Like most people, we once assumed that international charities and development organizations wanted to help solve the problems facing people in poorer countries. But that assumption simply did not fit with reality. And so we developed a new model, which better explains the behavior of typical aid organizations. Like any organism, they want to survive. Donors are the key to their survival, so their actions focus on keeping donors happy. Actually
fixing problems would put them out of business.
The aid industry is a sprawling subject, full of interlocking interests and hidden motives. In the menu at the top, “Karma Colonialism” links to two pages that explain why we’ve coined that term. From “How it works” you can read how everything from thinly-disguised bribes to mind-games make karma colonialism possible.
These stories show the abstract concepts in action. We welcome tips for other stories.
Left: The UN for sale. UNESCO invites corporations to pay up, so they can benefit from its “reputable brand,” while small countries sell their UN vote. Who pays the price for this corruption? Just who you’d expect. Right: Francophonie. By forcing children in its former African colonies to study in French, France thought it was spreading the glory of the French language. But students ended up learning neither French, nor much of anything else.
Left: The cholera epidemic: The epidemic that killed 10,000 Haitians revealed more than just sloppy sanitation practices by the U.N. It revealed institutional rot and an imperial attitude of impunity. Right: Aid for the richest and whitest: UK Aid has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through AgDevCo, a UK “impact investor,” to help white European investors run agribusinesses in Africa.
Left: Bad aid in action. A TV celebrity wanted to give desks to every school in Malawi, so UNICEF plans to do that. It won’t improve education, but it looks good. It’s an example of how self-serving aid projects actually hurt. Right: The campaign against reading. The aid industry says it promotes reading. But its actions — such as dumping unwanted books from the USA — are motivated by self-interest, and consistently undermine reading in the global South.
Left: The UN Global Goals: What’s missing? The UN has 17 development goals with 169 targets. But a lot is missing. For starters: anything that would cut into corporate profits. Right: Garbage in… UNESCO takes garbage data, runs it through a fancy formula, and claims to show a picture of education around the globe. This merely disguises the fact that UNESCO really has no idea where things stand.
Left: Book dumping. The U.S. Navy gives books to schoolchildren in Nigeria. It seems nice. But (brace yourself, this isn’t pretty) they’re handing out leftover Florida test preparation manuals. Right: Do African perspectives matter? The Global Partnership for Education shapes education policy in 70 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. Its CEO, chair, and 7-member evaluation team are from the USA, Australia, and Europe.
Left: Snake oil. Many Western NGOs will say pretty much anything to get your donation. We examine Save the Children’s claim that an extra year of school will bring great wage increases. It’s snake oil. But it brings in donations. Right: Chocolate hands. You can buy chocolate hands at shops in Antwerp. So what? Well, one of the colonial era’s great atrocities involves Belgians chopping off the hands of Africans.
Left: Boys thrown under the schoolbus. U.N. agencies and NGOs focus almost exclusively on girls’ education. But girls are faring better than boys, whose needs are ignored and who are falling behind. Right: High-level hypocrisy. Coca-Cola pushes a harmful product on vulnerable children. How can Warren Buffett be a trustee for the world’s biggest health foundation, and also Coke’s biggest investor?
Left: Strange bedfellows. Through its partnership with Coke, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will bring medicines to fight one epidemic, while spreading new epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. Right: The brain drain. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, wealthier countries are trying to extract a particularly valuable resource from the others: Doctors.
Left: World Vision undermines local economies by giving away leftover merchandise where it’s not needed. It makes no sense — until you understand the financial incentives. Right: Willful blindness. As it tries to control school policies in the global South, the aid industry has data about every subject except one: Are students learning anything? It doesn’t want to know.
Left: Junk data. A lot of numbers published by the U.N. and aid agencies are garbage. It’s useful to understand why they are so motivated to publish such data. Right: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation vows transparency. But its database search function is broken. How hard is Bill trying?
Left: Schools in the global South are getting worse. The aid industry doesn’t ask why, and for good reason. It created much of the problem. Right: Free books often hurt literacy. Many of us recoil at the thought of throwing away books. But shipping them to a poorer country is often worse.
Left: Toms Shoes gets free publicity by giving away shoes to “needy” children. What’s the impact on the children themselves? Toms says they benefit; researchers found otherwise. Right: Melinda Gates pushes cellphones as a way for poor women to rise out of poverty. The source of her analysis: Mobile phone companies; and herself.
Left: Unicef needs the “needy.” This photo is from a Unicef fundraising appeal for “needy families.” It is the very opposite of the “empowerment” that they talk about. Right: Where did the aid money go? After East Timor won independence in 2002, it received massive amounts of aid money. Where did it all go? Timor activists investigated.
Left: Why not just give them the money? Cash transfers — just giving aid money directly to those you wish to help — has a proven track record. Why does the aid industry dislike this approach? Right: What would make a better future? There are ways that wealthier countries can genuinely help others, if they want to. Give the aid money directly to the poor, for example. Here are ideas.