Aid organizations, corruption, and the clash of cultures

Long-time readers will know that I was involved off-and-on with aid organizations in the Third World for many years, from the late 1970’s through the mid-1990’s.  I saw at first hand the chaos and instability in which many of these organizations worked.  The best of them (Doctors Without Borders, the Salvation Army, and a few others) learned to ‘go with the flow’, working in the midst of chaos and getting their job done as best they could.  Far too many others simply became submerged in the chaos, demanding desperately that someone – anyone! – restore order so that they could do what they saw as their job.  Needless to say, their demands were all too often lost in the uproar.  As a result of their inability to “improvise, adapt and overcome”, they got little or nothing done.  Others would raise, and expend, a great deal of money with little or nothing to show for it in terms of concrete, worthwhile results.  (The Red Cross, sad to say, was and still is notorious for this among people who truly know what goes on under such circumstances.)

Strategypage has a very interesting article about NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), peacekeeping, international aid, and the problems encountered in those sectors over the past couple of decades.  I recognized much of what is said there from my own experience.  I’ve never worked in the Middle East or South-East Asia, discussed in much of the article, but the problems are the same as those encountered in Africa, where I was.  They’re just on a larger scale.

Here are a few excerpts from the article.

One reason so many people are going hungry in conflict zones is because too much of the donated food and other supplies are not reaching those who need it. The UN, Red Cross and thousands of other foreign aid organizations are having a harder time raising money mainly they are having an even harder time dealing with the growing revelations about the extent to which foreign aid is stolen after arriving in the countries where it is needed.

. . .

Aid groups are also beginning to confront the harmful side effects of their good works. The worst side effect is how rebels and gangsters sustain themselves by stealing food and other aid supplies, as well as robbing the NGO workers themselves.

. . .

In the late 20th century the number of NGOs grew explosively. Now there are thousands of them, providing work for hundreds of thousands of people. The NGO elite are well educated people from Western countries that solicit donations, or go off to disaster areas and apply money, equipment, and supplies to alleviate some natural or man-made disaster. Governments have been so impressed by the efficiency of NGOs (compared to government employees) that they have contracted them to perform foreign aid and disaster relief work that was once done by government employees.

Problems, however, have developed. The employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism. These foreign NGOs bring to disaster areas a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living and different ideas. Several decades ago the main thing these outsiders brought with them was food and medical care. The people on the receiving end were pretty desperate and grateful for the help.

But NGOs have branched out into development and social programs. This has caused unexpected problems with the local leadership. Development programs disrupt the existing economic, and political, relations. The local leaders are often not happy with this, as the NGOs are not always willing to work closely with the existing power structure. While the local worthies may be exploitative, and even corrupt, they are local and they do know more about popular attitudes and ideals than the foreigners. NGOs with social programs (education, especially educating women, new lifestyle choices, and more power for people who don’t usually have much) often run into conflict with local leaders. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted or even fought back.

. . .

NGOs have formal legal recognition in many countries and internationally they, as a group, have some standing. NGOs have become a player in international affairs, even though individual NGOs each have their own unique foreign policy. But as a group, they are a power to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, there is no leader of all the NGOs you can negotiate with. Each one has to be dealt with separately. Since NGOs also come from many different countries (although most have staff that speak English), peacekeepers can also run into language and cultural customs problems. NGOs have turned out to be another good idea that, well, got complicated in unexpected ways.

This move from delivering aid to delivering (often unwelcome) ideas has put all NGOs at risk. The NGOs have become players in a worldwide civil war between local traditional ideas and the more transnational concepts that trigger violent reactions in many parts of the world. Now, concerned about doing more harm (or a lot of harm) than good, NGOs are at least talking about how to deal with some of the dangerous conditions their presence creates.

There’s much more at the link.

The article makes very interesting and informative reading for those interested in this field. It’s also very depressing, because it’s very clear that too many NGO’s have learned nothing except how to complain.  If you donate to such causes, I can only suggest that you limit your donations to those who have proven over and over again, in the crucible of disaster, that they know what they’re doing and are efficient and effective at doing it.  There aren’t all that many of them.




