The aid industry: a lucrative business?
I once read a book called ‘The lords of poverty’ written by Graham Hancock on the lucrativeness of the aid industry. The book, which was written in 1989, provides a quite detailed picture of how aid money can be used to enrich the rich in the name of the poor. The author’s argument was basically that the tax money raised from the rich countries for the purpose of aiding the development and relief of the poor countries is actually money transferred from one pocket of the rich to the other pocket of the rich. Money spent on overheads such as extravagant salaries and allowances, expensive international travels and accommodations and gourmet meals at international conferences are among the cited wastages of development and relief intended money. The author also describes in great detail how many huge, very expensive and not well thought out development projects were found to be completely useless and even harmful to the poor people they were intended to. But in the process, “experts” and big businesses contracting these big development projects enrich themselves with aid money. And in developing nations, corrupt government officials take a large chunk of the money leaving only a tiny portion for direct assistances to the poor.
I do not want to completely deny the positive changes that bilateral and multilateral aid and development assistances bring into the lives of the poor in recipient countries. However, in the context of Ethiopia, I often think that aid money benefits more those that are employed in the aid sector than the projects’ intended beneficiaries. Although a thorough research might be needed to back this up, I believe that NGO employees (and particularly those in the international ones) are the most highly paid employees in the country. Jobs in United Nation agencies are the dream of many (or maybe all?) Ethiopians. At least in my experience, I never heard of an Ethiopian who chooses to be employed in a UN agency, or in any other international or local NGO for that matter, because they support heartedly the motives behind these agencies, which is that of making a positive change in the lives of the needy. High remunerations and other benefits that come with being employed in an NGO are basically their prime justification for seeking employment in the aid sector. I would not blame them of course for thinking so, as I myself, would make the same justification for my choice of employment in a UN agency. But this doesn’t keep me from having an internal battle with my conscience about the moral grounds of such a justification.
Theoretically speaking, aid money should not benefit the donor except in the form of a moral satisfaction for doing well to others. In its pure form, the aid sector should replicate the selfless deeds of NGOs like Mekedonia shelter of elderlies or the adoption agencies of Abebech Gobena and Mary Joy. The aid sector should, theoretically speaking, be the least lucrative sector for employment opportunities. Working in an international (or local) NGO should theoretically be a humbling endeavor and not something to be arrogant about. Graham wrote the ‘lords of poverty’ more than 25 years ago. I do not believe that the aid sector has become a less lucrative sector since then. But his book makes people question and be more critical about the aid business. I may not achieve much by writing this article, but I invite to ask yourself if it is fair to the poor to be a lord of poverty in the name of the poor.