United Nations

The United Nations' 'Lords of Poverty'

The foreign aid industry is a racket.


In 2004, I attended a gathering of African libertarians in Mombasa, Kenya. Our goal was to discuss economic reforms that sub-Saharan Africa needed in order to achieve higher rates of growth and a greater reduction in poverty. In many a developing country, taxi drivers are founts of wisdom, and so I struck up a conversation with the man who drove me from the airport to the hotel. When he asked me what brought me to Kenya, I responded that I was partaking in a conference about economic development. My taxi driver shook his head and muttered, "You all fly here for a few days, stay at the nicest hotels, and nothing ever changes."

Our hotel in Mombasa was nothing special and libertarian gatherings are not, as a general rule, opulent affairs (especially in Africa!), but my brief conversation with the Kenyan taxi driver was instructive. Clearly, he assumed that I was a part of the travelling circus of thousands of officials from aid agencies, international organizations and NGOs, who enjoy business-class travel to some of the world's most exotic destinations, where they are housed and dined at the taxpayers' expense.

To wit, consider a recent story from the Associated Press, which found that the United Nations' World Health Organization "routinely spends about $200 million a year on travel—far more than what it doles out to fight some of the biggest problems in public health including AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria." According to the WHO's internal documents, which were obtained by the AP, "staffers are breaking the rules by booking perks like business class airplane tickets and rooms in five-star hotels."

"On a recent trip to Guinea, where WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan praised health workers in West Africa for triumphing over Ebola," the AP found, "Chan stayed in the biggest presidential suite at the Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry. The suite has an advertised price of 900 euros ($1,008) a night."

Some aid specialists, including the inestimable William Easterly, who is the Professor of Economics at New York University and co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute, have long complained about this sort of behavior. In his 2007 book, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, Easterly drew the readers' attention to the aid establishment's ineptitude in stimulating growth in poor countries and attempting to implant Western institutions "from the top down."

Graham Hancock's 1994 book, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, is still worth reading. As the author explains, much of foreign aid is used to subsidize opulent lifestyles within the aid establishment. "Only a small portion of [aid money]," Hancock writes, "is ever translated into direct assistance. Thanks to bureaucratic inefficiency, misguided policies, large executive salaries, political corruption, and the self-perpetuating 'overhead' of the administrative agencies, much of this tremendous wealth is frittered away."

President Donald Trump is said to be considering large cuts to foreign aid. Those cuts cannot come soon enough. But Trump should take his reform agenda (provided that it is genuine) a step further and order a thorough audit of our international commitments. American membership in hundreds of international and supra-national agencies should be evaluated on a cost-benefit basis (I volunteer to sit on such a panel and wield an axe on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer) and withdraw from ineffective or outdated organizations. That, alas, is the only way to put an end to the travelling circus of the Lords of Poverty.

P.S.: For those interested, I tried to summarize the most pertinent arguments against foreign aid in a 2009 Cato paper, "The False Promise of Gleneagles: Misguided Priorities at the Heart of the New Push for African Development."

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  1. Good paper on issues facing Africa.

    Decades of foreign aid to Africa have clearly created more problems than solved.

    As with many regions, the peoples of Africa have to want and fight for Democracy. Forcing a government type on people just does not work.

    Kind of like forcing aid on people just to make yourself feel good or that you are doing something to “help people”.

  2. When he asked me what brought me to Kenya, I responded that I was partaking in a conference about economic development. My taxi driver shook his head and muttered, “You all fly here for a few days, stay at the nicest hotels, and nothing ever changes.”

    As you must have given him the name of the hotel you booked, he should have known for a fact whether or not it was one of the nicest. PLOT HOLE FOUND.

    If the president were to make US foreign aid contingent on systemic reforms, the UN touters would completely lose their shit.

    1. And the US would immediately be accused to forgoing it’s humane obligation to help the less fortunate of world by punishing the victims.

    2. For the taxi driver, all hotels frequented by foreigners are probably so much better than any place he cold afford that there’s no point in differentiating. Is Bill Gates richer than Warren Beatty? To me, it’s no practical difference.

      1. I would assume Bill Gates is far, far richer than Warren Beatty.

        1. To the average person, there’s no practical difference.

        2. If you assume that Scarecrow absent-mindedly typed “Beatty” when he meant to type “Buffet”, the comment makes sense.

    3. And celebrities like Katy Perry et al would start a tour to lambast the evil Republicans for letting the poor starve; and she would only keep 90 cents on every dollar and claim it as a charity event. The media would love it.

  3. It’s not just the NGO’s and the international aid groups that do well by doing good – ask Jessie Jackson or Elizabeth Dole or Hillary Clinton or the Pope how their charity work pays. It’s hard to tell which is the icing and which the cake, the pay or the smug self-satisfaction of being magnanimous with other people’s money.

    1. This. There was some crappy tv show on recently about Princess Diana. Like she was a huge hero for going around to charity events. There are dozens of unsung heroes right in your own town who volunteer daily at hospitals who are far more worthy of celebrity than some “princess” who is given fashionable clothing, private jets, first class hotel rooms, etc. etc. to walk through a ward with flowers in her hand and pat sick kids on the head.

      1. But it plays so well; and every paparazzi with a camera wanted nothing more than to chase her down and get any pic they could, until the very end.

        1. every paparazzi with a camera wanted nothing more than to chase her down and get any pic they could, until the very end.

          I see what you did there.

        2. You don’t have to be in front of the cameras servings sandwiches to the homeless, you could instead be in back away from the cameras making the sandwiches. Princess DiFi could have helped if she really wanted to.

          1. What kind of dumbasses are the brits? They worship the Windsors. This is a family, like all royal families, who got rich taxing the shit out of people and stealing land over the centuries.

