Michael Maren is a Kenya RPCV, who worked subsequent to his Peace Corps
service for both USAID and Catholic Relief Services. In this serious but
fascinating book, Maren explores a variety of complex issues related to
foreign aid, and more specifically, famine relief. As the title indicates,
Maren feels that all too often, aid programs destroy the very societies
they are trying to help. To quote from his introduction:
This is a book about aid and charity aid and charity as an industry, as religion, as a self serving system that sacrifices its own practioners and intended beneficiaries that it may survive and grow.... When colonials came ashore, they didn't say We're here to steal your land and take your resources and employ your people to clean our toilets and guard our big houses. They said We're here to help you. And then they went and took their land and their resources and hired their people to clean their toilets. And now here come the aid workers, who move into the big colonial houses and ride in high cars above the squalor, all the while insisting that they've come to help.
As the quote indicates, Maren doesn't pull any punches, and he provides ample evidence that famine assistance had many perverse effects in Somalia. He also discusses problems with many other programs, including a particularly damning indictment of the Save the Children charity.
Given the book's subtitle, "The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity", the book's scope focusing primarily on Somalia is rather limited. Would Maren made the same criticisms of agricultural aid workers in Bolivia? Or fisheries experts in Indonesia? If there are some aid agencies he thinks are well run, I would have liked to hear about them; if he thinks they are all failures, I would have liked more diverse evidence.
But while the book's subtitle may overreach, I still highly recommend it. Maren explores some fascinating issues with an authority that few other critics of foreign aid can muster. His book is very readable as well. I give it **** (out of ****).
The Road to Hell, published in December 1996, may be at your local library, or can be ordered from Amazon Books.