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The topic is helping, and the unexpected ways in which helping can hurt. Folk wisdom reminds us that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. What ancient insight does this saying capture? For most people it means that you can embark on an endeavor with the noblest motives, yet it can still go off the rails because of pride or lack of foresight. Originally–the phrase comes from a medieval theologian–it meant something stronger: you can still sin even though you act in good faith.
The lesson I want to convey is not so heavy, but it is important for all of us who feel a calling to public service: Unexamined humanitarianism can cause damage to its supposed beneficiaries.
Helping can hurt.
But wait, isn’t everyone moved by graphic images of hungry children or helpless refugees? Such images make you feel not only pity and compassion, but also anger. Morality demands that you do something about what you see. You feel called to action. You think, well, I may not be able to end a complex civil war or invent a productive new farming method, but at least I can help feed the victims and bind their wounds. And if I can’t go do it myself, I can fundraise for a charity that can.
You don’t even have to make yourself uncomfortable in order to help. You can feel good by doing good. What objection could there be to that?
At the Clinton School you are following a course of study devoted to public service, so this is something you have probably thought about before: The idea that there are ambiguities in helping is nothing new. Some combination of these motives–of anger and pity and a wish to help–is probably why you are here at this school. You are not indifferent, whereas a lot of other people are. The fact that you not only feel anger at suffering but have decided to try to do something about it sets you apart from most of your peers.
But we have to be our own severest critics, because when we couch our actions in a humanitarian idiom, we are only very rarely called upon to be accountable. What distinguishes helping–humanitarianism–from other activities is that the normal rules of accountability are suspended. If you work in a hospital here in Little Rock, you’re a professional doing a job. If you go do the same thing in Africa, all of a sudden you are some kind of saint, a latter-day Albert Schweitzer. What’s the difference? The doctor here is a professional offering a service, and he is held accountable by codes of conduct and the threat of lawsuit. In Africa, you are doing the exact same thing, but in a parallel moral universe where those same actions now take on a heroic quality.
We have to closely scrutinize our own motivations for helping–deep down they are not always noble–and most importantly we have to be constantly on the alert for the unintended consequences of our humanitarian acts. We can all think of other examples of high-minded public programs that failed to meet their objectives and may actually have hurt the beneficiaries. Welfare as practiced before President Clinton reformed it probably falls into this category, for example.
I’m not really concerned here with corruption or wasteful spending. That is one obvious way in which helping can hurt, but not necessarily the most pernicious. I’m not even concerned with the eager medical student who gets to perform appendectomies solo while doing a rotation in Zambia. Wow, great practice, right? Well, there is no malpractice insurance in Zambia. What protects the patient from your generosity? Why should there be different ethics here and in Africa? These are important issues, but not the ones I am focused on tonight.
Instead I want you to think about a more subtle kind of damage. Helping hurts not only because money is wasted or you can accidentally cause physical harm to somebody, but because it distorts incentives and pathways of accountability. In other words, the damage that humanitarianism causes is political. That sounds abstract, but it will soon become more concrete.
Helping relationships are power relationships, whether they are between two individuals, between an organization and a population of suffering people, or between two nations. And power relationships always have the potential for coercion and abuse. They are not relationships of equality.
Despite well-publicized failures and scandals in aid organizations, it is still surprising to many people to hear the humanitarian impulse criticized. What could be wrong about wanting to help? If intentions are noble, how could the outcomes be otherwise?
I am going to approach the topic through a series of anecdotes, some personal, some from the work of others who have grappled with the paradoxes of humanitarianism. My goal is not to get you to share my views on the subject. What I want is simply for you to get into the habit of approaching the claims of humanitarians with a healthy skepticism. This includes the humanitarian motives that you yourself feel.
At the end I am going to talk about some positive models of helping. What they all have in common is the maxim: Don’t impose.
An Orphanage in China
I went to Tianjin, China in 1995 after my freshman year in college to study Chinese. I had already been infected with a humanitarian fantasy. The premises of the fantasy were straightforward: there are helpless people, suffering people, who you have the power to help. You should go seek them out and do your best to make their lives easier. I’m not sure where this idea came from. Probably from movies. But it is something that I felt strongly, and in the most naive possible way.
I was always on the lookout for opportunities to be a helper, and stumbled one day on an orphanage in a back street. I went in and ended up spending the afternoon playing with the kids.
