Africa's Compassionate Vultures

Published on 14th February 2006

Title: THE ROAD TO HELL The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity
Author: Michael Maren
Publisher: New York, Free Press, 1997
Pages: 320
Price: $25.00
Book Reviewer: George Ayittey

Africa has become a tapestry of crises. Economies have collapsed and whole states disintegrated. Millions of refugees--mostly women and children fled their homes as their societies descended into brutal civil war, arrant banditry, and savage anarchy. To save them, the Western media bombarded the international community with horrific pictures of rail-thin, starving victims in urgent appeals for humanitarian relief assistance.

Out of the 1994 Rwandan humanitarian crisis came an award-winning photograph by a Western journalist, which showed a severely emaciated child, crouching on a dirt road. His eyes were glazed and his mouth open, gasping for air. A swarm of flies hovered around his face and lower lips. In the background were vultures, patiently waiting for the child to die. I couldn't bear it. Must it come to this, I kept asking myself. What happened to Africa's freedom from colonial rule? That image kept flashing through my mind as I read Michael Maren's book The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity.

Replace the crouching child with "African misery" and the "buzzards" with Western Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), U.S. grain-trading companies, charities, and arms merchants and one gets the gist of his book. It provides lurid insights into the food-aid industry, a jumble of predatory interests that collude to feed on and perpetuate African misery. "Humanitarian assistance," "Feed the Hungry" and "Save the Refugees" are just sanctimonious buzzwords that camouflage vile, profit-seeking motives. An African humanitarian crisis provides corporate "vultures" with an opportunity to profit from the misery, as purported by the book. The starving and the needy only come into play as an afterthought.

It takes intestinal fortitude to read this book, which would leave anyone genuinely concerned about Africa angry and disgusted. The sickening hypocrisy and pretense at helping Africa's needy are a surreal rendition of the nineteenth-century evangelical zeal to "civilize" Africa. The "duty" of the missionaries was to convert the African pagans. Remember? Those self-righteous objectives drew this sarcastic comment from Herbert Macaulay in 1905: "The dimensions of 'the true interests of the natives at heart' are algebraically equal to the length, breadth and depth of the whiteman's pocket." Little has changed, according to Maren.

Today, feeding starving Africans has become big business, complete with corporate sponsors, lobbyists, and lawyers. Altruism has been murdered, gloriously. When a famine situation developed in Turkana, western Kenya, the Director of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Kenya told Maren, "We have to take advantage of this famine to expand our regular program." For her, "famine was a growth opportunity." As Maren explains, "Groups like the CRS are paid by the U.S. government to give away surplus food produced by subsidized U.S. farmers. The more food CRS gave away, the more money they received from the government to administer the handouts."

That foreign aid has largely been ineffective in arresting Africa's economic atrophy is no news to many Africans. It has led to a situation where Africa has failed to set its own pace and direction of development free of external interference. Today, Africa's development plans are drawn thousands of miles away in the corridors of the IMF and World Bank. What is sad is that the IMF and World Bank "experts" who draw these development plans are people completely out of touch with the local African reality. (New African, June 1992, 20)"

Maren confesses that he was one such "expert," who found himself "completely out of touch with the local African reality". He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. The Peace Corps seemed like a low-key graduate program with a full scholarship. He discovered that the program was a refugee camp from failed marriages, broken engagements, and other traumas. When he was posted to Kenya, where he spent two years as a secondary-school teacher, the village folk were endlessly amused by his ignorance about agriculture, for he couldn't plant maize or raise chickens. Yet, he became the "food-for-work" project director for CRS in 1979, after it received a $900,000 grant from US AID to start such projects in the country.

As Maren explains, he had much fun running around starting food-for-work projects--water projects, agriculture projects, forestry projects despite the fact that he knew nothing about agriculture, forestry, road building, well digging, dam building, or any of the projects he was approving. But nobody seemed to care. Horrors!      

