The Big Business of Aid Work

From Time Magazine:

Today aid donors and recipients are increasingly asking, Does aid work? After half a century during which benefactors gave billions of dollars to Africa and Asia, they are finding the answer is often no. There are as many reasons for aid’s failure as there are bad aid projects in the world. But one aspect of modern aid that donors are particularly uneasy about is the way it feels unnervingly like a giant business. Global aid is worth about $120 billion a year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, about the same as the combined annual output of the 20 poorest countries in Africa. And there are striking similarities in how aid and business work. Aid contracts are awarded by competitive tender. Aid agencies are run like corporations, headed by chief executives whose subordinates run departments such as marketing and human re sources. And aid workers, like their corporate counterparts, plot long careers stretching from the regions — in this case African villages — to the top of the ladder at headquarters, perhaps a U.N.-agency office in New York City. For this, they are generously rewarded. Add up the tax-free (except for U.S. citizens) salary of $139,074 to $204,391 earned by a midranking U.N. manager in, say, eastern Congo. Toss in his $75,000 car, his business-class flights home and to development conferences around the world, his children’s education and tens of thousands of dollars a year in other expenses and the total comes to about half a million dollars a year.

Big aid agencies are especially like big businesses. In theory, the goal of every aid agency should be to close up shop, its job done. In practice, that’s often still true of smaller, volunteer projects. But larger agencies focus not on folding but on expanding. The core proposition of global aid conglomerates like Oxfam or Save the Children or CARE or World Vision is not expert, specialized assistance but a branded, indiscriminate offer of help. In one country, that help might involve digging wells; in another, running a school; in a third, distributing medicine; in a fourth, advising on microfinance. Expertise — in a particular disease or disaster or country or type of aid — is often something acquired on the job.


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