International aid held accountable?

Written by on February 25, 2009 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 3 Comments

It’s popular to talk about increasing international aid. People want to help, and we especially want to help the poorest of the poor. But what if the money we send sometimes hurts the ones we intend to help? What do we say when African experts say aid organizations thwart the poor and undermine efforts to hold corrupt governments accountable? Who will step in?

Aid watch is a new blog by William Easterly, the controversial author and aid critic. Go there for a sampling of opinion on What the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation.

If this piques your interest, read William Easterly’s important book, The White Man’s Burden. It is a must read to balance the calls to save the world by giving more and more money.  William Easterly is not against international aid. He wants aid organizations to be held accountable to produce positive results. He points out that NGO’s and their workers have their own self-interests (to grow as organizations, to receive more donations, to gain recognition, etc.). Their real “customers/clients” (who must be satisfied) are not the aid recipients but the rich donors (who “pay the bills”). Easterly’s well researched book (and now blog) make a convincing case that too much of the money we give is used ineffectively and too often with negative effects. It’s truly a disaster when the money we give to help does harm instead of good.

I recommend these recent posts from Aid Watch:

A tale of two refrigerators – A story of how thousands of children in the Sudan died, and continue to die today, while the World Health Organization and Save The Children failed (due to beaurocracy, ineptitude, and one excuse after another) to deliver “free” malaria vaccinations.

Buzzwords in the aid industry – A revealing essay about buzzwords like “empowerment” and “participation” that have been thrown about since colonial times. The truth is that governments and NGO’s are unlikely to give up their power to truly empower anyone. Key quote:

One word that is extremely unpopular in aid documents but has great historical resonance on “power to the people” is “liberty.” Neither the 347 page World Bank 1998 “Participation Sourcebook” nor the 372-page World Bank 2006 “Empowerment in Practice” ever mentioned the word “liberty.” The poor cannot have liberty, but they can have lots of empowerment and participation and ownership and civil society. I’d rather have liberty myself.


About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Good points, Andy. A friend of mine just gave me a book on aid to the 2/3 world back at Christmas. I don’t remember the title, but want to read it. I was somewhat involved with SaveDarfur, but I’ve wondered what good they’ve really done. Unfortunately you are right, good intentions often trump good happening “on the ground” as it were.

  • joe

    Thanks for the heads-up, I’m reading White Man’s Burden for Lent.

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