Aid Has Benefits – And Costs

Evgeny Morozov, a noted skeptic of the popular view that social media and the internet can be harnessed to overthrow oppressive regimes, writes last week in The Globe and Mail:

As the pundits were busy celebrating the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to protests in Tunisia and Egypt, most of them ignored the terrifying news from Iran, where on Monday two activists were hanged for distributing video footage on the Internet from the country’s 2009 “Twitter Revolution.”

Never mind that pressing the tweet button is not at all like enduring a sit-in, let alone standing up to a tank. Morozov’s problem with digital evangelists is that they don’t account for both sides of the ledger. They’re quick to point to bright spots, when the internet appears to help produce positive social change. But most tech evangelists completely ignore the dark side of internet freedom: that “in the hands of an authoritarian regime it can become a tool of repression.”

And a big reason why costs escape their notice is because their assumptions about the power of internet freedom to effect positive social change are flawed. To digital utopians, the internet and social media are the bee’s knees. It makes no sense even to suggest that there may be a dark underside to their supposed panacea, complete with unseen consequences and counterproductive effects.

Foreign aid evangelists view their mission the same way. The idea of spending money to improve the lot of poor people around the world sounds fantastic on the surface. It’s better than sliced bread. And much good is done–streets and hospitals are built, food is given, children are educated, lives are prolonged–by foreign aid each year.

But, like digital utopians, most aid evangelists refuse to acknowledge the cost side of the foreign aid ledger, and their model of changing the world for the better is built on faulty assumptions.

Mantras of virtually every aid organization, whether a large multilateral agency or a tiny NGO, are “sustainable development” and “capacity building.” Don’t just give them fish, teach them how to fish. But in practice, donors and aid workers have perpetually doled out fish. By giving with the best of intentions, the West has created cultures of dependency elsewhere.

In Haiti, for example, donations of food in the wake of last year’s earthquake suffocated demand for local farmers’ rice. In turn, farmers couldn’t feed their families, so they became ever more dependent on outside aid.

In Port-au-Prince, free water distributions prevented the owner of a drinking-water factory from reopening and rehiring 200 employees. At the time, he said, “Of course we welcome the relief, but nobody wants to buy water if there’s free water on the streets. We should be helping Haitian companies instead of companies in Florida.”

Haitian radio journalist Michele Montas recently highlighted another underlying problem with foreign aid: most aid workers do not have proper local context or cultural and historical understanding to address problems they seek to solve. “I’m working with a lot of sophisticated people but who have absolutely no notions of what this country is about,” Montas noted. “I work at the U.N., and every day I have to go to meetings, I’m the only Haitian there, and I have to tell them, ‘Your perception is not right.’ I feel that it is a lost battle.”

Aid evangelists will say that harping on collateral costs and negative consequences–the dark side of aid– is “a convenient excuse for doing nothing.” But merely “doing something” with good intentions and lots of money is no formula for success.

Morozov recently addressed the faulty assumptions of technological utopianism. A few tweaks illuminate some of the faulty assumptions of foreign aid utopianism and the power of “smarter” or better aid:

If only it were that easy! The long history of [foreign aid] teaches us otherwise. The unfulfilled promise of past [development approaches] rarely bothers the most fervent advocates of the cutting edge, who believe that their favorite new tool is genuinely different from all others that came before. And because popular belief in the world-saving power of [aid] is often based on myth rather than carefully collected data or rigorous evaluation, it is easy to see why [foreign aid] utopianism is so ubiquitous: myths, unlike scientific theories, are immune to evidence.

The work of aid evangelists saves lives every year. It improves the lot of many around the world. But there are costs, which aid evangelists must acknowledge. They, however, have little incentive to do so. A realistic examination of the evidence might shed doubt on closely-held myths, like whether the benefits of foreign aid interventions actually outweigh the long-run costs of unintended consequences.

In last October’s New Yorker Philip Gourevitch used an anecdote that demonstrated both the benefit and cost sides of the aid ledger much more poignantly than I could:

During my night at the schoolroom surgery in Kitchanga, the doctors told me about a teen-age boy who had been found naked except for a banana leaf, which he had plastered over the back of his head and shoulders. When the leaf fell away, the doctors saw that the boy’s neck had been chopped through to the bone. His head hung off to the side. I saw the boy in the morning. He was walking gingerly around the schoolyard. The doctors had reassembled him and stitched him back together. And he was not the only one they had saved. This was the humanitarian ideal in practice—pure and unambiguous. Such immense “small mercies” are to be found everywhere that humanitarians go, even at the scenes of their most disastrous interventions. What could be better than restoring a life like that? The sight of that sewed-up boy was as moving as the abuses of the humanitarian international were offensive. Then, later that day, the doctors I was travelling with told me that, to insure their own safety while they worked, they had to prove their neutrality by tending to génocidaires as well as to their victims. And I wondered: If these humanitarians weren’t here, would that boy have needed them?

If those humanitarians weren’t there, the boy may indeed not have needed them. But the illustrations of aid evangelicals’ myths always include the Great White Humanitarians from the West, so we may never know for sure.

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