpose; and those who borrow money which they can spend (or stash away) as they wish and somebody else will have to repay it. That’s a thumbnail description of “odious debt.” Today, odious debt is one of the great burdens on developing countries. In this short, powerful book, Professors Ndikumana and Boyce show how Western countries and agencies, including major private banks and the World Bank, created what a Brookings Institution scholar calls “the ugliest chapter in international commerce since slavery.”
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton, 2013.
Through most of his book, Deaton shows how the world is escaping from poverty. In the final chapter, he thoroughly summarizes why foreign aid hurts, rather than helps, this process. Because of his stature as an economist, The Great Escape is worth special attention. Deaton writes: “One reason why today’s aid does not eliminate global poverty is that it rarely tries to do so.”
The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly, 2007
After working as a World Bank economist for many years, Easterly concluded that the big money-approach to “ending poverty” was wrong on many counts. He particularly highlights the arrogance of Western “experts” who think they know best, and the lack of any accountability for themselves, and the programs they put into place. He describes two approaches to aid: The Planners, who believe they already know what to do before they first visit a country and who think more money will get more results; and The Searchers, who prefer smaller, locally-based approaches and often adapt as they go.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly, 2014
The development world has a particularly weak track record on the issue of human rights. Foreign aid props up dictators, and so-called experts make a mess of other people’s lives, because they simply don’t know what they’re doing, and never bear any accountability for their mistakes.
Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo, 2010
Moyo is the Zambian-born economist that Bill Gates is afraid of. If she has her way, Gates and Bono won’t get to set the agenda for Africa. He can’t refute her, so he tries to marginalize her. Whle I differ with some of her solutions, she is right on the money in her description of how aid hurts: “Foreign aid does not strengthen the social capital – it weakens it…. In a world of aid, there is no need or incentive to trust your neighbour, and no need for your neighbour to trust you. Thus aid erodes the essential fabric of trust that is needed between people in any functioning society.”
The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, by Michael Maren, 1997
Maren went to Somalia expecting to help people by working with an NGO. Instead, he discovered that aid money was destroying the indigenous methods that had developed for dealing with food shortages. He writes: “Those who spend the time to study the local economies see that the people have now geared their own activities not to returning to their old lives but to getting their hands on aid.” He worked for CARE and Save the Children, and is scathing about both organizations. Of the latter, he writes: “There was one practical thing taught in Westport [where Save the Children trained new staff]: They were shown how to pose children for photographs to go into brochures and ads.”
The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? (Published in some countries under the title War Games), by Linda Polman, 2010
Polman presents a scathing indictment of the aid industry, and backs it up with her 15 years experience, reporting in war zones. Aid money not only ends up supporting dictators, it encourages them to make a bad situation worse, because that brings in more money. She gives particular attention to ways that the media feeds this phenomenon, by searching for the heart-breaking story, even as charities, in turn, exploit the media: “The more horrific the photos, the bigger the payout for aid organizations, and also for the media. The piece de resistance for each and every tour of the camp was a little girl who had been only three months old when rebels hacked off her arm. For each foreign visitor the mother rolled up her daughter’s sleeve. Like a professional child star, the toddler would pose with her naked stump thrust forward, her little face a picture of misery.”
Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, by Robert D. Lupton, 2011.
“Aid agencies tend to prolong the ’emergency’ status of a crisis when a rebuilding strategy should be well under way,” writes Lupton. Most of his experience comes from domestic work, but he also has international experience: He tells of U.S. mission teams that spent $30,000 to rebuild homes after a hurricane swept through Honduras, when locals could have done it for $3,000 each. While Lupton approaches the issue as a Christian, those with a different perspective can also learn much from his thoughtful insights and analysis. “We fly off on mission trips to poverty-stricken villages, hearts full of pity and suitcases bulging with giveaway goods, trips that one Nicaraguan leader describes as effective only in ‘turning my people into beggars.’ Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”
Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, by Jon Krakauer, 2011.
