The Magazine


Mar 17, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 26 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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Michael Maren

The Road to Hell

The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity

Free Press, 302 pp., $ 25

Although America's foreign aid program is neither popular ith voters nor regarded as effective by the taxpayers who finance it, there is one type of aid that is commonly judged less sordid, and distinctly more successful, than the rest. This is humanitarian aid: the temporary interventions that respond to an emergency or natural disaster, focus on preventing abnormal losses of human life, and wrap up once the crisis is over.

Unlike the aid that underwrites military or political goals (in aid-speak, " security assistance"), which must often pass into the hands of the caudillo and the kleptocrat, humanitarian aid is meant to relieve the distress of vulnerable and innocent populations directly. And unlike "development assistance," which sometimes pours into the maw of a claimant government for decades without producing demonstrably beneficial results, relief operations are understood to be finite in duration and to do something of unquestionable value: namely, save lives. Thus, at a time when American citizens are exhibiting growing impatience, even disgust, with our nation's foreign aid program as a whole, popular support for humanitarian aid remains unflagging and enthusiastic. So enthusiastic, in fact, that private groups raise billions of dollars each year for it through voluntary contributions from ordinary Americans.

Yet according to an angry new expose, the American public's view is all wrong. The thesis is in the book's title: The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. Its author is Michael Maren, who arrived in Africa in 1977 and has spent the last decade and a half writing about the continent for such outlets as Africa Report and the Nation. Once stationed at the Samalia mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Maren has seen humanitarian aid up close. He is appalled and infuriated by what he has witnessed.

"Like most people in the United States and Western Europe," Maren writes, " I've heard the pleas of aid organizations and boasts of their accomplishments in the Third World, but the Africa I know today is in much worse shape than it was when I first arrived." Sad experience, he recounts, has "made me see that aid could be worse than incompetent and inadvertently destructive. It could be positively evil." Part reportage, part memoir, The Road to Hell takes the reader on a meandering journey from Westport, Connecticut (headquarters of the large private charity Save the Children) and Geneva (site of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to feeding programs in Samalia and refugee camps in post-genocide Rwanda. Its quest is to describe and document what Maren takes to be the thorough and irremediable corruption of a seemingly noble enterprise.

Maren paints a damning picture of Save the Children: As he documents in convincing detail, that tax-exempt charity perfected the business of raising contributions through ads showing the sad, desperate faces of the children it promised to sponsor, while in actuality only a trickle of the cash collected ever made it from Westport to the merchandised boys and girls. As Maren wryly comments, Save the Children "seems to be less of a development agency than a professional fund-raising operation, but with one big difference. No professional fund-raiser could get away with keeping 80 percent of the gross."

Maren also uncovers the files on the U.N. High Commissioner's long-standing relief operations in Samalia. These suggest that the august agency, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981, was aware throughout the 1980s that the aid it oversaw was being stolen outright or, even worse, diverted to would-be warlords and their militias -- groups thereby granted a financial interest in continuing the misery of the displaced populations. "Document after document said that the entire operation was a wasteful fraud," writes Maren; every "confidential memo over a nine-year period concerned the politics of the relief operation, showing that everyone involved at every level knew it was a politically driven fiasco pushing Samalia to the edge of anarchy."