Michael Maren (1997) The Road To Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. New York: The Free Press
In July 1985, 1.5 billion people worldwide tuned in to watch an event that arguably marked the peak of visibility for the business of aid and development in East Africa. While the cameras focussed on the rock singers and telegenic malnourished babies in Ethiopia, Michael Maren was an aid worker employed by Save The Children in neighbouring Somalia. In his book, Maren has written a devastating critique of the business of aid and humanitarian relief, and the NGOs that deliver this aid under contract from northern governments.
At the time of publication of this book, Michael Maren was a twenty year veteran of aid work in East Africa, working first as a Peace Corps volunteer and subsequently as an employee of several high profile NGOs. His experiences with these organisations, and the anger and disillusionment that they have instilled in him, led Maren to switch from the aid sector to journalism. For much of the 1990s he reported from Africa and the Middle East for a number of publications such as The Village Voice, The New York Times, The Nation and Harper's. In this book, Maren has revisited the world of NGOs such as Save The Children, CARE International and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With a stated desire to expose what he has later described as "a complete waste of money that succeeds primarily at keeping Westerners employed", Maren paints a picture of incompetence, impotence and corruption on the grandest scale.
In 1977, the Western Somalia Liberation Front launched an all-out attack on Ethiopia, which had recently been taken over by Mengistu Haile Mariam's Marxist forces. It is against this background that Michael Maren first entered the world of international development, as a naïve and idealistic young volunteer for the US Peace Corps. While it is positioned as a commentary on the aid business in general, the focus of this book is on Maren's experiences in the Horn of Africa, and Somalia in particular. Much of the narrative follows the troubled and traumatic career of Chris Cassidy, the man who replaced the author in his position with Save the Children in Somalia. Cassidy's begin from his very first day of training at Save the Children, a programme which another aid worker is quoted as describing as "cultish and repugnant" (p.49).
"We're professionals with advanced degrees, being hired to do technical work overseas, and we have to listen to these pieties like we're joining a church."
This was just the first example of what the author describes as a system which cares less about actual development than it does about maintaining a steady stream of lucrative government contracts.
Somalia in the 1980s is portayed as violent and corrupt in the extreme. "In 1988 alone, 200 acts of violence were reported against aid workers" in Somalia (p.88). Even the best-run aid project could not have achieved any positive results in a country where most food aid and equipment was stolen and sold on the black market before it even reached the workers on the ground. However, the projects Maren describes were not only badly run, they were deliberately ineffective. "In the Somali context, doing real development work was truly a subversive activity." (p.88). The reason for this seemingly inexplicable desire by the Somali government to welcome NGOs into the country, yet sabotage any projects they may try to perform, was shown to be a product of both politics and economics. Maxamed Siyaad Barre's government in Somalia saw NGOs as a means to control the population and to keep its army well-supplied. Maren quotes an Associated Press report in 1982, describing the aid "scam".
"Refugee aid has become so big a source of foreign exchange that it has become an important component of Somali gross national product." (p.117)
The image is of complicity at all levels in a corrupt system that is nonetheless beneficial to all concerned. The refugees themselves have a standard of living that is in most cases superior to that of the local residents, with enough food to not just survive, but a surplus that can be sold on the black market. The aid causes nomads to settle in one place, which permits the Somali government to maintain control over them - "It's hard to impose socialism on people who can just walk away." (p.56). Most damningly, Maren states that the NGOs are fully aware of the problems with this system, but allow it to continue as it is a lucrative source of income. The bulk of the funding for NGOs comes from governments in northern countries, in the form of contracts to undertake specific projects. In order to maintain funding for their fixed costs, such as salaries and head office costs, and NGO must manage a steady stream of these projects. Maren portrays the NGOs as more concerned with raising funds through government contracts and public donations than with actually helping those in need. In one example, he tells of how the government and NGOs conspire to inflate refugee numbers (and thus the amount of aid received) to the tune of over 1 million people. He describes the efforts of one consultant, brought in to survey refugee numbers, who had to resort to visiting the camps in the middle of the night.
"If a child was missing from the home at three in the afternoon, a mother could have any number of excuses. If the same child was also missing at three in the morning, the child either didn't live in the camp or didn't exist." (p.128).
While it is a persuasively argued and compelling read, this book is far from balanced in its criticism. This is a reflection of the author's opinions on NGOs and charitable organisations in general, for which he see no positive role in developing world. He quotes a study (p.214) that estimates 100,000 lives were saved through the work of NGOs in Somalia, yet concludes that if NGOs were to leave Africa entirely it would actually save lives. His reasoning behind these claims appears to be that foreign aid helps to prolong the conflicts that cause the most loss of life. "My experience there made me see that aid could be worse than incompetent and inadvertently destructive" writes Maren. "It could be positively evil." (p.12). Such hyperbolic language is representative of the overall tone of the book, and detracts somewhat from what are often valid points. Maren's anger is apparent on every page, and this anger is directed almost exclusively at the NGOs. This is perhaps the area where his personal bias causes him to miss some of the more important issues that could have been addressed.
The book is structured as a series of anecdotes - mostly involving the aforementioned Chris Cassidy - interspersed with Maren's damning commentary on the nature of NGOs. While this structure produces a surprisingly readable book with a strong central message, it prevents any logical development of his argument or exploration of any of the more detailed points. Maren makes many of these points, but the lack of sustained analysis leads to a book that is frustratingly simplistic and ultimately superficial.