If you’re thinking of climbing Mt. Everest because a guide service says, “with modern technology, we’ve made that so easy, practically anybody can bag it,” read Jon Krakeuer’s Into Thin Air before you pay your deposit. If you’re thinking of giving money to a man that the New York Times calls a hero, because he has built so many schools for poor children, read Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit. Greg Mortenson regaled the world with a story about how he had been kidnapped by the Taliban as he struggled to build schools in remote Afghanistan and Pakistan. His book Three Cups of Tea and glowing coverage by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof built his reputation as a hero… but it was all lies and self-promotion. Fellow climber Jon Krakauer sniffed something funny and — in sharp contrast to the journalists who had fawned over Mortenson — got some facts. The result is this short ebook expose, which serves as a case history of how easily good intentions (we’re giving Mortenson the benefit of the doubt here) can turn to sham, and how eager the media is to swallow a feel-good story.
Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, by Graham Hancock, 1994.
This book’s strength, and weakness, is that it’s more than two decades old and covers many events from the 1980s. Those who don’t like the message can say, “It’s out of date.” Those who continue to see precisely the hubris, lack of accountability, and corruption that Hancock documents with great passion can take away an important lesson: Simply exposing all of this isn’t enough. Too many people in power get direct benefits; the people being hurt are powerless. It’s up to those of us with much less influence to work together, and stop it.
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk, 2013.
Nina Munk tells the story of an economist who believed that a giant dose of money, plus a giant dose of media coverage for a certain economist, could end poverty. It didn’t. Sachs got a great deal of attention for his book The End of Poverty, which laid out his plan. Nina Munk, with his cooperation, wrote a book about his Millennium Villages project in Africa. The plan was that each selected village would demonstrate what great progress could be made if villages followed a 147-page, single-spaced document written primarily by academics at Columbia University. It did not work; that anyone thought it could work is a story in itself. Reading between the lines it appears that Munk went from being a fervent believer to a skeptic, and in doing so, she demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term. It’s easy to get everyone enthused, show results, and paint a happy picture of the future, with a lot of money and a short-term horizon. But the long term is another story.
No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy by Linsey McGoey, 2015
A century ago Andrew Carnegie was the great American philanthropist, building libraries and winning fame. And when his employees went on strike, Carnegie’s security forces shot them dead. Linsey McGoey sees the same contradictions at work today, as the Gates Foundation, the biggest in the world, gains enormous and unchecked control over policy decisions in health, education, and other areas — often at the same time benefitting Microsoft, the source of its wealth, and never challenging fundamental sources of inequality.
The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, by David Rieff, 2015
Can the world end extreme poverty and widespread hunger? Is it willing to do what that takes? David Rieff weaves together several threads as he explores these questions. “Philanthrocapitalists” such as Bill Gates want us to believe that technology and big business, such as Monsanto, are necessary to end hunger, and that they have the ability and desire to do so. Food rights activists say that’s precisely the wrong approach; multinational corporations are making the problem worse. And if the world won’t take effective action on climate change, then very possibly nothing else will matter. Rieff packs a lot of insights and facts into his book; he also packs a lot of words and ideas into each sentence. It’s an absorbing book, eloquent but not a light read.
Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, by James Ferguson, 2015
Cash transfers are a system in which a government (or, possibly, an NGO, though this is rare) doesn’t try to decide what poor people need and provide it for them; it gives them the cash and lets them decide for themselves. Where it’s been tried, it has shown far more success than the standard aid model, in which little of value actually reaches the target population. Ferguson gives a thorough, thoughtful picture of cash transfers, in a style which is readable but tends toward the academic.
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, 2012
Poor Economics been widely hailed as one of the most thoughtful books to date about aid. Though they work at a university, the authors are grounded in reality. They have looked at development programs and have had in-depth conversations with people affected, with a goal of figuring out what works, rather than supporting whatever they had already decided. I’ve learned a great deal from reading their insights.
That said, I disagree on one fundamental point: The authors address the question: If we really want to provide effective aid, how do we do it, and assess our actions? I’ve looked at the evidence too, and have concluded that those who control the money do not want to provide effective aid, and as long as they’re in control, the best that the rest of us can do is to reduce the considerable harm that they do under the guise of “aid.”
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