Page after page, the conclusion seems inescapable: The entire aid industry, whose goals are cloaked in humanitarian garb, is rotten to the core. Most shocking are his revelations of the insidious exploitation of starving African children for fund-raising purposes (chapter 8: "Selling the Children"); the immoral collusion between Western charities and U.S. grain companies and even arms merchants (chapter 11: "Pigs at the Trough"), not to mention the unconscionable acquiescence of U.S. legislators, whose districts gain from foreign aid. "In fact, US AID doles out close to 80 percent of its contracts and grants to U.S. firms--which in turn provide food, supplies, or assistance to recipient nations overseas," says Maren. When Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and other congressmen denounced foreign aid as U.S. taxpayers' money going down "foreign rat holes," he was reminded by Jan Byrne, a spokesman for US AID, that "that rat hole could be their district." (Los Angeles Times, October 1995)

In 1993, American NGOs received more than $1.7 billion from US AID, including $414 million in food commodities and freight. Other federal agencies, such as the Departments of State and Agriculture, handed over an additional $439 million. Yet, "there are no rules for charities and no accountability." The charities could do as they pleased, including using Africans as guinea pigs in medical experiments.

The first commandment of a bureaucracy is to ensure its own survival. Thus, a large part of the donor funds goes to feed a hungry bureaucracy. Maren explains that "some of the funds is used to pay the $200,000 in salary and benefits for the president of the charity, and some is used for his $2,000 a month housing allowance, which doesn't show up on public financial statements." Aggressive lobbying campaigns are often launched to provide justification for the continuation of food-relief aid.

Maren's book, however, is not a first. Other book by former aid workers, and World Bank officials who, like Maren, were disgusted at the crackpot counsel and poison they were dispensing in Africa have been written. "The infusion of cash strengthens corrupt ruling classes and encourages the continuation of disastrous socialist policies. Thus, the World Bank becomes, in effect, the partner of corrupt, oppressive, often brutal regimes. (Washington Times, June 20, 1995, A18)"

It takes more than one individual to fight the giant food-aid industry. This industry grew out of the Marshall Plan at the end of the World War II and quickly became a boon to American farmers, who were producing far beyond the demands of the domestic market. The surplus was exported to a devastated Europe. Later, "with Europe's markets satisfied by their own domestic production, there was only one place to go: U.S. grain would have to be sent to the Third World--to Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa--where new states were emerging from colonialism." But these countries had no hard money, only rupees, cedis, naira, and shillings. "The answer was obvious: The U.S. government would have to be the middleman and absorb the foreign currencies."

The mechanism that Congress finally adopted was Public Law 480, the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 "to make maximum efficient use of surplus agricultural commodities in furtherance of the foreign policy of the United States, and to stimulate and facilitate the expansion of foreign trade in agricultural commodities produced in the U.S. by providing a means whereby surplus agricultural commodities in excess of the usual marketing of such commodities may be sold through private trade channels, and foreign currencies accepted in payment therefore."

In time, PL-480 was transformed into a cash cow.U.S. grain-trading companies saw an opportunity and together with NGOs and charities became "the primary lobbyists for sending food to the Third World and the contractors to move the food." Ken Hackett, director of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in selling the idea of food aid to Congress, said, "Each food aid dollar has at least a double impact. First, the funds are spent primarily in the U.S. on U.S. commodities, processing, bagging, fortification, and transportation. This enhances economic activity and increases the tax receipts to the U.S. government. Second, the food is provided to people and countries which cannot afford to import adequate amounts of food on a commercial basis."

U.S. shipping companies got Congress to pass the Maritime Security and Competitiveness Act of 1993, which mandated that 75 percent of certain foreign food aid be shipped on privately owned U.S.-flag vessels. Shipping rates charged were two to three times the market rate. Cargo preference is just one of the hidden ways that U.S. companies get their hands on foreign aid money.

How much benefit did the citizens of Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, and Zaire derive from the presence of so many foreigners and much aid money? To the contrary, says Maren:  "Local farmers have been forced out of business by tons of free food. Few NGOs hired Zairean engineers, doctors, or other professionals, preferring to bring people in from abroad. And while the UN has doled out millions in contracts to foreign NGOs, local NGOs have had to make do with nothing. Zaireans, some of the poorest people in the world, struggling to survive in a country where nothing works, have stood by while the international community has focused on the plight of the refugees."