While Maren identifies many of the most serious problems associated with humanitarian aid, he makes little attempt to offer any alternative solutions. The previous quote summarises the entirety of the argument in the book - that NGOs are at best incompetent and at worst evil. The author then goes on to provide numerous examples demonstrating all of the ways in which NGOs are incompetent or evil. The case he builds is very strong, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that the problems he highlights are anything less than serious failings on the part of the NGOs. He argues persuasively his case that the aid industry is fatally flawed, but leaves the reader with little in the way of ideas at to what should be done beyond abolishing the NGOs. It could be said that it is unfair to expect solutions to such a large problem from an author who is primarily a whistle-blower on the failings he has observed, albeit an eloquent and vocal one. However, by writing a book that damns the policy of international aid to the point of denying any value in its existence, he opens himself to the question as to what he would put in its place. His answer appears to be 'nothing'.
Maren's greatest asset - his detailed experience drawn from twenty years on the ground as aid worker and journalist - is also his greatest weakness. By focussing on the numerous errors made by the NGOs, he fails to look beyond these NGOs when diagnosing the problem. To Maren, it is the greedy NGOs that are the root of the issue. There are too many, they are too profit-oriented, and they are too focussed on the interests of their management and the agendas of the governments who fund them. He sees the problems with the NGOs' work, and this leads him to the conclusion that it is the NGOs that are the whole problem. On the one hand this is understandable, as the failings he observes are as numerous as they are entrenched in the system as a whole, but when coming to his final conclusions, he does not explore how this may be a symptom of the underlying problem, rather than the cause.
The book's lack of any recognition of their successes is not only unfair to the NGOs, it closes off a whole avenue of investigation. The focus of the book is on the Somali civil war, which saw one of the most disastrous of all international relief efforts. If Maren had examined some of the relief efforts that had succeeded then he would have been in a better position to investigate the areas in which aid is failing. The author rightly highlights the patronising nature of NGOs' advertising, suggesting as it does that Africans cannot look after themselves, and are just waiting for Americans to come and help them. It is disappointing, therefore, that he takes a similarly patronising stance in his criticism. While he is deeply critical of African governments' kleptocratic policies, his overall tone seems to imply that it is the fault of the NGOs for tempting them. By providing aid that is so easily exploited, he seems to say that the NGOs are to blame for the theft and corruption in the governments.
Maren has been criticised for suggesting that the solution may be to regulate the work of NGOs, and it is true that this idea is deeply flawed. However, it is not fair to say, as some critics have, that this means Maren is in favour of government influence on NGOs in general. Maren does identify US government interests as the basis of some of the major problems with international aid. He examines in some detail the roots of USAID in Cold War realpolitik, and the continuing malign influence of business interests on US aid policy. However, his obvious hatred for his former employers seems to prevent him pursuing this further when laying the blame at the feet of the NGOs. His suggestion that the US government should bypass the NGOs and instead simply ship the grain using a logistics company may have been said flippantly, but it does illustrate his habit of blaming the NGO for every ill. His stories of the large-scale black-marketeering of grain does touch on the economic implications of aid, but only skims the surface of what is one of the biggest issues trade with poor countries.
Amartya Sen's famous maxim states that "no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." While Niger's famine in 1995 is a rare counter-example to this, it is true to say that famines do almost always occur in non-democratic states. Maren identifies Sen's statement as he puts forward the book's most powerful indictment of the behaviour of NGOs in Somalia. International aid was not just ineffective, states Maren, but it also helped keep Siyaad Barre in power, thus prolonging the abuse of the Somali people. The evidence Maren presents to support this is strong, but blaming the NGOs for this missed the point. As with most of his criticisms, the targets that really deserve his criticism are the governments that fund these NGO projects. There are several reasons that governments outsource their aid work to NGOs, primarily financial. This does not mean that it is the NGOs that are to blame for the governments' policies. As Maren demonstrates, the short-termist, quantitatively judged nature of the projects are a product of their governmental donors, yet he still blames the NGOs for their uselessness.
At its heart, this book is a powerful, if simplistic critique of an international aid system that has become detached from its stated purpose. Maren's journalistic background is apparent, and the book is highly readable and persuasively argued. The book is clearly aimed at the mass market, and as such some of the melodramatic language and simplistic prescriptions can be forgiven. His blind hatred for NGOs does damage his case somewhat, by preventing him exploring some of the deeper causes of the problems he identifies. His suggestions for improvement are based around regulation of the NGOs. This is wrong-headed and unnecessary. The real improvements need to be made in the policies of the governments funding them. On this at least there has been some real progress since the book was written.
Despite the book's shortcomings, Maren forcefully presents some important arguments about the state of the aid industry. Where the book falls down is in its suggestions for change; in terms of diagnosis of the problems it is on a much surer footing. This book aimed to expose the serious problems with NGOs, and document them from the perspective of someone who was deeply involved with them at some of their most troubled times. At this, the book succeeds admirably.
- Eberstadt, N. (1997, 17th March). Aid Harms the Hungry. The Weekly Standard, p. 35. Available: http://web.lexis-nexis.com/executive/
- Edwards, M., & Hulme, D. (1996). Too Close for Comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations. World Development, 24(6), 961-73.
- Maren, M. (1997, March/April). [Interview] A Complete Waste of Money that Succeeds Primarily at Keeping Westerners Employed. Might Magazine. Available: http://www.netnomad.com/might.html
- Sen, A. (2001). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Tandon, Y. (1991). Foreign NGOs, Uses and Abuses: An African Perspective. IFDA Dossier, 81 (April/June 1991), 67-78.
For the benefit of the plagiarism checkers: my name is Matt Kane, I am at the University of Bath, and I based this on a review I wrote for my course in the International Politics of Development in April 2006