A few years ago, a person named Jason Sadler wanted to help poor Africans by sending them a million free t-shirts. Sadler had never been to Africa, never worked in foreign aid, and while he evidently wanted to help the poor, his “1 Million T-Shirts” project was doomed by a mindless lack of reflection and zero up-front homework. Was there a need for T-shirts? Poor Africans all over the continent walk around in used T-shirts emblazoned with the names of plumbers in Kansas or bowling allies in New Jersey, and every road-side market stall sells them. Did it make economic sense to pack and ship a million T-shirts when the same money could instead be invested in something that might be lasting? And what about the effect of dumping these garments on poor economies already filled with similar donated goods? He didn’t ask.
I’ve worked in foreign aid for over fifty years, in over 60 developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In earlier years I would have scoffed at Jason Sadler’s naivété and called him a dumb do-gooder. My professional colleagues in foreign aid and I know better. At venerable NGOs like Save the Children, World Vision, CARE; at government aid agencies like USAID; at prestigious multilateral organizations like the World Bank; at big foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation; we believe we know what works to better people’s lives—we do our homework, we are analytical, thoughtful, and reflective. We are not dumb do-gooders.
But what if we are? What if we are neither analytical nor reflective? What if we do things that are just as silly as Jason Sadler’s effort? And worse, what if we are not even that sincere about doing good? What if we are in the aid business to make sure our own piece of the pie keeps growing?
If we look at the goal of instigating economic development—which is what development aid initially aimed for in the 1950s—and not just saving lives after a humanitarian crisis or finding a cure for malaria, the track record is quite poor. Given the seven decades that official foreign aid for development has existed (since president Truman’s Point Four speech in 1949), and the trillions of dollars spent, there is little to celebrate. The record looks especially bad when remembering the decades of confident declarations that did not even lead to modest gains: for example, the UN’s 1974 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, the 1975 Lima Declaration and Plan of Action on Industrial Development (the goal of which was to increase less developed countries’ share of world production to 25% by the year 2000), the 1978 Alma Ata International Conference on Primary Healthcare which resolved to bring about “health for all” by the year 2000, the UN’s International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade which promised clean water for all by 1990, and of course the Millennium Development Goals, whose many unfulfilled promises…