            They are rewarded with praise and admiration for some reason by the throngs of sheep.

            Good for them for fooling dumbasses.

      2. That’s just crazy Jesus talk.

  4. Poverty is like an industry to organizations that exists to serve it. Their leaders generally do very well in terms of salary and perks, and lessor minions get a job out of the bargain. It gives them a reason to exist and to justify asking for money to support themselves first and their causes second. And yet they accomplish so very little beyond this.

    The primary transgressor, the UN, is about as worthless as tits on a boar hog.

    1. XPovertyX Government is like an industry to organizations that exists to serve it.


  5. So quit funding crooks. Get out of all UN functions beyond the minimal international war monitoring/prevention, and only pay a proportionate share of that.
    Introduce a motion to move the UN headquarters to Jerusalem and sell of all that valuable NY real estate. Then go after all the unpaid fines and parking tickets run up by the grafters, and help NY pay for their free college.

    1. “So quit funding crooks. Get out of all UN functions beyond the minimal international war monitoring/prevention”

      Why support even that? Recent history seems to indicate that the same amount of good could be achieved by airdropping G.I. Joes into any war zone. The plastic figures.

      The U.N. is such a spectacular failure that its iconic headquarters were completely ignored by the 9/11 plotters. It is a cesspool of kleptocrats and less savory characters. It should be told to pack its bags and leave, and the building (after no doubt extensive remediation; I doubt like hell they’ve kept up with maintenance) covered to a far more morally defensible and socially useful purpose.

      A combination casino and brothel.

      1. It’s already a casino and brothel. It’s just very exclusive.

  6. Get out of the UN all together. I t serves no purpose anymore.

    The peace keepers are often only relegated to fringe wastes of money.

    The UIN should be disbanded along with all of the other cronyists incinerations of money:

    IMF, World Bank, UN, EU, FED banks all over the world, Bank of International settlements, WHO, IPCC, etc….
    all of these things are simply conduits for corruption and slush funds for bureaucrats to fund junkets all over the world.

  7. Ugh. My X was part of that world (lawyer who worked for USAID, then an NGO). Being stuck at a party with a roomful of these people telling smug tales of travelling the world to do nothing useful was a foretaste of hell.

    1. That would have made a good venue for Sarte’s No Exit; a truly existential view of hell, bound in a room full of self congratulatory parasites who considered themselves “in the know” with nothing to show for it.

    2. Same here. ex-GF, first SIPA, then USAID, then UNICEF. 6 years or so of cocktail parties with other MIA-holding aspirants eager to climb the International Aid ladder.

      The people from latin america/africa/SE Asia (basically everyone non US/European) seemed far savvier about how everything worked = they realized that the whole thing was a game for self-advancement and personal bennies. Because that’s how everything worked in their own countries = people didn’t have jobs to ‘do the work’. the jobs existed to dole benefits out to connected people. Every 2-3 years there would be a new buzzword for them to have new conferences about. e.g. “Microfinance”; “Water politics”; “leveraging non-traditional labor pools” The important thing was to constantly change the subject so no one noticed that all the previous ‘great ideas’ from 10 years ago had simply turned into more-corruption and waste. If they noticed that, people might start questioning the wisdom of the new great-ideas.

      the typical pattern was to spend 5-6 years in the UN system, then go back to some cushy govt job in their home country, and eventually become assistant minister of stealing money from the public something important-sounding.

      the upside is that the conversation was always interesting, and the booze was better than bottom shelf.

      1. You haven’t seen sick until you’ve heard high school kids tell you in private that such work is their aspiration. It’s just terrorism of another stripe.

        1. . It’s just terrorism of another stripe.


          not really. It bureaucracy. Bureaucracy (and its associated corruption) is a boat-anchor on economic growth and prosperity, but its not equivalent to ‘terrorism’. Equivocation like that is silly.

          What those young kids are saying is that they want to have a job that people perceive as prestigious and morally-elevated.*

          (*something i’ve repeatedly talked about here over the years – younger people these days seem to have a pronounced case of “moral narcissism” – the idea that ‘being seen’ as a moral person is crucially important. It drives so much of people’s online-preening and things like twitter-social-justice activism; there seems very little concern with the substance of do-gooding, and far more concern with the appearance of it – hence the appeal of working for an International Aid NGO, which is pretty much the apex of that sort of thing)

          The fact is that people who work in the International Aid space don’t even realize themselves that its mostly a scam until they’ve been in it for a few years. its only obvious to the already-cynical.

          the idea of traveling around the world and “helping the poor” just sounds nice. add in ‘being treated like a diplomat’, and constantly having your ego stroked by academics, and it certainly beats working in an office downtown for some profit-grubbing corporation.

          1. This and all American schools teach about the collective, community and service. I hear it all the time in high schools.
            Of course people who are brainwashed want to work for gov’t organizations. Teachers tell them that’s where the jobs, money, and perpetuation of the beast comes from.

      2. G-
        Some of the conversation was interesting, but not necessarily in the way they thought. Hearing a guy talk for 15 minutes about going to “help out” after a typhoon, only to realize his accommodation was a converted CONEX container on a ship and he never even went ashore certainly qualifies as interesting, in a quietly horrifying way as I realized what a grifter the guy was.
        The snacks were usually pretty good.

    3. And don’t forget the constant name dropping! Any time I’ve been to those types of events, I make mental notes of who has dropped a name and I put them on a mental list of ass-holes who are almost certainly stealing money.

      Pretty much anyone who does business in places where ‘business’ consists of graft and corruption are going to be indistinguishable from those they’re ‘helping’ in my view.

      Real ‘help’ is what happens on the ground, and these types of autocratic bureaucrats will never come close to understanding it.

  8. See also: Poverty, