Conservatives are rightly skeptical of much of what government does, and foreign aid has long been something that stuck deeply in conservatives' craws, having a lineage of doubt going back to the John Birch Society and beyond. Mostly, it seems that hostility to the idea of foreign aid has centered around the fact that it involves taking money from honest, hardworking taxpayers and giving it to undeserving foreign governments. But there's perhaps an even better reason for the abolition of foreign aid: far from helping, it actively hurts those it intends to help. So says the journalist Linda Polman in a new book, The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?
Sierra Leone, the small West African state that was wracked by a brutal civil war – and where this writer lived many years ago working in, I now meekly report, humanitarian aid – is a classic example of the extremes which foreign aid has provoked. Foreign governments, along with various non-state actors, such as warlords and bandits, long ago learned that aid from the developed world and their various agencies is a fairly reliable source of cash. Being the shifty souls that so many of them are, they've learned to do whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing. In Sierra Leone, the appearance of amputation as a form of warfare and terror was somewhat mystifying; thoroughly brutal, it was hard to see for what purpose it could be used, other than terrorizing the civilian population – and they were seemingly already terrorized enough, being killed and maimed in the tens of thousands by roving bands of unspeakably violent marauders. In his New Yorker review of Polman's book, Philip Gourevitch explains the logic behind amputation in that unhappy country.
Three decades later, in Sierra Leone, a Dutch journalist named Linda Polman squeezed into a bush taxi bound for Makeni, the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front rebels. In the previous decade, the R.U.F. had waged a guerrilla war of such extreme cruelty in the service of such incoherent politics that the mania seemed its own end. While the R.U.F. leadership, backed by President Charles Taylor, of Liberia, got rich off captured diamond mines, its Army, made up largely of abducted children, got stoned and sacked the land, raping and hacking limbs off citizens and burning homes and villages to the ground. But, in May, 2001, a truce had been signed, and by the time Polman arrived in Sierra Leone later that year the Blue Helmets of the United Nations were disarming and demobilizing the R.U.F. The business of war was giving way to the business of peace, and, in Makeni, Polman found that former rebel warlords—such self-named men as General Cut-Throat, Major Roadblock, Sergeant Rape Star, and Kill-Man No-Blood—had taken to calling their territories “humanitarian zones,” and identifying themselves as “humanitarian officers.” As one rebel turned peacenik, who went by the name Colonel Vandamme, explained, “The white men are soon gonna need drivers, security guards, and houses. We’re gonna provide them.”
Colonel Vandamme called aid workers “wives”—“because they care for people,” according to Polman, and also, presumably, because they are seen as fit objects of manipulation and exploitation. Speaking in the local pidgin, Vandamme told Polman, “Them N.G.O. wifes done reach already for come count how much sick and pikin [children] de na di area.” Vandamme saw opportunity in this census. “They’re my pikin and my sick,” he said. “Anyone who wants to count them has to pay me first.”
This was what Polman had come to Makeni to hear. The conventional wisdom was that Sierra Leone’s civil war had been pure insanity: tens of thousands dead, many more maimed or wounded, and half the population displaced—all for nothing. But Polman had heard it suggested that the R.U.F.’s rampages had followed from “a rational, calculated strategy.” The idea was that the extreme violence had been “a deliberate attempt to drive up the price of peace.” Sure enough, Polman met a rebel leader in Makeni, who told her, “We’d worked harder than anyone for peace, but we got almost nothing in return.” Addressing Polman as a stand-in for the international community, he elaborated, “You people looked the other way all those years. . . . There was nothing to stop for. Everything was broken, and you people weren’t here to fix it.”
In the end, he claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” The U.N.’s mission in Sierra Leone was per capita the most expensive humanitarian relief operation in the world at the time. The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country. [Emphasis added.]
Some Africans themselves have come to understand the damaging effects of foreign aid. James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist, has argued that the aid does more harm than good, and in an interview with Der Spiegel, said, “For God's sake, please stop the aid!”
Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
With evidence like that presented here, why does the aid keep flowing? One reason is careerism: foreign aid by both governments and NGOs supports a by now huge bureaucracy. But I suspect a major reason is vanity: we want to think of ourselves as generous people, regardless of the actual effects of our giving. Consider the reaction of Bob Geldof at accusations that much of the money he helped raise financed warlords.
Writing in today's Guardian, the musician and mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concerts accuses the World Service of a "total collapse of standards and systems", threatens it with legal action and calls for the sacking of the reporter behind the story, his editor and the head of the World Service, Peter Horrocks.
Anger and denial was the response, not an engagement with the alleged facts – which is usually a sign that the criticisms have hit home.
Aside from the injustice of forcibly taking Americans' hard-earned money for causes they themselves might not choose to support, we have another reason for ending foreign aid: it causes more harm than good.