The foreign aid “industry” in Africa

I’ve complained for years (including in these pages) about the overwhelming amounts of foreign aid sent to Africa by governments and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), most of which appears to be wasted.  If it’s not misused, it’s siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats, officials and politicians (which is how the late President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire managed to die with a personal fortune of more than $5 billion, much of which has never been traced).

Miss D. sent me a link to this article in the Walla Walla University Collegian, which gives a pretty insightful overview of one aspect of the issue – so-called ‘voluntourism‘.

I discovered the director in the back of the room, smiling wide.

“How many volunteer groups do you get here?” I shouted over the din.

“Sometimes two a month,” he beamed proudly. “The volunteers cover almost all our staff.”

“You aren’t providing jobs for any local workers?” I repeated.

“Well, no.” He paused a moment, sensing the need to make it sound better. “We have so very many children here at Grace House. They need food and a home. They need help. Here, they get help.”

“Where do they come from before here?” I encouraged, reaching for my notepad.

“Terrible families. No food. So poor, you know.”

“Wait, they have families?”

“Half of them have families.” I was frozen for a moment, but the sad truth is such numbers are typical in African countries. After the wave of volunteers to orphanages in Ghana began to show signs of an abusive business enterprise, the Social Welfare Department organized a survey revealing that 90% of Ghanaian orphans have one or more living parent. The presence of volunteers visiting so many orphanages created “jobs” for children from families that could benefit from a few less mouths to feed.

“Some of these children have lost their parents and are emotionally susceptible at this stage,” I gently said. “Isn’t it damaging to further their never-ending cycle of abandonment from a revolving door of volunteers?”

“This is just the way it is.” The director crossed his arms. “We do this to make a difference the best we can, and you need to remember, this is for the volunteer, too. This experience is life-changing.”

I glanced at the group of college students, taking selfies with the animated children. No doubt this will be a series of profile pictures. For a moment, I wondered if the unidentified, romping, homeless children seemed reduced to the same status of elephants and zebras on the veld.

. . .

This is the classic White Savior Complex, the worship of the land of the White Man. Somehow, despite hearing that Jesus loves him, the message of material goodness has swept him further in devotion, and he will worship the white saviors for the spectacular contributions to his development rather than the ostensible Jesus fellow. Will Hassan wake up tomorrow thinking about his grandpa, selling shoes in determination to provide and sustain, or the next group of regaling volunteers?

There’s more at the link.

This is a HUGE problem in many parts of Africa.  I’ve seen it myself over the course of almost two decades wandering around that continent.  From the Sahara Desert to the Limpopo, an ‘industry’ has grown up whereby volunteers from overseas are brought in, given a beguiling (and all too short) glimpse of the ‘needs’ that their contributions are ‘helping to meet’, and then sent back to their homelands to raise more funds – just in time to make room for the next voluntourists to arrive.  You can bet your boots that vastly more than half of all funds and supplies donated through such organizations never reach those who really need them.  (My personal estimate is that less than one dollar in ten serves its intended purpose.)  All the rest is ‘misused’ or ‘diverted’, to use euphemisms (it would be more accurate to say it’s stolen, even though that reality is cloaked in multiple layers of charitable bureaucracy and obfuscation).

I became very selective indeed during those years about who I’d support with my hard-earned money.  To this day, very few organizations are on my “give without a second thought” list.  Two that I highly recommend are the Salvation Army and Doctors Without Borders.  They’re super-efficient at what they do, and take great care to ensure that as much as possible of what’s donated is spent ‘at the coalface’ where it’s most needed.  Most other well-known agencies – e.g. Oxfam, UNICEF, the International Red Cross – let’s just say that I wouldn’t touch any of them with a ten-foot disinfected bargepole.  Even organizations such as the Peace Corps cause more problems than they solve, IMHO.  YMMV, of course . . .



  1. Peter, I was in the Peace Corps in the 1980s, in Central America. It was an eye-opener. Virtually every single person in the area I worked in was a recipient of foreign aid. The local radio station had been built by the Swedes. Canned chicken was distributed by the Dutch. The US donated oil, corn and wheat flour. The local school building was some European country's project, I forget which. Etc. Fortunately, Peace Corps volunteers don't have much in the way of actual goods or money to play with, so the damage we caused to local economies was fairly limited, at least in those days. May have changed.
    I think I did a few things which may have actually been beneficial. I trained some locals in how to vaccinate livestock, and, got a small dairy project going among several of the young men and women. But, really, foreign aid was a tremendous detriment to the locals. After all, in an agricultural economy, do they really want mountains of raw foodstuffs being dumped on them? It was nothing more than competition, undercutting the food the local farmers were trying to produce and sell. Sure, some emergency aid in times of famine, yes, I am good with that. But, day to day, month to month, year after year constant pushing down of the small farmer's wages. Just seems wrong to me.
    One group that did do good work was the Mennonite missionaries, who introduced livestock and taught farmers better techniques in caring for them, something badly needed. Don't know if they are active in Africa, but if they are, I'd suggest investigating them to see if it is something you could support.