Chinese families are only supposed to have one child, so children with physical or mental disabilities are commonly discarded. Imagine an almost endless series of rooms filled with deformed infants tied to their cribs. No one picked them up or played with them because there were only two or three ladies that worked there. I started spending more time there. I roped in other people who were in my language program to come over a couple times a week and hang out with the kids too. One child was perfectly normal except for being albino, but he spent his life with mentally retarded children.
In the course of the summer, I had a disturbing insight: The children were in some sense props for my own fantasy of being a helper. I did not have the power to change their conditions. All I could do was visit for an hour, play with some of them a bit, and leave. The intensity of the gratitude the children expressed when you visited was its own reward. Who benefited more from the encounter?
Many of you will be familiar with the debate from introductory moral philosophy classes about whether there is such a thing as true altruism. Don’t we always have an ulterior motive, even if it is only our own happiness? But as long as you are not causing any damage, it’s OK, right?
I benefited a lot from my supposedly humanitarian activities. It made me stand out from the crowd. It gave me something to talk about at dinner parties. I was selected as a Rhodes Scholar partly on the basis of things I did as an undergraduate that could be perceived as humanitarian: election work for post-war Bosnia, refugee work in Liberia, the experience in China I just narrated to you. Who benefited the most from what I did? Me. Did I hurt anyone? I hope not, though I may have taught the children not to get attached to visiting foreigners because they don’t stick around. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t help anyone either.
That experience helped me to look at my own motivations and think about what it is that we’re really doing when we go about trying to “help” others.
The most penetrating and influential cultural analysis of the meaning of gift-giving comes from the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who wrote his classic essay The Gift in the 1924. The book is esoteric and often boring, so here is the crucial insight: the person who receives a gift is humiliated and debased until such time as he can repay it.
This is why in traditional societies kingship and power are so closely linked to the ability to give gifts and dispense patronage to your clients. You have power over them precisely because you give so much that they can never repay it.
Think in your own life of when someone has offered you a gift that is inappropriate or disproportionate to whatever service you’ve rendered to them. You feel awkward. Your hackles go up. You try to find a way to politely refuse.
Why? Isn’t it nice to get free stuff? Not necessarily, because you implicitly understand that if you accept that gift you will feel indebted to your benefactor and he will have power over you as a consequence. Even if his intentions are good. Even if he has no ulterior motive and doesn’t “want” or expect anything from you. He has a moral claim on you and your success. And that is a form of control, a form of power. It is a political relationship at the individual level.
This is why, paradoxically, we sometimes end up avoiding or even resenting the people who have helped us most in life. And also why, when we are the helpers, we must never demand gratitude from those we try to help.
This is also why the humanitarian impulse was so closely associated with colonial conquest. When you go to work in Africa as a helper today for some NGO, remember that you are treading a path well worn by generations of European colonial officials who went to live in Africa to perform the same jobs, usually with the same noble motives. There is a myth that the impulse to to colonize Africa came from British and French greed, which sought to carve up the continent and take its valuable natural resources. This is, of course, partly true. But the real impetus to colonize East Africa was not driven by the governments–it was in some sense forced on them by the incessant campaigning of anti-slavery activists of whom Dr. Livingstone was the most famous. Activists such as Livingstone led a moral campaign that proclaimed that Britain had the moral duty to protect the Africans from the slave trade in Zanzibar and the Arab lands.
There is also a myth that colonialism ended in 1960 or so and that colonial officials went home and that was the end of that. They did go home. But the same type of people, doing the same type of things, with the same motivations, came right back to run development and humanitarian NGOs. They are much more numerous on the ground today than they ever were in the colonial period.
That is an uncomfortable truth: by conceiving of ourselves as “helpers” in Africa today, we are inheritors of the colonial legacy.
We all need to question our self-image as a helper. When we envisage ourselves that way, what we are really saying is, “you are helpless, you need me”. Another uncomfortable truth is that the pleasure we get from helping is sometimes the pleasure of controlling the fate of others–the feeling that the credit for our beneficiaries’ subsequent achievements actually redounds to us. This is why you will sometimes find some very disturbing–indeed, power-hungry–people working in the development and humanitarian professions.