There was "nothing more wretched than the exploitation of children for fundraising, yet nothing more common." The organization that outraged most aid workers was Americans for African Adoptions International, which arrived in the chaos of postwar Kigali intent on scooping up orphaned children. At the end of 1995, more than twenty NGOs were booted out of Rwanda. Everybody else was exploiting the food crisis: the Italians, the British, the French, and even the Canadians

Maren's book relates his personal experience as a food-assessment specialist for US AID during the 1993--94 international humanitarian mission in Somalia, easily the most egregious example of Western patronage gone berserk. Huge amounts of economic and disaster relief aid was dumped into Somalia, transforming the country into "the Graveyard of Aid” in ventures that Wolfgang Achtner, an Italian journalist labeled  “absurd” and “wasteful.”Between 1981 and 1990, Italy sponsored 114 projects in Somalia, costing more than $1 billion. Italian construction and engineering companies that were awarded lucrative contracts for the Somali projects provided kickbacks to the political class in Rome and local politicians.

Siad Barre used the aid to purchase arms and military advisers to wage war against his own people. Barre's eldest son, who handled the aid money, acquired property and bank accounts in Switzerland. When a member of the opposition complained in Parliament that Italy was supporting dictatorships, Socialist Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis answered: "If we were to abandon all those states run by dictators in Africa, there would be no one left to cooperate with." (Washington Post, January 24, 1993, C3)"

When the Somalia crisis erupted in 1991, a swarm of foreign NGOs descended on the country. Why? Donor money was available. The Somali government loved it as well. More NGOs meant more headquarters in Mogadishu. Most of the major landlords in the city were relatives of   high government officials. Homes were rented from government officials at preposterous rates

Very quickly, the aims of the humanitarian mission became perverted. Each group involved saw in the famine/war crisis an opportunity to advance its own sectarian agenda. There was every incentive for the NGOs to inflate the number of refugees and thereby exaggerate the gravity of the crisis. The more people "at risk," the larger the grant from donors. The top relief organizations are CARE, CRS, Save the Children, World Vision, OXFAM, and Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors without borders).

Droughts and famines are not new to Africa, and most traditional societies developed indigenous methods of coping. This fabric, as Maren notes, was destroyed by the massive inflow of food aid making Somalia more dependent on food imports and raising the  share of food import in the total volume of food consumption  from less than 33 percent to over 63 percent .

Grain prices were depressed, giving local farmers less incentive to farm. It became easier for them to trek to the refugee centers for their food rations. One Somali, Abdirahman Osman Raghe, complained bitterly: "For many years we weren't dependent on food aid. We had droughts before, but in the past there was a credit system; the nomads were coming to the urban areas and taking loans that they would pay back when times were good. There was a system among the nomads of sharing resources."

How much of the food reached the needy? In the case of Save the Children, in 1994, the total of sponsors' dollars that actually went in grants to field programs was $45.1 million, less than 50 percent. Of that amount, about half was given in grants to other organizations, which also had their own salaries and expenses, to actually implement the programs. Thus, much smaller percentages of the grants were actually devoted to field programs. Even then, not all the programs on the ground were defensible.

This book is a must-read for those out to "help" Africa, as well as African governments who receive such assistance. But like all books, The Road to Hell is not without its deficiencies. First, Maren confuses economic development assistance and humanitarian relief assistance. The second is his glaring omission of the neocolonial machinations of the French, who have probably done more than any other group to set Africa adrift. Third, his prescriptions are truculently deficient. To deal with the horrendous mess he unearthed in the food-aid industry, Maren devotes only a short paragraph to this issue:  "What is really required is a truly independent agency--not one like Inter-Action, which is composed of NGOs--to look after the interests of the targets of development and relief a.k.a. the needy. The organization should be staffed by professionals who have the time and resources to produce detailed analyses of what these organizations are doing for the poor of the Third World."

And who should set up this independent agency--the same "vultures"?  Prevention should be the mantra and the solution has to come from within Africa.
There would be no need for food aid if Africa were able to feed itself but senseless civil wars and disastrous government agricultural policies have destroyed African agriculture. Why the civil wars? The adamant refusal of Africa's despots to relinquish or share political power.

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