  2. I'm a missionary pilot in Africa (based in Uganda, flying in So. Sudan, CAR and DRC). Peter, you're spot on. I'd also give high marks to Samaritan's Purse, as well as a number of the more traditional mission agencies (yes, I admit the bias since I'm with one). However, the traditional mission agencies work with and through the local churches…and the local pastors and deacons do know who needs the help and with the mission agency's and church's oversight, funds get spent, for the most part, where they're intended. I won't say there's not places where there's abuse (misappropriation / theft) of funds or resources … the church is full of sinners after all. The church's track record is vastly better, however, than the other sorts of groups you name in your article. And the short termer problem … it's huge. Most career missionaries I know have zero use for 'vacationaries' or as you put it 'voluntourists'.

    Anything remotely related to the UN I wouldn't touch with a 10 ft pole. (Though credit where credit is due, they do build decent runways). The UN has to be the most corrupt organization on the planet. There have been credible reports of UN people, in official UN convoys, running weapons in So. Sudan. And we won't talk about the $54,000 toilet the UN and USAID built at the airport in Rumbek, So. Sudan.

    USAID, as an example of aid gone wrong, has been providing 'famine relief' in the turkana region of Kenya for about 40 years. Forty -years-. Where we were based, you knew when the food truck came in because everyone was lined up to get their sack of food…and you were reminded 2 weeks later, when most of the men were passed out drunk for a week after about 75% of the corn donated had been turned into alchohol.

    I strongly suggest working with groups that work through the local churches. MSF (doctors without borders) is one of the few secular exceptions to groups that are efficient and do good work.

  3. In Spain, Caritas a volunteer organization associated with the Catholic Church, has a deservedly good reputation.

  4. I lived and worked in Uganda for two years as a rafting guide 15 years ago. It quickly became apparent to me that all aid organisations are worse than useless; they are debilitating to the local economy. A couple of examples:

    An aid organisation decided to build a well for drinking water in a village. Hooray! Que much media attention etc etc. When that all died away and the attention was gone the village chief promptly began making money from the well by charging neighboring villages to use it, (as if you wouldn't if you were him). The aid people found out and decided to fix the problem. So they removed the well and located it at an exact and fair distance between all six villages in the middle of nowhere. Another big opening ceremony. Once that had finished, well … who do you think went to collect the water in the middle of nowhere?

    Why, the village women of course. Village women, in the middle of nowhere, by themselves … lots of rapes. The aid people faded away at this point.

    I could go on. And on. Missionaries were the worst. THE WORST. They would discover a village that didn't follow Christianity and they would arrange a meeting. They wouldn't say that the local villages gods didn't exist. No, they told them that their Christian god was more powerful. The villages would scoff and send them packing but the missionaries would have their spies. As soon as a villager died, (and they were always dying, it's fucking Africa), then the missionaries would return saying that this was proof of their god's displeasure. Big conversion ensues.

    To sum up; aid removes a people's need and desire to provide for themselves while making fat Westerners feel good about their life choices. It destroys economies and promotes corruption.

    (Incidentally, I noticed the other comment about the UN being terrible. No way, man! They were our best source of top quality drugs.)

  5. I've been involved in a couple of Africa projects. Above the level of the individual helpers (who may well manage to squint their eyes and avoid seeing the truth), it's all about political or financial advantage for the aid organizations.

    Some years ago, Der Spiegel interviewed an Kenyan economics expert. His take on African aid was very simple: "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!".

  6. I second Timbo's reply. And, for what's worth, I'm not longer part of the church, by most reckonings.

    IIRC, and it's been a while, WWF made an internal audit in the 90s. 90% of the money was wasted internally (wages, rent, transpo…) and only 10% reached the "road". Not the same field, but…

    Any of you guys know about ?

    Take care.

  7. I do like Catholic Charities for this, although as a caveat, it's worth donating directly, and not to the church itself, to be sure that money doesn't just end up paying for a predator's defense in Boston.

    Worst of the worst, at least in the US, is the March of Dimes, where literally a dime out of every dollar gets used ouside of salary and overhead. When your CEO makes more than the CEO of the bottom 100 of the fortune 500 companies, something's really effed up.

  8. Shugyosha, I've been a sponsor of Team Rubicon since it started. If you want info as to if they are on the up-and-up, my answer is very yes. They get in, do what's needed until the bigger groups (like Salvation Army, Red Cross/Crescent/ MSF) can get in, and leave. They're careful about not doing more harm than good.


  9. The March of Dimes conquered polio.
    Then the organization looked at itself and said, "what a wonderful organization we have, employing so many good people. We must figure out a way to carry on!" So they "reinvented" themselves as fighting birth defects, a noble cause yet fuzzy enough that they could claim great successes without ever actually accomplishing much of anything except for their real goal, the perpetuation and growth of the organization.

  10. Anon,


    Unca Lar,

    are you familiar with process vs result-oriented orgs? I first came to it through Rory Miller [ a guy I recommend in his field, call it effective civilian violence], but it's probably widespread. He posits that successful orgs migrate from one to the other.

    Take care.

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