When Helping Hurts

"The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions."

What insight does this ancient saying capture? For most people, it means that you can embark on an endeavor with the noblest of motives, yet it can still go awry because of pride or lack of foresight.

The lesson I want to convey is similar, but not so heavy, and it is important for all of us who feel a calling to public service. It is that unexamined humanitarianism can cause damage to its supposed beneficiaries. Put simply, helping can hurt.

Everyone is moved by graphic images of hungry children or helpless refugees. Such images make us feel not only pity and compassion, but also anger. Morality demands that we act.

But, in lieu of these compassionate impulses, we have to closely scrutinize our own motivations for helping--deep down they are not always noble. And most importantly, we constantly have to monitor the unintended consequences of our humanitarian acts. Because, despite our best intentions, we sometimes hurt the individuals whom we most try to help.

For millennia, "do no harm" has served as the motto of physicians--the most iconic of helpers. Such an explicit injunction was probably required because, when you act under the guise of "the helper," there is a temptation not to feel bound by normal conventions and standards. Even if the help you are offering is irrelevant, burdensome or offensive, the recipients may still find it difficult to refuse.

For this reason, whenever we couch our actions in a humanitarian idiom, we are rarely called to account. A doctor working in a hospital in the United States is a professional offering a service, for which he is compensated. He is held accountable by codes of conduct and the threat of lawsuit. In Africa, even though a doctor may be doing the exact same work, he will be assessed in a parallel moral universe where those same actions take on a heroic quality.

Acts of charity can make the beneficiaries worse off through incompetence, error or waste. But humanitarianism can also cause political harm, by distorting incentives and weakening structures of accountability.

Welfare, as practiced before President William J. Clinton and a Republican Congress joined forces to fundamentally reform it in the 1990s, is an example of hurting through distorting incentives.

Humanitarian actions can also mask the political responsibilities for policy failure and the individual failure of leaders.

Before that reform, programs designed to help the poor created perverse incentives that weakened family structures, reduced the incentive to work and left the next generation even more impoverished and dependent than the one preceding it.

Humanitarian actions can also mask the political responsibilities for policy failure and the individual failure of leaders. This risk is particularly present when a rich country intervenes with humanitarian aid in a poorer country. The implicit premise of such emergency aid is that the crisis was caused by the "Hand of God," not by poor oversight, corruption or lack of ability. But, in a normal democracy, even natural disasters are appropriately politicized by scrutinizing the response of those who hold power.

President George W. Bush, for example, did not cause Hurricane Katrina, but the ineffective response to its aftermath nearly doomed the second term of his presidency. When Helping HurtsIn Africa, however, policy failures are frequently misdiagnosed as humanitarian crises. By bailing out those responsible for the crisis, you increase the likelihood of future crises, because leaders are never called to account. And, for as long as America conceives of its main purpose in the developing world as essentially humanitarian, its reward will be more wasted aid and growing resentment.

I am going to approach this topic through a series of anecdotes: some personal, some from the work of others who have grappled with the paradoxes of humanitarianism. My intent is not to get you to stop trying to help others. Instead, my primary goal is for you to get into the habit of approaching the claims of humanitarians with a healthy skepticism. This includes the humanitarian motives that you yourself feel.

An Orphanage in China

In 1995, when I went to Tianjin, China, after my freshman year in college to study the Chinese language, I had already been infected with a humanitarian fantasy. The fantasy was straightforward: There are those who are helpless, suffering in the world, whom I have the power to seek out and help. I'm not sure where this idea came from; probably from the movies. But it was something I felt strongly, and in the most naive way possible.

While in China, I was always on the lookout for opportunities to be a "helper," and stumbled one day upon an orphanage located in a back street. I ventured in and ended up spending the afternoon playing with the kids at the orphanage.

Chinese families are only supposed to have one child, so children with physical or mental disabilities are commonly discarded. Imagine an almost endless series of rooms filled with deformed infants tied to their cribs, with hardly anyone to pick them up and play with them.

As I started spending more time at the orphanage, I had a disturbing insight: The children were in some sense props for my own fantasy of being a helper. I did not have the power to change their conditions. All I could do was visit for an hour, play with some of them, and leave. So who benefited more from the encounter?

