A khaki clad western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (or brown) faces. It could be any of the countless news clips shown by news organizations about the equally countless number of crisis that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and they all look the same and yet nobody notices the egregious role of the western aid worker. If you are still floundering as to exactly what I am getting at then think again about why the western aid worker, who has ostensibly flown around from wherever s/he was living earlier, doing the readily “outsource-able” job of loading or unloading aid from a truck? It is oddities like these that have long dotted the world of aid organizations.
The mission: confounded by the missionary
The modern “aid” industry can trace its antecedents back to Christian missionaries, whose mission was to “civilize the savages” in the colonies and beyond. Hence, it is not particularly surprising that the fundamentalist supremacist mentality of bible thumping colonial front men pervades the NGO aid industry. If one looks closer, one will find that in fact the modern “aid workers” have much in common with the foot soldiers of prior era in their conviction that they are there to help by offering their supreme knowledge to these poor naked subhuman creatures. NGO aid workers, a majority of whom are social misfits, careerists, uneducated ideologues, and bible thumpers, are particularly unsuited in the job of providing “aid”. Their ‘work’, mostly directed towards helping prove their self worth to themselves, translates into being the people who unload the aid trucks. The fact that most have nothing better to offer than physical labor, of course plays a part in their decision to unload trucks and erect tents.
Planners versus “the Searchers”
Dr. William Easterly, an NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by west have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. While implementing these gargantuan plans, they have sometimes ignored even the basics conditions on the ground. For example, he observes that “The West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths.” He argues that the west needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures.
Careerism and Bureaucratization
Rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsibly for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed”
Increased bureaucratization has led to demand for “trained professionals” to fill the teeming ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission sates, “The nation’s fastest growing sector needs administrators, policy makers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future”" writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.
The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities but increasingly in fields like biology, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated dolts to pad up résumé’s and impress law or medical admissions committee of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.
NGO workers – what’s so special? Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbour with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the “aid” is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the western aid workers.
Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low interest rates. Other egregious ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.
I would like to end with an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the west and china.
“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”