I came upon this excellent article by journalist James Rupert, Afghanistan’s Miracle School Struggles to Survive Among the Wealthy (full disclosure: Jim is an old college friend of mine). It got me thinking about the ethical difficulties attendant upon much of humanitarian aid as currently practised by the United States. The vast sums of money being spent in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and other trouble spots around the world, don’t end up helping the poorest of the poor. I’ve railed before about the Toyota Land Cruiser culture of aid in Haiti. Enormous contracts for infrastructure projects, vitally important as these are, primarily enrich U.S. contractors and well-connected wealthy businessmen in the target country. We spend <em>so much money</em>, and a small number of people make a killing, while patting themselves on the back for their humanitarian work should a tiny fraction of these funds actually stick to the wall. I feel graceless pointing this out, on a morning that brings news of yet another car bomb in Kabul with several foreign contractors among the dead.
Humanitarian work could benefit from the Hippocratic oath.
Rupert’s article offers another model for humanitarian aid – the schools for street children run by an Afghan NGO, Aschiana. Modest, yet academically ambitious (check out the art gallery!), the schools offer an education and a hot lunch to children who have been scavenging or working as street vendors to support their families. Developing the human capital of the estimated 50,000 street children in Afghanistan will do much more for the country than building a gated community for foreign contractors.
Pouring money into a country without thinking things through can actually do harm, as in this story. Dumping surplus food in poor countries benefits our farmers, but wrecks the market for local agriculture. Our humanitarian efforts suffer from a pernicious bias – the perceived need for foreign aid to serve our national and individual interests first. We’ll help, but only if we get something out of it. We want to see a payoff, and we want it right away. We don’t have the patience to continue effective programs and to wait for the local economy to revive. Oddly enough, this is not endearing us to the recipients of our aid.
Local grassroots efforts like Aschiana offer a far more effective way to help. Here’s where to put the money. Because really, a dedicated teacher <em>should</em> be making more than $4 a day. Even in Afghanistan.