It was clear that I had benefited more from my supposed humanitarianism. It made me stand out from the crowd. It gave me something to talk about at dinner parties. I was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, in part, on the basis of what I did as an undergraduate that could be perceived as humanitarian.

Did I hurt anyone? I hope not, though I may have taught the children not to get attached to foreign visitors because they eventually leave. But I am pretty sure I did not help anyone either. This experience helped me analyze my own motivations and what it truly means to "help" others.

Gifts and Rewards

Helping relationships are power relationships, whether they are between two individuals, between an organization and a population of suffering people, or between two nations. And power relationships always have the potential for coercion and abuse.

The most penetrating and influential cultural analysis of the meaning of gift giving comes from the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. In his classic essay, "The Gift," Mauss writes that the person who receives a gift is humiliated and debased until he or she can repay it.

Think in your own life of when someone has offered you a gift that is inappropriate or disproportionate to whatever service you have rendered to them. You feel awkward and try to find a way to politely refuse.

Implicitly, you understand that if you accept that gift you will feel indebted to your benefactor, who will have power over you as a consequence. Even if his or her intentions are good, not expecting anything from you in return, he or she has a moral claim on you and your success. It is a form of control, a form of power. It is a political relationship at the individual level.

This is why, paradoxically, we sometimes end up avoiding or even resenting the people who have helped us most in life. And also why, we as helpers must never demand gratitude from those we try to help.

This power relationship also demonstrates why the humanitarian impulse was so closely associated with colonial conquest. When you work in Africa as a helper today for some nongovernmental organization (NGO), remember that you are treading a path well worn by generations of European colonial officials who performed the same jobs, usually with the same noble motives.

It is widely understood that the impulse to colonize Africa came from British and French greed, which sought to exploit the continent for its valuable natural resources. This, of course, is partly true. But the real impetus to colonize East Africa was in some sense forced on them by the incessant campaigning of anti-slavery activists, of whom Dr. David Livingstone was the most famous. (Activists such as Livingstone led a moral campaign proclaiming that Britain had the moral duty to protect the Africans from the slave trade.)

There is a myth that colonialism ended around 1960, when colonial officials suddenly went home. But the same type of people, doing the same type of things, with the same motivations, came right back to run development and humanitarian NGOs after they left. In fact, they are much more numerous on the ground today than they ever were in the colonial period.

That is an uncomfortable truth: By conceiving of ourselves as "helpers" in Africa today, we are inheritors of the colonial legacy. Another uncomfortable truth is that the pleasure we get from helping is sometimes the pleasure of controlling the fate of others--the feeling that the credit for our beneficiaries' subsequent achievements actually redounds to us. This is why you will often find very disturbing, power-hungry people working in the development and humanitarian professions.


Emergency assistance to refugees is the paragon of humanitarianism. With nearly 12 million people around the world seeking asylum from war, persecution and environmental problems, such as drought, refugee-status determination provides critical protection and assistance to refugees in times of need.

In nearly 110 countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the primary agency mandated by the U.N. General Assembly to protect refugees, determines a refugee's status. Meanwhile, national governments play a secondary role, if any.

But UNHCR, the largest refugee-status decision maker in the world, frequently fails to meet its own guidelines for fairness. And, wherever UNHCR warehouses refugees in camps, it initiates human-rights violations on a large scale.

UNHCR functions in many ways as does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). UNHCR staff conducts interviews, assesses claimants' credibility and makes legal judgments about whether a claimant has a "well-founded fear of persecution." However, UNHCR is not subject to judicial review or legislative oversight as is DHS. The consequence is exactly what you would predict from any all-powerful bureaucracy without oversight: secrecy, defensiveness and a complete lack of accountability.

The standards practiced by UNHCR would be laughed out of any U.S. courtroom. Documentation shows that UNHCR officers use secret evidence against refugees, reject claims without explanation, fail to provide qualified interpreters and provide no appeal process for denied claims.

This is serious: When an asylum officer decides wrongly and sends a refugee
back to his country of origin, the result can be imprisonment or death. UNHCR's lack of accountability means that it faces no political or legal pressure to reform and become more transparent. Though legal-aid movements have successfully pressured some offices to improve, not one UNHCR field office meets basic legal standards for fairness and due process.

