Thanks to Calvin College and the Faith and International Development Conference for hosting a screening Poverty, Inc. on Thursday night—and to everyone who came. I was glad to be able to make it for the Q&A. It was a late night so I appreciated so many people staying, and enjoyed talking to people afterward and hearing your comments.
The essay on aid and development that I referred to, and had a mind blank on the name, is called The Food-Aid Racket, by Michael Maren
This talk is from 1993 that he gave to a group of Cornell students preparing to work in economic development and humanitarian aid—it was later published in Harper’s Magazine and is relevant today as it was 20 years ago. I think it is essential reading for anyone working in development, or considering working in development.
As you prepare for and look forward to careers in international development, I am compelled to issue a warning. With the hindsight of someone who spent five years in the development business, I’m going to tell you that the development industry hurts people in the developing world. Its greatest success has been to provide good jobs for Westerners with graduate degrees from institutions like this one
I know this sounds harsh, but if our goal is to really help the poor and not merely to build our career, then we have to take Maren’s warning seriously. There is a real danger, especially with the proliferation of NGOs and social entrepreneurs, that we can end up creating a system where development becomes about us, and where the poor stay poor and the rich get hipper. Peter Greer just wrote an new book on this subject called the Spiritual Danger of Doing Good.
A Mind for the Poor
As I said on Thursday: I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t do anything to help the poor. We absolutely should. But as we say in Poverty, Inc., a heart for the poor is not enough, we also need a mind for the poor. This requires serious thinking, humility, and constantly checking our motivations. It also requires us to ask what and where we can actually contribute. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions first. Just having a degree and being from the US or Europe does not necessarily give us any special insight into small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa—or into food aid as Michael Maren writes about in his book.
The current model of the development, which we call the poverty industry, is based on a number of false assumptions. As Tim Schwartz says in the documentary, many people in development know the system doesn’t work and are frustrated. Some leave, but many stay because they’ve just spent several years building their career, and now what?
Michael Maren sums up this problem better than anyone.
“I know that you don’t want to be part of this problem. You’ll tell me that you can change all of this, that you want to work within the bureaucracy to reform the bureaucracy. But in a couple of years you’re going to be in Ouagadougou or Gaborone making a very good salary. The years will pass and you’ll find yourself with two kids in an expensive private school in New England, and you’re going to have perfected skills that aren’t very useful outside of the Third World. You’re going to think about quitting, about raising hell, but you won’t be able to. Because by then you, too, will have become part of the never-ending cycle of aid.”
You can read the entire article on Michael Maren’s website.