Michael Maren has spent much of the last twenty years in Africa, first as an aid worker, later as a journalist. He witnessed at close range a harrowing series of wars, famines, and natural disasters. In The Road to Hell he tells how CARE unwittingly assisted a Somali dictator in building a political and economic powerbase. How the UN, Save the Children, and many other nongovernmental organizations provided raw materials for ethnic factions who subsequently threatened genocidal massacres in Rwanda and Burundi. He brings firsthand reports of African farmers, Western aid workers, and corrupt politicians from many countries, joined together in a vicious circle of self-interest. Above all, he heralds an important truth: humanitarian intervention and foreign aid activity is necessarily political. It gets hijacked by powerful charities and agricultural interests. It is cynically manipulated by local strongmen to control rebellious populations. And it is the last refuge of Western colonialism. We all want to end the suffering. But our desire to alleviate suffering often stands in the way of the truth. If you think your charitable giving is making the Third World a better place, think again.
Despite the overstated title, this book is a forceful and disturbing portrait of Western intervention in Somalia, plus an investigation of underscrutinized aid foundations. Perhaps because of the book's ambition, Maren's narrative is disjointed, but readers will find it worth the effort. "[D]oing relief and development work in the context of oppression is counterproductive," he asserts, and his personal experience in Somalia, where, after a Peace Corps stint in Kenya, he returned as an aid worker and journalist, bears this out. While the Cold War fueled aid to Somalia, much of the aid was channeled by local power brokers to further their own ends. Indeed, while Somalia was once self-sufficient, it is now chronically dependent on imports of foreign food. Maren is equally scathing about prominent charities such as CARE and Save the Children, which he terms mercenaries more concerned with self-perpetuation than actual famine relief. CARE, he charges, once shipped food to armed fighters in Somalia, while Save the Children "projects don't work." His portrait of the aid biz emphasizes that it is driven mainly by grain-trading companies eager to unload excess capacity, even as their advertisements feature starving victims. Maren's brief report from Rwanda suggests that there, too, aid is falling into the wrong hands and thus financing a war. Maren maintains that journalists are too dependent on such aid organizations to properly evaluate them, and he proposes that an independent agency be established for that purpose.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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June 30, 2002
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