In The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater wrote:

Foreign aid has been characterized by waste and extravagance both overseas and in the agencies that administer it . . . Our present Foreign Aid Program, in sum, is not only ill-administered, but ill conceived. It has not made the free world stronger, it has made America weaker. . . . The American government docs not have the right, much less the obligation, to try to promote the economic and social welfare of foreign peoples. The Foreign Aid program is unconstitutional.

How greatly the terms of our national debate have changed since Goldwater’s book first appeared thirty years ago. Today, foreign aid is a sacred cow that enjoys the unstinting support of the Democrats and many—probably including almost all elected—conservative Republicans. Under Ronald Rea gan, who was elected President in 1980 with the explicit pledge to reduce wasteful federal spending, foreign aid expanded. A campaign has been launched in recent months, led in the public media by the ubiquitous Ben Wattenberg, to sharply increase the transfer of American tax dollars to foreign lands via aid programs.

What has definitely not changed is the validity of Senator Goldwater’s critique of foreign aid. Far from being the “servant of our national interest” that President Reagan called it in 1987, it has turned out to be an unqualified disaster for both Western taxpayers and the world’s poor, as Graham Hancock points out in Lords of Poverty. Hancock, a researcher who has worked in overseas development agencies and covered abortive relief efforts in East Africa and the Mideast for British newspapers, has written a devastating review of Western aid programs.

There is no doubt that mass suffer ing exerts a strong tug on our emotions. News reports on Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earth quake highlighted genuine acts of courage and generosity. But while catastrophes may bring out the best in people, they are also real money-makers for those who are in the aid business. Famines, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters are all occasions to mobilize public support. Too often, successful appeals for donations are not followed up by useful actions. Hancock relates how voluntary organizations, such as The Hunger Project and International Christian Aid, have “mastered the art of saying much and giving little.”

When aid does arrive at the scene of a calamity, it is frequently inappropriate or even harmful. For example, in 1987, a Christian group working with Ethiopian refugees cancelled vital booster shots in the second stage of an inoculation campaign, thus rendering children more susceptible to deadly epidemics than they would have been if they had been left alone in the first place. That same year, a huge consignment of “emergency medical supplies” sent to Somalia, one of the hottest countries in the world, included frost bite medicine from Minnesota, electric blankets, Go-Slim soup, and chocolate-flavored diet drinks. Laxatives and digestive remedies are “favorites amongst agencies that provide humanitarian relief to the starving,” the author reports.

Government-sponsored relief organizations have an even worse track record. Thousands of tons of maize sent by the European Economic Community as food aid to the famine stricken people of Mozambique and Niger was found to be totally unfit for human or animal consumption. In 1982, drought-ravaged Djibouti re fused delivery of a thousand tons of EEC-provided wheat flour that was uneatable. This same consignment of flour was sent to Zaire in 1984. In 1987 and again in 1988, the EEC delivered food to starving Africans that was radioactive, having been contaminated by fall-out from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. ft is no wonder that these Western relief efforts led Bishop Joseph Nykindi of Khartoum to write to donors, “We appreciate your efforts, but if this is what you call food aid we don’t want it.”

When the proffered aid isn’t actually lethal, it is frequently late in being delivered where it is most needed. A review of the United Nations Food Program response to 84 emergencies found that it took an average of 196 days for assistance to arrive. This is better than the EEC, which responds to emergencies an average of 400 days after receiving the first calls for help.

Unfortunately, “far from being iso lated incidents,” the failures Hancock discloses constitute “an entire substratum of persistent structural problems which confound virtually all other forms of aid as well.”

Disaster relief is only one facet, and a relatively small part at that, of the total Western aid effort. Foreign aid as we know it was launched during the Truman Administration out of the “Point Four Program.” It was predicated on the notion that if $17 billion spent over four years on the Marshall Program had “saved Europe,” then why couldn’t a larger sum save the rest of the world?

From the $45 million Congress authorized for the Technical Cooperation Administration has emerged an enormous conglomeration of aid institutions which annually disburse billions of dollars. Some, such as the US Agency for International Development and the British Overseas Development Administration, are bilateral. Others, as with the World Bank and tentacles of the United Nations, are multilateral enterprises. Taxpayers in the West and Japan are forced to support these agencies. They have absolutely no say in how their money is spent. And the agencies have made it very difficult to obtain an accounting of where—and to whom—all the money goes. In the case of the United Nations, we do know that “personnel and associated costs” absorb around 80 percent of all UN expenditures.

Logically, if aid really addressed the development needs of poor countries, the agencies involved should just about be out of business by now. After all, they have been dispensing “aid” for over forty years. But logic doesn’t apply to foreign aid. Hancock amply documents that what has developed over the decades is an international racket that loots Western taxpayers out of billions of dollars, which go toward the enrichment of the bureaucrats who administer the programs, commercial enterprises that provide goods and “services,” and the “gangsters and psychopaths” who rule the Third World. The poor and the environment are much worse off after they have been subjected to “development.”

Nor, in Hancock’s estimation, can the system be corrected. He makes a convincing case that, “Aid is not bad, however, because it is sometimes mis used, corrupt, or crass. Rather it is inherently bad, bad to the bone, and utterly beyond reform . . . it should be stopped forthwith before more damage is done.” As Cicero observed, those who have no knowledge of what has gone on before must forever remain children. 


[Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, by Graham Hancock (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press) 231 pp., $17.95]