What are we doing here? The multimillion dollar relief industry . . . results?

4 brothers film the multimillion $$ relief industry (promo video.) We’ve raised similar topics a number of times.

HT: Kruse Kronicle

BTW: This is my first attempt at a video embed. (It’s a holiday here, so the internet is actually working.)

UPDATE: Whenever I post something, my brain tends to work on it for the rest of the day (which I suppose is why I temporarily quit blogging seriously). Here are some other thoughts I had while I was hanging out with the kids yesterday. 

  • African poverty as a spectacle yet again? (Read What an African Woman Thinks: I went to a zoo and I saw a . . . ). 
  • Is dissing relief work becoming the latest Western fad? (Could it wind up being just as dangerous as throwing money blindly at African problems. Either way our main objective seems to be to feel better about ourselves. Aren’t most wealthy westerners just as happy ignoring the poor wherever they might be? )
  • Could this be just another example of a white folks “making their news” on the backs of the poor Africans? (This really struck me when I went to http://www.whatarewedoinghere.net/ . Notice where most of the attention is on this site.) Note to self: Am I trying “make my news”  (e.g. on this blog) by painting myself an “Africa expert” to my Western friends? 
  • Whose interests are being served?
  • Need to suspend judgment till we see the full product. 

More info from what are we doing here?

WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? explores why the charity given to Africa over the last five decades has been largely ineffective and often harmful. The film tells the story of Brandon, Nicholas, Daniel and Tim Klein who travel across Africa in an attempt to understand one of the great problems of our time; the failure to end poverty.

In the film, the Klein family travel 15,000 miles via public transportation from Cairo to Cape Town. They cross war torn and famine-ridden regions where aid workers, politicians, and inspiring individuals tell about the incredibly complex and often misunderstood issues that affect hundreds of millions of people across the continent.

Daring to ask the questions no one else will, the filmmakers invite the world to rethink the fight against poverty in Africa.  Could our good intentions be causing more harm than good?  Have humanitarian interventions prolonged suffering? Who is actually benefiting from our good intentions? These questions and many more are addressed for the first time ever in this groundbreaking feature length film.  If you ever wanted to know what happened to the $10 dollars you donated to charity last year, look no further.  This film will change the way you look at charity in Africa forever.

The petition:

. . . The United States of America has a long history of giving aid to African nations in various forms. A bulk of this aid has been given in the form of food aid from U.S. farmers and transported on U.S. carriers. We the undersigned believe that this strategy not only is ineffective in reducing hunger and poverty but is often harmful to African agriculture markets and should be changed.

We the Undersigned request that USAID food aid be delivered in the form of food purchased from within the recipient African country. If the country receiving the food aid is not able to produce the needed food, then food should be purchased from neighboring countries that have a food surplus. The costs of growing and transporting U.S. grain can be reallocated towards greater purchase of food in the recipient country or put toward other areas of development particularly those that strengthen local agriculture.

We believe that the age of allocating aid dollars towards a strategy that has proven to be ineffective is over. The time is now to promote real change in Africa and that means empowering and supporting African farmers and their markets through local purchase of food aid.

My Prejudgment: It looks like an important expose of the “Relief Industry”, which is often (usually?) a self-serving venture.  It’s an important conversation; complexities are apparent to all who are genuinely involved.

It raises some important questions (from the teacher’s guide – pdf):

• Has foreign aid helped or hurt Africa?
• What are the root causes of poverty in Africa?
• What should the role of the West be in Africa?
• Are good intentions enough?
• Why has western aid failed to reduce poverty in Africa?
  1. Is foreign aid helping or hurting Africa? Should aid be increased or decreased?
  2. If aid should be decreased or stopped, what should the role of the US be in Africa and how should we respond to the millions of people living in poverty? 
  3. If aid should be increased, how can we make sure that it isn’t wasted or doesn’t cause harm?
  4. What do you think should be done about poverty in Africa?
  5. If someone has good intentions and is trying to help, is it correct to criticize their efforts and say that they are hurting instead of helping?
  6. Would you ever give money or work for an NGO/charity fighting poverty in Africa? Why or why not? 
  7. Do Africans need foreign aid?
  8. doesn’t the USA have the same level of poverty that Africa has? How is poverty in Africa different from poverty in USA? What does our government do to help people get out of poverty?

Related Resources:


  • www.globalissues.org – Global Issues has information on poverty and development around the world, including Africa. Facts, studies, statistics, articles on the root causes of poverty, food aid,corruption, foreign aid, and world hunger. Full of short articles that are easy to read.
  • www.crisisgroup.org – International Crisis Group has up to date information and analysis on conflicts around the world. Some of the most in-depth information available, but is written at a slightly more advanced level.
  • http://africaunchained.blogspot.com – Africa Unchained is a platform for analyzing and contributing to the issues and solutions surrounding Africa. The discussion focuses on the issues raised by George Ayittey’s latest book ‘Africa Unchained’.
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/default.stm – BBC Africa page – there is a lot of general information on individual African countries, good for basic background information.


5 thoughts on “What are we doing here? The multimillion dollar relief industry . . . results?

  1. Simon says:

    Two things I saw in Kenya:

    1) The greatest single concentration of Human Aid PhD workers in human history (the UN) has existed for decades side by side with one of the largest slums in the world (Kibera). In my mind, this single fact displays the hypocrisy of the entire global aid enterprise.

    2) We distributed fifty blankets to elderly people in Northern Kenya and paid for a professional well to be dug for the village of Kipsongo in Kitale, Kenya. I watched those old people grow warm because of human generosity. I watched a village get healthy because of clean water.

    So now what?

    • Ben says:

      1.) I think we all need to be aware of how much our own interests drive our actions in this area; I’m no exception. Everybody wants meaning, respect, and comfort . . . NGO and relief work are great careers in that regard.
      2.) There’s a lot to be said for being personally involved; that’s the main reason I’m not comfortable having those with resources simply check out.

      Now what? That’s the big question. One idea is simply to work on more straight-up business partnerships with the “profit” goal being more to build wealth and capacity within the local (or at least nearby) communities rather than trying to profit “from” them – but businesses and industries nonetheless.

      Another thing I sometimes do is draw a little picture for my Kenyan friends (a napkin will do.) “This is your grandfather’s land. He had eight kids (divide it up). Your father divided his little plot among his 10 children (divide the plot again.) Now, if you are going to continue to value land the way you do AND large families the way you do, what’s going to happen [ball back in your court.]. Add to that the needs for additional school fees, infrastructure development, job creation, etc. etc.

      It’s amazing how often this little picture hits my friends like a ton of bricks.

      On another note, while I agree that the multi-billion dollar relief industry is a self-serving scam, and much of it perpetuates poverty, there are some problems with the argument. That poverty continues to exist is not necessarily caused by relief policies; you’d have to be careful making that direct link. You can make the case that relief policies contribute to perpetuating the poverty but . . . there are a lot of other factors. Michael Kruse has done a number of related series. (Read “Series Indexes” down the right-hand column of his blog or Categories.)

      A couple of related thoughts:

      – What was once “wealthy” and quite comfortable in traditional rural Africa is now considered poverty as we trade time, community, etc. for money and material.
      – The cold war – the source of much of the conflict – was still within my lifetime
      – Population explosions have had a huge impact

  2. Brad wright says:

    Fascinating, and difficult issue to study. Thanks for your work in helping people think it through….

  3. Rombo says:

    Love the idea of a related sociological study, Ben, so I’m cheering you on as you ‘gently’ nudge Brad in that direction.

    BTW, Ben, hope you sorted out the computer thingie.

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