Those individuals who do receive refugee status are then sent to live in squalid camps, often finding themselves subjected to worse conditions than those from which they fled. Many are imprisoned in camps for decades. They do not have freedom of movement, even though the Refugee Convention guarantees this right. They are denied the right to work. They cannot grow their own food and so must rely on relief food that is rarely sufficient. And, as with a Communist gulag, some camps have rules against selling or bartering relief supplies.

Unnecessary and inhumane, refugee camps should be replaced by forms of assistance that enable refugees to settle themselves in their host countries. Self-settlement is inconvenient for the bean counters in humanitarian organizations because it makes it more difficult to track aid distributions, and it certainly makes for less pitiful fundraising photos. But there is no other way for a refugee to lead a dignified life in exile.

The persistence of refugees warehoused in camps remains one of the biggest stains on the conscience of the international community. And who pays for this travesty? The American taxpayer does.

The United States is by far the largest donor to UNHCR. Washington provided the organization with about $330 million for 2006--almost one-third of the budget for UNHCR. Washington should insist on greater accountability from UNHCR and demand that it assist national governments to conduct their own status determinations, while also working with host governments to find alternatives to resettling refugees in camps.

The drafters of the Refugee Convention intended UNHCR to be a legal gadfly, holding governments accountable to their obligations under international law. It is surprising then that the UNHCR is held to such low standards, and, in many instances, inflicts harm on the ones it is supposed to protect.

Food Aid

In 2002, I conducted research and helped produce a BBC documentary about food aid. The filmmakers and I wanted to show how food gets from the prospering farmer in Iowa to the starving farmer in Africa. In essence, we wanted to show how food aid works, both politically and technically.

We had heard numerous reports about a large famine in Zambia and the surrounding region, with hundreds of NGOs and the BBC repeating the same statistic: 14 million people at risk of starvation. So, naturally, we decided to use food aid to Zambia as our subject.

From our initial research, we were growing suspicious of the validity of media reports about the region's lack of food. I remember watching footage of a BBC reporter walking through a completely dry, brown field. But what he failed to say was that it was the dry season in Zambia, and the fields were supposed to be brown and dry. The BBC would also show images of very weak children clinging to their very weak mothers--a grotesque display of famine, right? But we later discovered that this footage was taken at an AIDS hospital, which had nothing to do with the supposed famine.

When the filmmakers and I finally went to see Zambia firsthand, we found that there was, in fact, no famine. After requesting to be taken to the most "famine-struck" villages, we were surprised to see cows walking around. It was true that poor Zambians could no longer afford their staple food of maize, because its price had drastically increased due to uneven rains. However, they could afford other, less desirable foods that would curb their hunger.

We talked to the BBC and told them, contrary to their reports, that we did not see any signs of famine in Zambia. Not surprisingly, their reaction was defensive, reasoning that, if they claimed there was no famine, then people would stop giving donations. They added, "And, if a famine does come, we'll be blamed.";

Meanwhile, the humanitarian response had been triggered in large part due to the BBC's faulty reporting. Powerful food-aid lobbies, representing farmers, trucking companies and shipping companies, were all being mobilized in the United States. Hundreds of tons of food aid were shipped to Zambia and the region.

In a twist, Zambia rejected all of the food aid because it contained genetically modified corn (which, in a continuation of the U.S.-European trade wars, the Europeans had convinced the Zambian government would harm its citizens). So, at the tail end of the dry season, at the predicted height of the famine, there was no maize to distribute in Zambia for three months. But nothing happened; no one starved because there wasn't a famine in the first place.

Our research concluded that farmers were getting poorer because of ill-designed policies being imposed on the Zambian people. Such policies resulted in a complex failure of privatization and the agricultural industry, for which the national government, foreign donors and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund were responsible. Yet none of these entities was ever blamed, primarily because the policy failure was never diagnosed, overshadowed by another "humanitarian" crisis.

When you turn a policy issue into a humanitarian issue, everyone is immune from responsibility. This is one of the most important ways in which helping can hurt: By engaging with Africa only in a humanitarian vein, you mask the policy failures that cause problems such as this to persist.

Food aid is necessary when an actual famine exists. But problems arise when situations that are not famines are misdiagnosed as such. For, as long as famine is owned by humanitarian agencies, and diagnosed as a natural disaster for which no human is responsible or accountable, hunger in Africa will continue.

