Peeping Toms and Disaster Groupies


Lords of Poverty, by Graham Hancock, New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 234 pages, $17.95

"There was a time in my own life when I wanted to work for the UN," Graham Hancock tells us out of the blue, in the middle of this disarming book. "My motives, then, were the classic mixture of goodwill and personal calculation: the feeling that, within the world body, I could fully satisfy my own idealism and also reduce my overdraft at the bank, that I could benefit both myself and others at the same time, that—in short—I could have my cake and eat it, too." He requested a UN application form, but in the end didn't fill it out.

Later he worked for The Economist, but in the 1970s he was one of the editors of the (British) New Internationalist magazine, which had "lucrative contracts" with UNICEF and with the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. This job involved doing publicity work for these agencies—writing press kits, mailing them out to the international news media. Hancock worked on these contracts for a couple of years, thoroughly enjoying himself. At the time he saw the UN system as a sort of Utopia and UNICEF in particular as "a beacon of decency and reasonableness in an unjust and cruel world."

Both UNICEF and the UNFPA have their headquarters in New York, so that was where he was often summoned for "rather frequent consultations." In what he later came to recognize as the true United Nations lifestyle, he used to jet back and forth across the Atlantic as though air tickets were as cheap as bus tickets. "One minute I would be in the NI's poky offices in rural Oxfordshire," he writes, "the next a call would come in from New York querying a paragraph or a sentence and off I would go to Heathrow Airport, to the (increasingly familiar) cabin of the 747, and thence to Kennedy and to the Big Apple itself. I would check into the Tudor Hotel on East 42nd Street ('Have a good day, sir'), sleep off my jet lag, and the next morning take a stroll over to United Nations Plaza to look at the massed flags waving outside the General Assembly before going on to complete the pleasurable little job that I had been called to this wonderful place to attend to.

"I acquired an American Express card during this amazing period and, for the first time in my life, began to regard international travel as a normal, everyday sort of thing rather than as a privilege and a luxury. I became familiar with dozens of bars and restaurants in New York, had my favorite places for 'brunch' and made many new and interesting friends." And so on.

After a while, however, Hancock came to realize just how fruitless and indeed fraudulent the whole international-aid business was and is. Just as "dexterous dodging of the real issues allows the rainmakers to stay in business even though they don't make rain," so "huge sums of our money continue to be transferred to aid organizations that seldom—if ever—produce any tangible results." Hundreds of billions of aid dollars have been spent since World War II. But there is "little evidence" to show that the Third World poor have benefited at all. Indeed, he approvingly cites Lord Bauer's thesis that aid created the Third World.

"Year in, year out, however, there can be no doubt that aid pays the hefty salaries and underwrites the privileged lifestyles of the international civil servants, development experts, consultants and assorted freeloaders who staff the aid agencies themselves." These, therefore, he has singled out for "particular vilification," well aware as he does so that "in deliberately drawing attention to the unsavory, greedy, stupid and dangerous aspects of the aid industry's behavior, I am swimming against the tide of received wisdom." But he has "no apologies for that. In democratic societies, we have the right to know the whole truth about publicly-funded institutions." He concentrates on the "Aristocracy of Mercy"—the UN system (the Food and Agricultural Organization in particular), the World Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

What is interesting and perhaps unexpected about this book is that, although he approvingly quotes Lord Bauer, and cites facts and figures that would bring joy to the heart of conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan (indeed, his vigorous, hard-hitting style sometimes reminds one of Buchanan), Graham Hancock appears to be approaching the subject from the left. There are signs, indeed, that the British left is increasingly willing to expose the whole sickening aid charade, if necessary at the expense of the UN and the World Bank—institutions they once glorified. Libertarians should take note and make common cause where possible.

Hancock reveals his bias when he claims that Nicaragua, "which has had virtually all of its aid cut off since the collapse of the Somoza regime in 1979, things have improved noticeably during the 1980s. Without any of the so-called 'help' that outsiders normally offer, the Government of National Reconstruction has succeeded in reducing illiteracy among adult Nicaraguans from 53 percent to just 13 percent, and has, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, achieved more advances in most areas of social welfare than in 50 years of dictatorship under the Somoza family."

Oh dear, I'm afraid he blew it there, didn't he? In fact, the Sandinista regime has received a lot of aid in the last decade, first from the Carter Administration, and continuously since then from West European countries, not to mention the East Bloc. Moreover, their economy is now a total shambles—far worse than it was in Somoza's time. The reason, of course is the destruction of property rights and the introduction of a militarized (centrally planned) economy.

This is an unfortunate attempt by Hancock to illustrate a sustainable thesis—that the economic condition of nations is improved by the reduction of international aid. The best example in recent years has been Chile. Another country that has greatly benefited from its pariah status (unfortunately it seems not to have recognized the World Bank's cold shoulder as a blessing) has been Taiwan. But Hancock, perhaps revealingly, discusses neither of these countries.

He is also critical of the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund upon countries that are to receive "structural adjustment loans" (i.e. cash in the pocket for corrupt politicians). Among such conditions are: currency devaluation, price stability, spending reductions, elimination of food subsidies, price controls and the legal protection of established businesses, higher taxes, and (latterly) some privatization. The libertarian may well regard this list as a mixed bag; not ideal, but it could be worse. Hancock is critical across the board, however. He seems attached to the idea that each country must pursue its own development path.

Nonetheless, I found myself in agreement with perhaps 95 percent of what Hancock has to say. He is undoubtedly correct in his general belief that the poor countries would be much better off if the aid people packed up and went home, letting the Third World countries work out their own salvation, free of bribes and "great power" interference. As for his assault on the true beneficiaries of the aid scam, it is high time.

His pages on the "packaged poverty" tourists in Ethiopia are the best in the book: "At the height of the famine that took more than a million Ethiopian lives in 1984–5, it was possible during the course of a single morning to travel by light aircraft from the luxury of the Addis Ababa Hilton to the surreal horror of the relief at Korem where tens of thousands of gaunt and ragged people lay strewn like the casualties of some brutish medieval battle across a blasted heath. One could then take pictures, take notes, or otherwise appraise and evaluate the situation, and fly back to Addis Ababa in time to catch an hour of sunbathing at the side of one of the finest swimming pools in the world."

Celebrities by the dozen "came saw, and commented," among them Sen. Edward Kennedy, Bob Geldof, and Cardinal Basil Hume. Plus "swarms of ghoulish holiday makers for whom the conventional East African attractions of safaris, sun, sand, sea and sex were apparently no longer enough.…Some had got off their Nairobi-bound planes on impulse when they stopped over at Addis Ababa and could give no good reason for wanting to visit the famine areas. Peeping Toms and disaster groupies, the truth was that they were driven by a depraved, voyeuristic urge: they wanted to 'get in touch' with poverty."

Contributing Editor Tom Bethell is working on a book on property.