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Author Topic: The Road to Hell: INSIDE the Aid industry  (Read 8120 times)
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« on: April 04, 2004, 03:10:25 PM »

Michael Maren, an American Jew, once an aid worker, writes in The Road to Hell:

"The starving African exists as a point in space from which we measure our own wealth, success and prosperity, a darkness against which we can view our own cultural triumphs. And he serves as a handy object of our charity. He is evidence that we have been blessed, and we have an obligation to spread that blessing." … To New African readers, Maren's words are only a small dose of "we told you so" -- see Stella Orakwue's Africa: the World's Comfort Zone, (NA, July/Aug 2001, page XXXVIII).

For more proof, here is an extract from Maren's book, The Road to Hell:


"In October 1977, I travelled from my home near Boston to Kenya, East Africa, via Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville was the site of a Peace Corps staging a preliminary training programme to prepare a group of us for two years of teaching in Kenya. About 30 volunteers showed up, mostly young, recent college graduates, predominantly middle-class, all of us white. I was 21 years old, the youngest of the group.

On the first day, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. Beyond the standard biographical data, each of us was to answer the question: Why are you joining the Peace Corps? None of us had taken the decision to join lightly. But the question of why elicited only vague and ambiguous answers about adventure, exploration, and personal growth. But then in a flourish of certitude, nearly everyone capped his or her list of reasons with a statement about wanting to help people. The idea was to help Africans. Whatever else this adventure would be, it was built on a solid mission of charity and goodwill. I don't recall what exactly I said that day. I hadn't really thought much about why I was going to Africa. It probably had something to do with wanting to spend a few years in a tropical climate.  

Whatever reasons I did have, I must admit that helping people was not high among them. It's not that I didn't care, I just wasn't entirely certain that people in Kenya needed help. And if in fact the Kenyans did need help, it wasn't at all apparent that any of us young and eager American kids was really in a position to offer any. None of us had ever been to Africa before, nor did we have any background in development studies. We all just knew, somehow, that our breeding, education, and nationality had imbued us with something valuable from which these less fortunate people could benefit.

It was easy to presume that people needed our help. For us, Africa was more than a place on the map, it was a location in our collective psyche. Our idea of Africa had been shaped by years of advertisements and news coverage that portrayed the continent as poor and helpless. Growing up in an affluent Western society, we were invested with a stake in the image of helpless Africa, starving Africa. In public affairs discussions, the term "starving Africans" (or "starving Ethiopians" or "starving Somalis") rolls from the tongue as easily as "blue sky". Charities raise money for starving Africans. What do Africans do? They starve. But mostly, they starve in our imagination. The starving African is a Western cultural archetype, like the greedy Jew or the unctuous Arab. The difference is that we've learned that trafficking in these last two archetypes is wrong or, at least, reflects badly upon us.  

But the image of the bloated, helpless child adorns advertisement for "Save the Children" and "World Vision". The image of the starving African is said to edify us, sensitise us, mobilise our goodwill and awaken us from our apathy. The starving African exists as a point in space from which we measure our own wealth, success and prosperity, a darkness against which we can view our own cultural triumphs. And he serves as a handy object of our charity. He is evidence that we have been blessed, and we have an obligation to spread that blessing.

The belief that we can help is an affirmation of our own worth in the grand scheme of things. The starving African transcends the dull reality of whether or not anyone is actually starving in Africa. Starvation clearly delineates us from them. Sometimes, it appears that the only time Africans are portrayed with dignity is when they're helpless and brave at the same time. A person about to starve to death develops a stoic strength. Journalists write about the quiet dignity of the hopelessly dying. If the Africans were merely hungry and poor, begging or conning coins on the streets of Nairobi or Addis Ababa, we might become annoyed and brush them aside -- and most aid workers have done that at one time. When they steal tape decks from our Land Cruisers, we feel anger and disgust. It is only in their weakness, when their death is inevitable, that we are touched. And it is in their helplessness that they become a marketable commodity.

