Maren's 'Road': too frequently traveled


The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity," by Michael Maren. The Free Press. 320 pages. $25.

This lean and often mean book reads like a morality play - how Lady Bountiful turned Hydra. The stage is the tortured African land of Somalia. Whenever famine strikes, Western public and private relief agencies converge upon it with cargo planes, helicopters and land cruisers. They dump megatons of food and technical aid into the burgeoning refugee camps spawned by civil war and inter-clan fighting.

So what is wrong with trying to save lives? Plenty, argues Michael Maren, a former Peace Corps volunteer and relief worker turned journalist, who has seen the humanitarian programs close-up and finds them inept in concept and destructive, if not evil, in execution.

Far from relieving the plight of the stricken Somalis in the tent enclaves, the food helps demolish the country's shaky social structure. Much, if not all of it, is stolen by bandits and warlords, even before it reaches camps. In the hands of the thugs it becomes a power tool - a means of bribery and blackmail. Because free foreign food robs Somali farmers of the incentive to grow and market their own grains, it throttles the country's agriculture.

The money brought into the capital of Mogadishu and other Somali towns by the thousands of relief workers swells the coffers of local landlords, who happily charge bonanza rates for housing and transportation. The lion's share of the hard currency winds up in the grasp of the warring clans led by the likes of Ali Mahdi Mohamed and his rival Mohamed Farah Aidid. The cash buys arms, boosting the violence to levels that led, in the end to the landing of the U.S. Marines, the ineffective U.S.-U.N. "peacekeeping mission" and the disastrous "nation-building effort."

Leading the parade of villains of the piece in Maren's angry reportage are some of the most hallowed relief organizations which, as he sees them, use the image of large-eyed, sick and fly-plagued African children to generate public and private donations to finance their corporate agendas. Starving kids come last. "Famine," he writes, "was a growth opportunity. Whatever the original intentions, aid programs had become an end in themselves. Hungry people were potential clients to be preyed upon in the same way hair replacement companies seek out bald people."

Having penetrated the public relations curtains and having bearded the agency's top officials in their well-appointed lairs, he lays out a growing banquet of sacred cows, including CARE, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services.

In Somalia's tragedy within a tragedy, the bad guys predominate. Yet there are some genuine heroes, both African and Western, quixotically striving to save the country. Sadly, their struggles all too often end up in disillusionment and sometimes, in death.

For the powers bent on launching more gigantic humanitarian missions, Maren's message echoes the old doctor's adage: First, do no harm.

Hans Knight is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News. His free-lance writing appears in national magazines and newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun and the New York Times.

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