The Paternalism Never Ends

by Sasha Alyson

In 2017, USAID adopted a new policy which barred U.S. aid funds to family-planning organizations that present abortion as an option. Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister of foreign trade and development cooperation, raised money to replace those funds in Senegal. She told an interviewer:

“[T]his might lead to pregnancies that people really didn’t plan for…. I just heard from a woman who works in our embassy in Senegal. She got word from her mother and sister who live in a remote village. They told her, ‘This cannot be. It will mean that women will get pregnant again without wanting to be. It will mean that our girls won’t get sex education as they have for the past five years. It will change our community.'”(1)

Truly? Are there not people in that village who know what causes pregnancy? Could they not put together an effective sex education program? Why do so many people, from a village in Senegal to the capital of the Netherlands, assume that such things can’t be done without international funding? Have they acquired a belief that they are helpless to provide sex education unless they have a white SUV, per-diem allowances, and video projectors?

Perhaps people in the village itself don’t feel so helpless. This report passed through four parties, each with its own self-interest. An individual villager with an embassy connection is likely to gain status and money by bringing in a small grant. Embassy staffs like to pass out such grants, it builds goodwill for themselves and their country. The Dutch trade minister and the New York Times, which reported the story, each have constituencies eager to see the West “do something” for those deemed unable to do things for themselves. The Times would never have used third-hand hearsay to suggest that people in Switzerland are incapable of educating their own children; only in Senegal.

That’s what happens when aid money become an unquestioned part of society. The aid agency needs a role. What’s a good reason why they can’t fix this on their own? The aid agency looks — perhaps unconsciously — for programs that require money or resources which local people don’t have. “What’s our role?” they ask. That shifts the emphasis to things that cannot be done with local resources. It searches for ways to teach that “you’re helpless without us.”

Before schools appeared, education was the responsibility of families, relatives, and community. While it’s easy to idealize the past, clearly people did pitch in to help. When INGOs arrive with big budgets, self-confidence, plans, and the ability to grab official attention, it’s natural for everyone else to walk away. They can’t compete for government attention when U.N. agencies are passing out per-diem payments, iPhones, and the occasional car. Health and education are INGO territory now.

The Senegal-Netherlands story is not a rare instance. Here are two more examples.

The U.N.’s European information center held an “Ads Against Poverty” competition to promote the Millennium Development Goals. One entry (see picture above) spliced together two photos: On top were the torsos of eight world leaders, below were the thin brown legs of children, mostly barefoot, one holding an empty cup, waiting for food. The caption read:

Dear leaders – we are still waiting.

An organization that truly believed in “empowerment” would have tossed this in the trash. Instead, the U.N. chose it as the winner.

In claiming unprecedented success for its Millennium Development Goals, the U.N. proclaimed: “More than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990.” Others helped with the lifting. Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, boasted that the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, formed by Western powers in 2012, would “lift millions of people out of extreme poverty.” (A Guardian writer, in contrast, called NAFSN a “new wave of colonialism.” The two are not mutually exclusive.) The North American head of the Gates-funded One Campaign called for more aid funding because “America’s generosity saves lives, lifts people out of poverty.” Ending poverty is something that involves the rich lifting the poor.

Ugandan journalist Andrew M. Mwenda summarizes what they all have in common: “We are no longer active participants in our own economic and political emancipation; we are passive recipients of international charity.”

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments:

Steve Cass, @SteveCass14: In the past Western paternalism was done from a viewpoint of cultural and intellectual superiority. Now it continues but from a combination of wanting to hold on to past influence we no longer have and guilt.

Eco magic, @Ecomagic5: This is a great topic. The UN and USAID are the front architects of disunity among nations. Poverty alleviation is just propaganda for their own self interest and selfish wants.

Apan’ Tambua, @ApanTambua47: China in the past 10 years has helped Africa develop more than what UN and USAID have done since their formation. China’s involvement in the development of Africa is enough proof that other organizations do not help and when they do the money is consumed by wealthy corrupt individuals

Notes and Sources

1. New York Times, 20 Feb. 2017.

2. The U.N. used this as the cover of We Can, which also showed other ads. The theme was always: The West Must Give More. There was no hint that perhaps the real solution would be for the West to take less.

3. Rajiv Shaw is quoted by David Rieff in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century. The Guardian story is “G8 New Alliance Condemned as New Wave of Colonialism.” One’s Tom Hart is quoted on

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