The helpers

As I got to know the people in my Peace Corps group, I learned more about why people had joined. We were refugees from failed marriages, broken engagements, and other traumas. We all needed time to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. The Peace Corps was a temporary escape, like joining the French Foreign Legion but with a much shorter commitment.

As Americans, we claimed a certain distance from Kenya's colonial past. We were self-consciously anti-colonial. Most of us would have early experiences with colonials and other expatriates who spoke in flippant and demeaning generalisations about "the Africans". We bristled when Kenyans called us "Europeans", by which in fact they just meant "white people". Our country, after all, had not been a colonial power in Africa. But the reality was that the colonial experience of the European powers had taught us how to view Africa. Many of us discovered how deep our Western prejudices ran, built as they were on the literature of colonialism

This nostalgia played perfectly into my "experience" with Africa, shaped by films like Khartoum, Beau Geste, The African Queen, Casablanca, and a selection of Tarzan movies. These images endured despite my having read Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and other African thinkers.

In Nairobi

We arrived in Nairobi to find that our white skin was an immediate passport to the best clubs and restaurants in town. We soon learned the joys of drinking on the veranda of the Norfolk Hotel, or of visiting game lodges in Kenya's national parks. The lure of the hedonistic colonial lifestyle became even more seductive when we were sent out beyond the metropolis to the towns in the hinterland. There we found refuge in the colonial sports clubs. There, in the remote colonial refuges, we could gather with a few other expatriates -- and even some Kenyans -- to talk about, complain about, and even ridicule the Africans for their inability to grasp what it was we were trying to teach them. We had effortlessly become what we had so recently despised. The fit was easy, all of it redeemed by the big idea of aid. They needed our help. We were there to serve.  

My first two years were spent as a secondary school teacher in an isolated village in the district of Meru on the eastern slope of Mount Kenya. The experience was overwhelming, so much in fact that I never really had the time to worry about the economic development of my hosts. They seemed to be getting along fine without me. It was I who needed help. I was the one who had to adapt to life without running water or electricity. I had to get used to living in a place where the nearest telephone was 10 miles away. The people in the village were endlessly amused by my ignorance about agriculture. I couldn't plant maize or raise chickens. They snickered when my uncalloused hands couldn't hold a scalding-hot glass of tea. For the following 12 months, I struggled to survive. I was the one who learned to raise and slaughter chickens, grow vegetables, plant cassava. I learned how to live on a diet consisting primarily of maize and beans in various forms. I learned to speak Swahili and spent my mornings with the old men at a local tea shop: listening to stories about the past. These old men viewed me as a curiosity. It never occurred to them that I could bring anything of value to the village. There were a few people who thought I could, however. A few men in the village had Land Rovers and lived in large stone houses: the local administrative chief, the preacher, the school headmaster. These men had brought me to the village. Later, I learned that they had paid someone in the ministry of education some large bribes to get me there. (I was told this when I hiked to a neighbouring village that had lost the bribe war). It was their idea that a white teacher would help attract more students, school fees, and donations to the school. Which I did. (The local pastor was devastated to learn that I was a Jew. He had planned on my active participation in church services and fundraisers. The headmaster looked at the bright side and confided to me that his biggest fear had been that the Peace Corps would send them a black teacher).

