The Imperialism of Good Intentions
Two months ago, the world looked on in shock and disbelief as, after typhoon Nargis had smashed ashore in Burma (Myanmar), that country's ruling generals prevented aid, aid officials and experts from coming in to help the 2.4 million people hit brutally hard by the storm.
Estimates of the number of Burmese who might die from malnutrition and disease because of the lack of every necessity from food and medicine to helicopters to distribute the supplies went as high as a quarter of a million.
Then something strange happened: Far less happened than all the experts had said would happen. The best estimate of the death toll is now 84,000.
As Canadian UNICEF worker Michael Bociurkiw explained to the Star's foreign affairs reporter Olivia Ward last week, "These are extremely resilient people. Many are used to living with very little help."
This doesn't mean that those appalling generals were right. The distribution of mosquito nets to survivors significantly reduced the threat of malaria. Some food and medicine did get through.
But many of those aid experts who got quoted in the media either didn't really know Burma or were exaggerating.
It's a fact of life that natural disasters - floods, earthquakes, storms, droughts - provide an opportunity for aid organizations to raise money for their causes on a scale quite impossible in normal times.
A competition develops to create what are known in the trade as "CNN moments," or dramatic pictures and emotional stories. There's competition also over "badging" - getting an organization's logo in front of the TV cameras.
The stakes can be very high. The 2004 tsunami that devastated much of Indonesia as well as neighbouring countries, and of which the TV coverage was especially dramatic, generated an incredible $13.6 billion worth of donations.
This was, most involved now admit, too much money. Pledges to specific countries often exceeded the requests for aid those countries had made.
The result was waste and extravagance. Local workers were often paid lavish salaries, provoking anger among those not hired. In Sri Lanka, this disparity may have helped restart the civil war between Tamils and the government. In parts of Indonesia, so many fishermen were given new boats that there is now a fear of overfishing.
The pressure to produce showy results made mistakes inevitable: of 571 new houses built by the Save the Children Fund in Indonesia's Aceh region, 371 were so poorly built that they had to be torn down.
The subject is difficult and delicate. The public's urge to help is genuine and generous. The motives of the aid workers are no different. Most are idealists, and many brave real risks.
For the first time, though, some awkward questions are being asked about the role of NGOs in the seemingly ever-escalating business of international aid.
The New Colonialists is the provocative title of an article in the current issue of the respected Washington-based magazine Foreign Policy.
Its authors, four researchers at the New America Foundation, write that organizations such as Britain's well-known Oxfam, or the highly regarded Doctors Without Borders, or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "unquestionably fill vital roles, providing health care, educating children and distributing food."
At the same time, though, these organizations "deepen the dependency of these states on outsiders."
The consequence, argue Foreign Policy's quartet of authors, is "the slow and steady erosion of the host state's responsibility and the empowerment of the new colonialists themselves."
The most vivid example they cite is Afghanistan. There, the Afghan government administers only one-third of the aid flowing into the country. The rest is managed by development agencies, humanitarian groups and private contractors.
Which raises the painful question: Is Afghanistan for the Afghans, or is it for us?
The even more painful question is whether those terrible Burmese generals had a point. Did they indeed know their country and its people better than the aid experts, even if, as is unquestionably the case, they didn't give a damn for their people but only for their own power?
We shouldn't - mustn't - turn away from aid and aid organizations. But, surely, we and they need to go into other people's countries with more care and a good deal more humility. In the end, it's their country, not ours.
Richard Gwyn's column appears Friday.
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2008