Are Western Relief Organizations Scams?

Take one “Save The Children”. This organization solicits funds from donors, and also garners multi-million $ contracts from US Government Agencies (like the US Organization for International Development).
It hires people who usually know nothing about the country or conditions where the “aid” is to be delivered to. These people drive around in air-conditioned SUVs, and get big expense accounts-and live in rented housing (which sucks away much of the budget).
The food aid winds up getting stolen (as it was in Somalia), and drives local farmers out of business-as the imported food floods the market. STC publishes pathetic photos of starving children, and gets money from donors-who have no idea how poorly their donations are spent.
In the end, the well-intentioned donations wind up paying bloated salaries and expense accounts, and the disruption of the loacl farming/food production creates more misery.

I’m guessing you just read The Road to Hell.

I’ve been a Peace Corps volunteer for four years and plan a career in international development, so I have some familiarity with the subject.

You are talking about a HUGE subject here. It’s almost impossible to make generalities.

Some organizations are better than others- certainly there are those that are poorly run and make poor use of their resources. And yeah, some are outright corrupt and may even contribute to instability. It’s a by-product of working in places with high corruption and no oversight. On the other hand, however, there are also plenty of organizations that are saving lives like crazy and genuinely helping people lift themselves out of abject poverty. The vast majority are somewhere in the middle- slowly and steadily contributing with the occasional huge success and occasional huge setback.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize from the “air conditioned SUV angle.” If you want to attract qualified professionals to the field, of course they are going to want a lifestyle that is roughly equivalent to their lifestyle in America. Generally these people have master’s degrees, families to support, kids in school (who probably won’t be welcome in the local schools), etc. Why would you expect them to live in a mud hut because of the specific kind of management/economics/international relations skill set they have? Would you expect any highly educated and experienced person in America to be driving around in anything else if it were 100+ degrees regularly and you were navigating on dirt and mud roads?

Even with good salaries and comfortable surroundings, living in these places are harsh. You will get malaria eventually. You will suffer diarrhea for years on end. You will feel lonely and isolated. You will probably have to send the kids to boarding school. You will find yourself a target to every thief in the neighborhood, and may find yourself attracting even scarier things like kidnappers and terrorists. You will end up moving around often. And you may find yourself having to be evacuated with no warning. It’s not an easy life, even with the Land Cruiser.

As with anything in economics and foreign relations, every action has piles of unintended consequences. Some may be bad and some may be good. Aid professionals are certainly aware of the most common pitfalls, and the industry is constantly evaluating itself and adopting the policies that work best. I’d say things are far from perfect, but overall the aid industry does much more good than harm and there are plenty of people working to avoid the mistakes of the past.