Relief services

When my Peace Corps term was up, I wanted to stay in Kenya, so I went to Nairobi looking for work. I had heard that the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was looking for a Peace Corps volunteer to roam the country, starting food-for-work projects. I went to the CRS office and met a smiling man named Jack Matthews. He told me long stories about his work in Korea and India. He then told me that the CRS had received a $900,000 grant from the USAID to start food-for-work projects around the country. Whoever got the job would be given an apartment in Nairobi, a Land Cruiser, and instructions to drive around the country starting projects. Of course, I was interested. Kenya is one of the world's uniquely beautiful places. Few people had the money to spend a year in a four-wheel-drive truck exploring its most remote regions. I asked Matthews what I had to do to get the job. He told me that he wanted the Peace Corps director to make the choice. The new director had only been in the country a short while and knew very few of the volunteers. When I walked into her office that afternoon, it was the first time I had ever seen her. She immediately told me that she didn't feel right choosing from a group of volunteers she didn't know. So I told her that Matthews wanted to hire me; all she had to do was phone him and say it was okay with her. I had the job that afternoon. I moved into a beautiful garden apartment in a nice neighbourhood in Nairobi. My first day on the job, I drove home a brand-new Land Cruiser. In the morning, I drove to my office to figure out ways to give away bags of rice that were already en route to Kenya from a port in Texas. Meanwhile, the CRS notified the country's parish priests and government officials that this rice was available. All they had to do to receive it was fill out a one-page application describing their proposed project and specifying the number of "recipients" -- the number of the project's workers who would receive sacks of rice in exchange for their labour. Hundreds of applications were submitted.

On the job

I took some of the USAID money and customised the Land Cruiser, adding extra-large fuel tanks and a really nice stereo system, and then I set off across Kenya to inspect the proposed projects. It was a dream come true. I was getting paid to cross one of the world's most beautiful landscapes. I was so awestruck by my own good luck that sometimes I would stop in the middle of a huge empty wilderness, or beside a herd of giraffes or elephants, and just yelp with delight. I was having so much fun running around starting food-for-work projects -- water projects, agriculture projects, forestry projects -- that I completely overlooked the most obvious problem: I knew nothing about agriculture, forestry, road-building, well-digging. Only once did anyone in authority at the CRS ever go and look at a project. When I'd return to Nairobi every few weeks, my boss, who let me work completely unsupervised, had only one question: How many more recipients did you sign on? More recipients meant more government grant money, which meant we could buy more vehicles and hire more assistants. When I slowed down for a moment to consider what was happening, it became clear: Aid distribution is just another big, private business that relies on government contracts. Groups like the CRS are paid by the US government to give away surplus food produced by subsidised US farmers. The more food the CRS gave away, the more money they received from the government to administer the handouts. Since the securing of grant money is the primary goal, aid organisations rarely meet a development project they don't like. All of this came into greater focus one morning at an office meeting. We were discussing a famine situation that was developing in Turkana in north-western Kenya. I had recently returned from the area, where I had been looking into doing some food-for-work projects. I wasn't very optimistic about succeeding in my efforts, since many of the people were too weak to work and it would be difficult to demand that some people dig holes and move rocks while others were getting food for doing nothing. A young woman who worked for the CRS at the time and who was my immediate supervisor conceded my point, but said we had to find some way to establish a programme in the region. "We have to take advantage of this famine to expand our regular programme," she insisted. For her, and the organisation, famine was a growth opportunity. Whatever the original intentions, aid programmes had become an end in themselves. Hungry people were potential clients to be preyed upon in the same way hair-replacement companies seek out bald people.


As ignorant as I was about development projects, there was no shortage of donors willing to hand over cash for me to spend for them. Within a few months, additional funds were made available for the food-for-work projects. As in colonial times, the foreigners employ an elite cadre of locals to carry out their work. The elites are rewarded for their relationships with the foreigners. They enjoy higher pay than most. They have access to foreign goods, education and visas for foreign countries. And, just as in colonial times, the foreigners use this elite as their link to the rest of the population. They are regarded as the voice of the people and employed to speak on their behalf. In reality, however, the elite, with their vested interests in the system, tell the foreigners exactly what they want to hear: The system is good; the system works. Thus affirmed, the aid establishment moves forward, as the colonial one did, ignorant of the *widening rift* between them and the supposed recipients of their beneficence."  


The Road to Hell - The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren is published by The Fress Press, New York. It comes with high recommendations from New African. Every reader must get a copy!!!

Another good book may be Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business by Graham Hancock.

A case example of the Somali Aid Industry: http://www.sacb.info/

{NOTE: Italics, *asterisked*, underlined and BOLD characters are mine} ...


SOURCE: http://www.radiogalkayo.com/repeating/Inside.php

Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business by Graham Hancock

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren
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