Psychology of Giving: Why Aid Might Be Causing More Harm Than Good

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

(First stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”, 1899)

Kipling was right about one thing: he understood that European imperialism was by many considered a burden – a duty to rescue the “savages” from themselves. When he wrote his poem as a hymn to U.S. imperialists taking charge of the Philippines during the Spanish-American war, inviting them into the ring of the “burdened”, he did not grasp the fine line between help and oppression, between improving and imposing lifestyles. This misunderstanding was characteristic of imperialism. And while we now condemn the hypocrisy of colonialists and their brutal tactics, it is time to re-evaluate whether our understanding of the “burden” has improved.

The aid sector that has grown increasingly in our post-WWII world order in many ways still adopts a “burden” philosophy in how aid is distributed. While active destruction and enslavement of civilizations is incomparable to well-intentioned aid gone wrong the two phenomena, unfortunately, share the same sentiment: the poor man is too poor and uneducated to devise his own solutions. The mystery is: why do governments and Bretton Woods institutions like the United Nations (UN), World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implement centrally-planned, top-down aid programs while supporting free market in rhetoric?

William (Bill) Easterly, a New York University professor and author of the popular 2006 book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, is one of the main critics associated with the inefficiency of aid. He argues that conventional aid programs make prescriptive contributions to poor societies and disasters while failing to understand what they actually need. He differentiates between “planners”, who look in from the outside and create huge, centrally-planned, inefficient bureaucracies, and “searchers”, who gather local information first and then make participatory plans that grant locals more of a voice.

Linda Polman, in her book War Games (2010), describes a good example of this inefficiency. She emphasizes that the aid sector, like any market, is competitive: when a disaster occurs, thousands of NGOs will swoop in to try to get the most media attention and therefore donors and distribute the collected aid money. Following the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), NGOs crept in by the plenty to construct Murray Town Camp, a refuge for the handicapped whose limbs had been chopped off by rebels during the war. Many would hire photographers to accompany them and pay children to take off their prostheses and show their arm stumps, making them look more pitiful for donors. NGOs who saw these photos came in with crates full of prostheses for the poor children, who were in reality being provided with individually made prostheses by doctors working directly in the camp. Their treatment required frequent follow-up, and the modern prostheses brought in by foreign NGOs were left at the side of the road because local doctors didn’t have the technology to use them. Meanwhile, UN tarpaulins were being sold at the gates of the camp to passers-by, clothing donations were dumped on the road, and the children who looked most pitiful were being adopted by rich Americans promising them a better life, an opportunity seized upon by local middle-men who would trick many children’s illiterate parents into signing adoption forms.

This is the case in many disaster aid scenarios. NGOs advertise that simple, cheap mosquito nets can save millions of lives lost to malaria, but with billions of dollars invested in the aid industry, shouldn’t everyone have one by now? The problem is that many don’t know what they are or how to use them. Many people sell their mosquito nets, or find alternative uses for them like fishing nets or bridal veils. According to Easterly, having families pay a small price for nets will make them value them more, thus more consciously involving them in the aid process, and will indicate to NGOs where there is actual demand and where they are wasting resources and donor money.

Beyond the distribution of humanitarian aid, there is also policy incoherence in the conditionality of aid. The EU and the U.S. offer developing countries “generous” agricultural subsidies on cash crops that give poor countries fast money, but which thereby promote dependency and the likelihood of further disasters such as famines. Medical aid is brought in by the truckloads to plague-stricken societies, but is contradicted by migration policies that allow skilled workers such as doctors to make their fortunes abroad.

There are many proposals on how the aid sector can be improved. Prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs advocates a top-down approach that collaborates with local government plans, while Bill Easterly insists that the only ones who know best are the poor people themselves, applying a “searchers” approach. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Directors of The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal) and the authors of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty directly juxtapose themselves to the approaches and recommendations of both Sachs and Easterly. They argue that big “Aid” needs to be replaced by little “aid” through scientifically tested programs that are proven to show results in people’s lives through randomized controlled trials. Alternative aid possibilities are also arising rapid growth developing countries, such as Brazil, whose recent transition can serve as a model and whose $1 billion in aid beats most other donors, and is distributed mainly in the form of technical expertise and knowledge transfers.

It is important that the structure of aid be changed. But more importantly, it is the thought process behind this aid that needs to alter. Instead of making unnecessary diagnoses and further crippling societies, aid should be used to empower poor people to change their communities for the better.


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