A Danish artist recently dramatized the point I am trying to make in a clever and disturbing way. His name is Kristian von Hornsleth, and before he went to a village in Uganda in 2006, he was known for artistic installations that the less sophisticated amongst us might consider pornographic–he was a shock artist. The idea of the Uganda Village Project was that poor villagers would be offered a pig or a goat in exchange for legally changing their name to “Hornsleth” and receiving a new Ugandan identity card with the name printed on it. The subtitle of the exhibit was: “We want to help you, but we want to own you”. The exhibit consisted of several hundred photographs of Ugandan villagers holding up their new “Hornsleth” ID cards. A more perverse caricature of the nature of the power relations between helper and beneficiary could hardly be imagined.
I spent a number of years involved in research on and legal aid for refugees in East Africa and Egypt.
Emergency assistance to refugees is the paragon of humanitarianism, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the UN agency mandated to protect refugees. In some 80 countries, UNHCR decides who is a refugee and who isn’t. Governments don’t. UNHCR performs the same functions that the Department of Homeland Security performs here–but without the two levels of judicial review and the legislative oversight that hold DHS accountable. You’d expect UNHCR, which is staffed by well-trained professionals, to adopt fair procedures. After all, in Europe and the U.S. they often lecture governments about the failings of their own asylum systems.
On the contrary. The standards that UNHCR uses to determine refugee status in their offices around the world would be laughed out of any U.S. courtroom. Research in Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, India and other countries has shown that UNHCR uses secret evidence–reports, rumors from other refugees, which are not disclosed to the refugee under consideration–to make their status determinations. Refugees whose claims are rejected are not given reasons for the refusal. Refugees are not guaranteed a qualified interpreter and in some offices UNHCR does not even accept the principle that refugees have the right to representation. Refugees may not be able to appeal UNHCR decisions. In other words, the decisions are arbitrary and unchallengeable.
Why? Because the UNHCR personnel are bad or untrained? No. It is because they are not subject to any accountability for refugees’ rights either within their organization or outside it. The consequence is exactly what you would predict from any all-powerful bureaucracy: secrecy, defensiveness, and complete lack of accountability. The solution, in my view, is to remove the power to make these decisions from UNHCR and require–and help–national governments to take over this responsibility for themselves. They could hardly do worse than UNHCR, and it would be easier to get judicial review of decisions. Institutions in poor countries are weak, but we have to make them work.
It gets worse with refugee camps, and the reason is the same: a lack of accountability.
The encamped refugee is the very essence of the helpless person–a false image that I don’t have the time here to dispel. But who decided that refugees have to be imprisoned in camps for years, sometimes decades on end? They don’t have freedom of movement, even though that right is guaranteed to them in the Refugee Convention. They are denied the right to work. They are often not allowed to grow their own food, and must rely exclusively on relief food that is rarely sufficient or sufficiently varied (one month, all the calories might come in the form of oil, for example). And, like in some Communist gulag, some camps have rules against selling or bartering relief supplies.
The persistence of refugees warehoused in camps is one of the biggest stains on the conscience of the international community. And who pays for this travesty? We do, with tax money (UNHCR gets more than a third of its money from the United States) and donations to private NGOs. The solution is to find ways to settle refugees as dignified individuals in ordinary communities in their host country. This is inconvenient for the bean-counters in humanitarian organizations because it is harder to track aid, and of course it makes for less persuasive fund-raising photographs. NGOs and UNHCR resist this because they want to continue having control over these populations, but self-settlement and integration is the only humane way to react to a long-term refugee emergency.
Again, it is hard to imagine a more pure form of humanitarianism than giving food to starving people.
In 2002 I did the research and production for BBC documentary about food aid. We wanted to make a didactic documentary about food aid and show how food gets from the farmer in Iowa to the starving farmer in Africa. In essence, we wanted to show how food aid works: politically and technically. We heard that there was a big famine in Zambia and the surrounding region, that 14 million people were at risk of starvation, so we decided to use food aid to Zambia as our subject.
But we hit some snags. We went on a research trip to Malawi and Zambia and found that there was no famine. The price of maize had gone up because the rains had been uneven, and so poor Zambians could no longer afford their staple food, maize. But they could afford other, less desirable foods.
Hundreds of NGOs and the BBC all repeated the same statistic: 14 million people at risk of starvation. There was footage of a BBC reporter walking through a completely dry, brown field. What he failed to say, however, was that it was the dry season and that the fields are supposed to be brown and dry. On TV there were images of very weak children clinging to their very weak mothers: what we later found out was that that footage was taken at an AIDS hospital and had nothing to do with the supposed famine. But it’s all in service of a higher truth, right? This famine is going to happen, we have to mobilize the international community to act.