  1. In the Anglo-Saxon period of the history of Britain, the monasteries became the dumping ground for the excess children of the nobility. The "spares" as the non-first born sons and unmarried off daughters were. This made these religious orders grow in power and wealth. In the 9th century, monasteries were prime targets for Viking raiders as poorly defended "banks". Also, the kings and local nobility started annexing the local monastery and selling it back later to recoup the long ago distributed wealth.

    I've come to see that the NGOs are the new monasteries, where the "cousins", those family members not in the family business or doing politics go to "do good". They also accumulate great wealth and are power centers for the senior staff. So it seems logical that organizations of over-educated, elitist individuals would have difficulty dealing with local reality and not condescending to the "low born". But the sons and daughters of the "nobility" certainly do have a high old time throwing fundraising galas and chatting up their school chums for donations. All to remain in good stead with the church of Progressivism.

  2. An organization I donate to focuses in a specific area – water. Using local resources where possible they drill bore holes for villages, build some infrastructure at the top to keep things clean, and assure that potable water is available and nearby. Every project may not be a home run but each is at least a base hit.

  3. Tom Kratman in his Caliphate series explains some of the challenges with NGOs. Such as flooding the local area with free food that destroys the livelihood of local farmers.

    Some observations:

    1. Non Christian NGOs are often a bit to the left.

    2. Going to the right college requires some type of charity work so the student sends the right virtue signals.

    3. Top us colleges indoctrinate the idea of power against authority. See Bernie sanders popularity. Students are taught how to protest, etc. the movie walkout is an example of this.

    4. Many ngo aid workers treat it as a vacation. A friend of my child flew from the us to Nicaragua to build something. The girl had zero building skills. But she felt good about the week she spent there! My guess it was to help her resume to get into medical school.

    4. May have been here, but I read an article about how locals looked at NGOs workers with disdain. And how a visitor had to prove he was not another fly by foreigner looking to get their ticket punched, but actually wanted to learn about the local culture.

    5. NGO types are often from top colleges. Huge indoctrination there. They are on a mission to make a change. Same with many government political state dept appointees. See diplomad blog for examples. And same with people in the Democratic Party. And press. Term city journal uses is clerasy. I prefer ruling class, or elite.

    6. NGOs supposedly were mixed up in Ukraine recent revolution. Soros may have some funding involvement. He was funding fremen till they opened an Israel chapter. My guess was classes in democracy.

    7. Sweden may cut their foreign aid, because it costs so much more to care for refugees in Sweden.

    Another Anon

  4. I suspect that Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy is strongly represented in most of those established NGO's. Along with the do-gooder's disdain for anything that is not the same as where they come from. Some carefully hidden, some not.

  5. possibly irrelevant, but we had a similar problem in West Virginia.
    it was that thing like the peace corps but for stateside, canot remember the name.

    two female things were sent to the eastern part of the state.
    they were from new york and had typical ny amorality.
    before you know it they were committing adultery, one of them with a coal miner.
    everyone in our lightly populated state heard about it.
    these creatures were sent to 'Appalachia' in order tho teach us how to live?!?!

    apparently 'Appalachia' is a foreign country to these persons,a place full of ignorant Bible thumping hillbillies who must be enlightened.
    talk about flouting the local culture and disrespect for the inhabitants.

  6. The Strategy Page piece is good, but in its mention of the pernicious role that NGOs play in Israel and Palestine, it missed an important part of the story: the heavy funding that NGOs receive from European governments. This is not just contracts but direct funding.

    "Governmental support to civil society, both domestically and internationally, is a longstanding tradition in Europe. This practice has far-reaching implications well beyond Europe’s geographical borders – European charities, church organizations, and human rights groups receive funding primarily designated for activities in conflict-ridden regions and developing countries outside of Europe. In addition to these activities, the European Union (EU) and European governments also fund non-European civil society directly. This is done in countries that are in the process of accession to the EU, neighboring countries, and third-world countries."

    I doubt that this is limited to the Middle East.

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