A Lexicon for the Lords of Poverty


White Man's Burden author William Easterly touches off a slightly bitchy conversation at Cato Unbound with a call for more accountability and feedback in foreign aid. Deepak Lal responds with a doom-and-gloom assessment of why that's a nonstarter, but waits until the end of his response to hit at an underappreciated (IMO) problem with aid programs in the field; namely, the people running them:

The unpalatable truth for the many well meaning people who are moved by world poverty and want to do something is that, over the years, alleviating world poverty has become a large international business from which a large number of middle class professionals derive a good living. They have been aptly described by a former East African correspondent of the Economist as the "Lords of Poverty."

I was basically the Lords-of-Poverty-correspondent at Burma's Myanmar Times in 2003, which involved reading 70-page tripartite regional action plans, attending task force meetings, going to regional conferences, and following humanitarian aid workers around in doing the various things they do to avoid having to actually be around poor people. The average aid "action plan" is something like a Tom Friedman column composed entirely of passive verbs—pomposity minus agency. But it will almost certainly make use of all the buzzwords Easterly likes in each and every tortured paragraph: Sustainable! Results-based! Community-driven! That strikes me as a bigger problem than the fact that aid workers currently have no incentive to become innovators; they already think they have.

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  1. This is true of charity organizations in general. The March of Dimes is a good example. They were originall established to fight polio, but they ran into a problem – the polio vaccine, which essentially eliminated the problem. It suddenly became obvious to a lot of people who worked for the March of Dimes that their cushy jobs depended on not actually succeeding in curing the diseases that they were working to cure.

    So they picked muscular dystrophy as their next challenge, a genetic disease whose only cure will be eliminating the defective genes from the breeding population, an impossibility for a recessive condition. No more fear of being put out of business by actual success.

  2. No more fear of being put out of business by actual success.

    That’s what they mean when they say “sustainable.”

  3. APL, I thought The March of Dimes took up the cause of Birth Defects, a problem with multiple causes and no possible single cure save universal sterilization.

  4. Jim Rogers’ “travelogue” books have some extremely interesting comments about these “Lords of Poverty” and about the practical effects of aid programs and charitable giving.

  5. Hmmm. Lords of Poverty would make a good nickname for the Democrats. Plus, LOP goes well with GOP. Which stands for Gave up on Poverty. Or Giddy on Power.

  6. Why government doesn’t work: administration costs co-opt the financial input.
    Question: What is a government without bureaucracy?

  7. Gods of Pornography? Paternalism? Protection

    If smut and sin were out of business, no one would vote GOP, so they have to constatnly fight immorality without ever significantly damaging it or , y’know, winning.

  8. Gods of Pornography–now *there’s* a band name for ya.

  9. That’s the idea, lunchstealer. What’s interesting is that most of both parties’ politicians are wealthy or at least well off and likely say Screw the Poor in their private lives, most of them are downloading porn like the rest of America, most have done or are doing drugs, most aren’t that religious,. . .well, you get the picture.

  10. s.m. koppelman, I think the point is that these people have a vested interest in prolonging the problem. If they could make a billion dollars in a year but solve poverty in, say, Africa, I doubt anyone would complain very much. You’re correct to point out that we shouldn’t expect these sorts of programs to be run for free, though, and there’s no way to offer aid without overhead and, consequently, vested interests arising in the people involved in providing aid.

    This reminds me of a Demotivator on consulting: “If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

  11. I highly recommend the book “Lords of Poverty.” It’s not just the smug, self-important martyrs in the field, conveniently canonized and satirized simultaneously in that awful Angelina Jolie vehicle “Beyond Borders,” but also the pompous, self-important, limo-riding aid bureaucrats in the UN and other international agencies and cynical, headline-seeking politicians in donor countries.

    At the end of the day, the object is to feel better. Not the miserable Third World poor, but the donor. Giving money to the “underdeveloped countries” is politically popular and none of the voters are going to trouble themselves to follow up and see that the money is spent wisely. You know those kids you see on late-night TV, how their lives were changed by aid? The thing is, you only need one kid for the commercial…

    So you got all this money that’s gone the moment it’s appropriated and no one really checking up to see if it’s doing any good. A situation tailor-made for people whose development solutions would be resoundingly rejected by the free market and free elections. The Third World is littered with abandoned development projects that make the “bridges to nowhere” look like wise investments by comparison. Corruption is common and incompetence is the norm. Even disaster relief is often suspect. During the notorious Ethiopian famine of the 80’s people donated clothes, whatever clothes they had lying around, which were dutifully packed into containers and sent to the starving poor. The book is unkind enough to show pictures of bewildered, emaciated Ethiopians surrounded by thousands of pairs of brightly colored women’s shoes. With heels, no less.

    Alexander Cockburn once suggested that the Pulitzer Committee give a prize directly to Africa’s starving poor for “consistent, if hungry, service to First World journalism.” I second that and suggest the Nobel Committee give a Peace Prize to Africa for its efforts to alleviate colonial guilt by creating a black hole for international aid.

  12. IMO the main problem with the LOP is that they are much happier providing ideological solutions than actually solving people’s problems.

    Picture a relief worker taking literally the “Teach a man to fish” analogy and forgetting that the people he’s trying to help live in a desert.

  13. hmm i fail to see how creating a profesional class of workers (the poverty lords) would be counter productive to promoting acountability in aid…just treat those NGOs as contractor firms and hire those firms with the best price and best track record. The NGOs that refuse to inovate or be acountable will be pushed out of the market.

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