We talked to the BBC and told them that we didn’t see a famine going on in Zambia. Their reaction, not surprisingly, was “oh you can’t say that. What if we claim that there is no famine, and then people stop giving donations. Then, if a famine comes, we’ll be blamed.” So we didn’t know what to do. We asked people to take us to the most famine-stricken village. We told them we worked for the television and we need pictures of starving, hungry people. So we would go to the “famine-struck” villages and there are cows walking around, people are eating greens and other kinds of vegetables. So we began to be a little suspicious.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian response had been triggered. Powerful food aid lobbies–who represent farmers, trucking companies, shipping companies, the manufacturing companies that make the bags in which the food aid is put, the companies that make the ink that goes on the bags–are mobilized in the United States.
But this isn’t really the problem. Food aid is necessary when there is a famine, and the reason the U.S. is able to provide this food aid is because it costs us less to deliver the food aid and we can do it more rapidly because we have found a political constituency for it and have made it profitable. And there is nothing wrong with that: it’s a smart way of making it possible for our country to respond to humanitarian crises.
The problem arises when things that are not famines are misdiagnosed as famines because that is the only way we know how to respond and engage with Africa. And that is dangerous.
So what happened in this supposed “famine” in Zambia? Tons and tons of food aid was shipped to the region. In a twist, however, Zambia rejected all of the food aid because it contained genetically-modified corn (which, in a continuation of the U.S.-European trade wars, the Europeans had convinced the Zambian government that it would harm citizens and make it impossible for Zambia to export to Europe). So at the tail-end of the dry season, at the predicted height of the famine, there was no maize to distribute in Zambia. And what happened? Nothing. No food aid was distributed in Zambia for three months and nothing happened: no one starved, no one died. Because people had other things to eat.
There wasn’t a famine in the region. Instead, farmers were getting poorer because the region was going through a transition from state-centric and subsidy-based agricultural policy to one that relied on the market, and this was a long and painful process, especially for rural farmers. Ill-designed policies were imposed on Zambia resulted in a complex failure of privatization policy and agricultural policy for which the national government, foreign donors, and the World Bank/IMF shared blame. But no one ever took blame for the policy failure because it was never diagnosed.
It wasn’t diagnosed because when you turn a policy issue into a humanitarian issue–something that only happened because of the Hand of God–everyone gets off the hook because no one is responsible. A dumb policy mistake, however, has consequences, and people know that. This is one of the most important ways in which helping can hurt: by engaging with Africa only in a humanitarian vein you mask the policy failures that cause problems like this to persist.
Compare this with the response to Hurricane Katrina in this country. George Bush did not cause the hurricane. But his administration reacted to it ineptly, and so he paid a political price. This sort of political accountability is why things tend to get better in this country, whereas in countries without locally authentic structures of political accountability, there is no political scandal and consequently no correction in policy–or removal of incompetent leaders.
As long as famine is owned by humanitarian agencies–and diagnosed as a natural disaster for which no human is responsible or accountable–hunger in Africa will continue.
Finally, what about our efforts to help as a nation, our foreign aid programs? Just stop to think. The U.S. has had foreign assistance programs for over 50 years and trillions of dollars have been transferred to poor countries by the U.S. and other donors, but you can’t point to any country that ever got richer because of foreign aid. William Easterly, an NYU economist and former World Bank official, finds that only Tunisia might have benefited, and even that success might be attributed to other factors.
Yet many countries have gotten richer over the past 40 years. They are the countries where it became easier to do business, where property rights were respected, where entrepreneurship was supported. There is no other way.
Take China since 1979, for example: it is the greatest development success story in history, and it received no significant foreign aid. Or take the other Asian countries that took off economically–many of their economic booms took place after they stopped received foreign aid.
Why? Because helping hurts. Aid can cause damage. Aid is not neutral, because it provides a lifeline to governments that do not wish to reform. It allows them to continue harassing entrepreneurs and failing to collect their own tax revenue. Meanwhile, we foot the bill.
