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Material World:Dedicated to serving the rich: the reality of aid

Dedicated to serving the rich:

 the reality of aid

“CARE: Dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor.” So reads a wall poster at the Haiti offices of the “humanitarian” agency CARE International. The offices are housed in a mansion in a wealthy district up in the hills above Port-au-Prince, at a hygienic distance from the poor people they are “dedicated to serve”.

Well, you can’t expect the respectable ladies and gentlemen who administer aid to live and work down in the filth and stench of the shantytowns. Of course, you can’t blame the poor for the lack of sewers, but still...

The aid administrators realise that they need the assistance of people who do know something about the poor and are capable of interacting with them. So they hire specialists called anthropologists, who acquire the requisite knowledge and skill as trainees by living for a time among poor people (formally in order to gather material for their Ph.D. theses).

But some trainees “go native”. They come to sympathise with their temporary neighbours and feel the urge to talk about inconvenient realities that they have discovered. This annoys the administrators, who label them “idealists” and say they have “a negative attitude”. It would be quite unsuitable to appoint them to responsible positions in aid agencies.           

An eye-opening book has just appeared, written by just such a chatterbox: Timothy T. Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti. No publisher would touch it, so he published it himself.

Charity for the rich

Very little aid ever reaches the poor, let alone the poorest of the poor. This is partly due to the practical difficulty that the poorest areas also have the poorest infrastructure (roads, storage facilities, etc.). But mainly it is because those who are supposed to distribute the aid sell most of it and pocket the proceeds.

In some cases, aid goes directly to the rich. Schwartz describes an “orphanage” run by an American reverend where the “orphans” have parents who could easily afford to provide for them. The place is really an elite boarding school. Meanwhile, naïve churchgoers back in the States, most of them ordinary working people, fork out to support the “poor orphans” they have “adopted”, send them gifts, and even pay for their college education. The poor in rich countries give charity to the rich in poor countries.

The more aid, the more misery


Schwartz’ most important finding is this. When the flow of food aid into Haiti increases, the overall result is that malnutrition becomes more widespread, not less. Why? The great majority of Haitians are small farmers, dependent on selling food to meet their non-food needs. Typically, natural disaster prompts the decision to send food aid, but by the time it arrives the emergency is over and the country may well be right in the middle of a bumper harvest. The effect is to drive prices down further, causing enormous misery throughout the rural areas.

It seems commonsense. If you see hungry people on TV, so you give money to buy and send them food. But capitalism has a perverse logic of its own that has nothing to do with commonsense. Reactions that ignore that logic are liable to do more harm than good.

Some experts and charities – notably, Oxfam – advocate aid in the form of cash transfers. Then food for distribution can be bought locally instead of imported, strengthening rather than undermining the local peasant economy. Local supply would also be quicker and easier to organise.

Nevertheless, most aid agencies, and especially those like CARE that are dependent on Western governments, keep on shipping in food. They even require their national affiliates to cover operating expenses by selling part of the food received locally (“monetised food”).

Expanding export markets

US overseas food aid began in 1954. Until recently it was openly justified as a foreign policy tool and means of promoting American business interests. In particular, it has expanded export markets for US agriculture. Dumping surpluses abroad has helped the US and the EU maintain prices and profits on their domestic markets.

According to the website of the US Agency for International Development, aid was used to transform Egypt from a food exporter in competition with the US into a net importer of food with a low-wage industrial sector. Since the 1980s Western governments and financial institutions pursued the same strategy in Haiti. The country was turned from an exporter into an importer of rice, sugar, and other crops, while 100,000 peasants abandoned the land to work for $2 a day in assembly plants, mostly US-owned, making T-shirts, jeans, and the like for the American market. This new industrial sector has now also largely collapsed, leaving Haiti to depend increasingly on the Columbian drugs trade.      

A striking illustration of the commercial interests underlying aid is the fate of the Haitian pig. Farmers used to rely on a small black pig well adapted to conditions in rural Haiti. USAID had these pigs exterminated under the pretext of fighting a swine fever epidemic. The Haitian pig was replaced with a large white pig from Iowa that had to be fed large quantities of imported US corn.

Do they know?

Do the aid administrators understand what they are doing? It is clear from Schwartz that they understand very well. When he “reveals” his sensational findings, they do not argue that he is wrong. They just advise him that if he wants a job he should stop saying things that the US government does not want to hear. They know who they really serve.