Good intentions and poor results – John Steinbeck’s lessons on humanitarian aid

World Food Programme (WFP) staff members load bags of split yellow peas into a truck in a WFP warehouse based in El Fasher, North Darfur, for delivery and distribution in camps for displaced persons (IDPs) in Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur. UN Photo/Albert González Farran, CC BY-NC-ND

On a recent day in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, one of the authors was seated with a group of African aid workers around a café table, discussing current events. One recounted the latest joke on the street: Guess what’s cheaper than cassava? Rice and tarps!

With the influx of international aid sparked by political unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR), the price of commodities has spiked upward, making it more difficult for local people to support themselves.

The arrival of aid workers lowered the cost of rice and tarps because they are the two items distributed in bulk by relief agencies. Laughter erupted from the group when, as if on cue, around the corner came a salesperson carrying a large stack of tarps that bore a UN agency logo.

Versions of this barbed joke have surfaced many times, but behind it lies a very serious point: the arrival of aid agencies during a humanitarian crisis can produce harmful effects.

Even the best intentions can harm instead of help because aid agencies don’t always understand – or listen to – what people actually need. To grasp this insight, it is not necessary to travel to the far corners of the earth. You can just read John Steinbeck.

A man stands next to a street side kiosk near Kilometre 12 (PK12) where internally displaced Muslims are stranded due to the ongoing sectarian violence in the capital Bangui March 19, 2014. Siegfried Modola/Reuters

Steinbeck’s lessons on aid

A 1959 edition of Tortilla Flat. Insomnia Cured Here, CC BY-SA

This well-intentioned, but less-than-effective approach to aid is nothing new.

In John Steinbeck’s first great novel, Tortilla Flat, a group of well-meaning citizens in 1930s Monterey, California becomes concerned that a local bean crop failure will mean the starvation of Teresina Cortez’s family. Her nine children have subsisted in remarkably good health for years on a diet of nothing but beans and tortillas. Taking matters into their own hands, the citizens begin procuring all manner of food for them, but the children only grow sick. Though grateful, Teresina explains to her neighbors that what the children really need – and the only thing they really need – is beans. After sacks of beans miraculously appear one night on the doorstep, the children’s health is restored.

This episode of Steinbeck’s novel highlights an insight all too often lost on many contemporary poverty fighters: whether in developing nations or the US, those seeking to help need to learn from those they hope to help.

Aid can push the cost of living up

One of the effects of aid is the sharp increase in the cost of living. UN and other NGO personnel often “purchase locally” but pay top dollar for what they need, which has the adverse affect of driving up prices.

Others have noticed the changes in “social geography” of African cities due to the high-spending life style of expats and their agencies.

While post-earthquake Haiti is a poster child for this problem, in Bangui the prices for staples such as wheat flour, cassava, oil, milk, meat and vegetables have increased dramatically.

Handing out food for free doesn’t help local producers

Aid distribution can also have a disastrous impact on local production and labor markets.

For example, when an international hunger relief program arrives on the scene and begins handing out bags of grain, local farmers, distributors, and sellers are often soon driven out of business, because the market for their product dries up. In fact, the phenomenon is so well known among development economists that it has a name: Dutch Disease.

Following the January 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) donated 7,000 tons of rice just when the local crop was coming to market. This undercut local farmers who couldn’t sell their rice. Economist Christopher Barrett concluded that sustained food aid makes it hard for local farmers to stay in business.

Food aid researchers Nancy Qian and Nathan Nunn found evidence that American food aid to developing countries might be hurting more than helping:

“Before this paper, journalists who spent time in these donation countries had told anecdotes about how bad things can get [as a result of food aid], but we didn’t know whether these stories represented the actual picture. What we have done with the data is [quantify] the average effect and [prove] that these aren’t random stories and that these unintended consequences really do exist.”

Another problem is corruption – resources are frequently poached for the enrichment of various power brokers in the country. Qian and Nunn’s research points out what aid workers have too often watch happen.

Likewise, when international health relief workers arrive in town, they often end up compromising indigenous health-care systems, undermining not only the livelihood but the credibility of doctors and nurses who will remain on the scene long after the philanthropic visitors have departed.

Paul Farmer was pointing out this problem as early as 2006:

“The NGOs, which fight for the right to health care by serving the African poor directly, often do so at the expense of the public sector, creating a local brain drain by luring nurses, doctors, and other professionals from the public hospitals … to NGO-land where salaries are better and the tools of our trade more plentiful.”

Marketing aid instead of providing aid

At times efforts to help the poor seem to focus more on the efforts of donors and aid workers than any practical enhancements in the lives of those they serve.

In other words, some aid organizations do a better job of marketing their humanitarian efforts than they do improving the lives of poor people featured in their advertising campaigns. The phenomenon is widespread enough to have attracted its own sitcom in Africa, based on a charity called Aid for Aid, which does nothing but attend to its own image.

It is disturbing how frequently the voices of those in need are not included in conversations around the way their needs are defined and measured. As historian Diana Jeater explains:

“When I first started working in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, I was impressed by how all the NGO workers I met emphasized the need to listen to rural women. I was quickly disillusioned when I realised that ‘listening’ meant ‘finding out how to present what we want to deliver in ways that make them acceptable to rural women.’”

Instead of continuing to operate national and international philanthropic organizations according to a largely economic model, Steinbeck would say, we need to move to a more biological perspective, one that appreciates that aid programs are intervening not just in markets but in rich human ecosystems. This means that aid workers must in many cases not only visit but actually live among those they seek to help, becoming part of the community themselves.