At the same time as we are insisting that countries adopt the structures of democratic accountability, we are providing aid in such a way that the opposite happens. By giving aid directly to the executive branch in those countries we are circumventing the elected legislature. A legislature has power precisely because it controls taxes and spending. When we make the executive branch independent of the legislative branch, the line of accountability is oriented toward us and not toward their own people. Aid destroys accountability by short-circuiting politics. This is one of the reasons that the fruits of democratization in Africa since 1990 have been so disappointing.
What is the consequence of this? Countries that receive aid–and by this I mean countries whose budgets are more than 50% dependent on foreign aid, which is true of many of the poorest countries in Africa–have a very low tax effort, meaning that the governments collect a very small portion of GDP as tax revenue. This in turn means that citizens don’t feel ownership for what the government does or does not do: you have essentially cut the link between the citizens of a country and their government. Second, the government in question has very little incentive to make the radical reforms that are necessary to create a better business environment in their country. Courts don’t function and property rights aren’t guaranteed, but the government has little incentive to change that, because it can depend on outside revenue.
What do these cases have in common? They are all different ways in which the charitable impulse–in itself good–can cause political damage to the individuals or countries that receive it. UNHCR does not protect refugees well, not because it doesn’t care, but because there is no system of accountability. What happens is that no one is really responsible for refugee rights, and there is never a political scandal anywhere when their rights are systematically violated. When the price of maize went up in Zambia, it was diagnosed as a humanitarian or technical problem, not as a problem of Zambian politics and agricultural policy. Accordingly, the root cause of the problem was never addressed. And when we give money to the executive branch of foreign governments, you cut off the government’s accountability to its people.
So what do you conclude? Do nothing? That’s not my conclusion.
There are healthy ways to help. Some of the best examples I know of are already known to you all. You met Bishop John Rucyahana last week, the Anglican bishop of Ruhengeri in Rwanda, who really teaches us what it means to “help people help themselves”. You’ve met President Kagame of Rwanda, who believes that durable prosperity and stability in Rwanda will come from the efforts of Rwandan citizens (with the support of friends and investors, of course), and not from any aid program. Some of you will know Scott Ford of Alltel and Dale Dawson of Opportunity International. Scott and Dale, together Joe Ritchie and Dan Cooper of Fox River investments in Chicago and other American business leaders, are very quietly doing more to help the Rwandan government realize its ambition to become a competitive economy than the entire U.S. foreign aid bureaucracy. That is no exaggeration. The U.S. has virtually no economic growth program in Rwanda–almost all of our aid funds are spent on HIV/AIDS programs.
These corporate Friends of Rwanda have created a unique structure where American CEOs are paired with Rwandan ministry officials in their technical specialty. I’ve watched them work. In two days they did more to help the Rwandans develop a strategic plan for their infrastructure needs than a year of World Bank consultations. They also exercise positive influence in a more subtle way: By helping Rwandan leaders understand how business works, how investors think, what’s really a priority to them (respect for contracts, property rights, policy predictability, and so forth). The Rwandans take their advice because they meet as equals. Each side can exit the relationship if it stops working. There is no coercion. No conditionality. Nothing is imposed. Americans are helping Rwandans achieve policy priorities that Rwandans themselves have set for their own reasons, as a result of their own internal process.
Rick Warren, the pastor, is also active in Rwanda, and in many other countries. He is highly respected in Rwanda, partially because his PEACE program means something to everybody. When you ask people about it, it is like a Rashomon story, if you know the Japanese film: everyone has a different explanation for why they like it. The president likes the focus on business, the church leaders like the focus on renewing the moral authority of the Rwandan church, individual pastors are most attracted to the brand of everyday spirituality preached in Rick Warren’s books. But what everybody appreciates–the real reason that Rick Warren is successful in Rwanda, is that he is not trying to impose anything. He consults and listens, and changes his tactics according to what the priorities of his Rwandan partners are.
This is a take-away: When we think of U.S. “soft power” and influence, we do not always have to think of creating a new government bureaucracy or program. These don’t tend to work very well, as the underwhelming results of aid programs and so-called “public diplomacy” attest. Yet the United States as a nation wields tremendous influence through the activities of its private citizens.
That’s tonight’s lesson. Helping hurts, if practiced in the traditional humanitarian spirit of all-powerful, omniscient giver and helpless beneficiary. It demeans the recipient and destroys the possibility of political accountability. But it doesn’t have to. The best helpers are the ones who are most acutely aware of their own limitations.
Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident scholar at AEI.
Unexamined humanitarianism can cause damage to its supposed beneficiaries.
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