Aid Programs

The United States has funded foreign-assistance programs for more than 50 years, transferring trillions of dollars to poor countries during that time. Yet most research suggests that few countries, if any, have ever prospered directly because of it.

In fact, William Easterly, a New York University economist and former World Bank official, finds that only Tunisia might have benefited from foreign aid. And even Tunisia's economic success still might be attributed to factors other than aid.

During the past 40 years, many countries have experienced economic successes without foreign aid. China--since 1979--for example, is the greatest development success story in history, and it received no significant aid. Or, if you look at other Asian countries that have experienced strong economic growth over the past several decades, such as South Korea, many of their economic booms took place, not inconsequentially, after they stopped receiving aid.

Foreign aid can also cause severe damage to recipient countries by providing a lifeline to governments that do not wish to reform. It allows corrupt governments to continue harassing entrepreneurs and failing to collect their own tax revenue. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens foot the bill.

While the United States insists that countries adopt structures of democratic accountability, we are providing aid in such a way that the opposite happens. By giving aid directly to the executive branch in those countries, we are circumventing the elected legislature. When we make the executive branch independent of the legislative branch,
the line of accountability is oriented toward us and not toward the country's own people.

Countries whose budgets are more than 50 percent dependent on foreign aid, which is true of many of the poorest countries in Africa, collect a very small portion of their gross domestic product as tax revenue. This, in turn, means that citizens don’t feel ownership for what the government does or does not do. Foreign aid essentially cuts the link between citizens and their government.

Aid ultimately destroys accountability by short-circuiting politics. The governments that receive aid have very little incentive to make the radical reforms necessary to create a better business environment in their country, because they can depend on outside economic assistance. This is one of the primary reasons that the fruits of democratization in Africa since 1990 have been so disappointing.


What do these cases have in common? They are all different ways in which the charitable impulse--in itself good--can cause political damage to the individuals or countries that receive it.

So, is my conclusion to do nothing? No. Rather, there are healthy, productive ways to help. And one of the best examples of healthy giving comes from the country of Rwanda.

During the past few years, Rwanda has acquired a reputation as one of the least corrupt and most business-friendly governments in Africa.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has declared his intention to move from an aid-based economy to a trade-based economy, believing that durable prosperity and stability in Rwanda will come from the efforts of Rwandan citizens (with the support of friends and investors, of course), not from any aid program.

Whenever Kagame travels to the United States, he prioritizes visits with corporate leaders of major companies such as Starbucks, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, GE Infrastructure and dozens of others. The "Friends of Rwanda" network, as it has become known, has offered its time and expertise on specific Rwandan development initiatives, effectively making millions of dollars of in-kind contributions. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, for example, is helping Rwanda devise a strategy to extend a railway line from Ishaka, Tanzania, up to Kigali, Rwanda. Scott Ford, former chief executive officer of Alltel (now Verizon), has also advised the Rwandan government on technical and contractual issues related to broadband access.

With all this advice being provided pro bono, the Friends of Rwanda are quietly doing more to help the Rwandan government realize its ambition to become a competitive economy than the entire U.S. foreign-aid bureaucracy. In two days, they did more to help the Rwandans develop a strategic plan for their infrastructure needs than a year of World Bank consultations. They also exercise positive influence in a more subtle way: By helping Rwandan leaders understand how business works, how investors think and what they should prioritize (respect for contracts, property rights, policy predictability and so forth).

The Rwandans take these executives' advice because they meet as equals. And each side can exit the relationship if it stops working. There is no coercion, no conditionality. Nothing is imposed. Americans are helping Rwandans achieve policy priorities that Rwandans themselves have set for their own reasons.

When we think of U.S. "soft power" and influence, we do not always have to create a new government bureaucracy or program. These do not tend to work very well, as the underwhelming results of aid programs and so-called "public diplomacy" attest. Yet the United States wields tremendous influence through the activities of its private citizens, as long as we approach our humanitarian efforts with a healthy skepticism.

Helping hurts, if practiced in the traditional humanitarian spirit of the all-powerful, omniscient giver and the helpless beneficiary. It demeans the recipient and destroys the possibility of political accountability. But it need not be so. The best helpers are the ones who are most acutely aware of their own limitations.

Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident fellow at AEI.

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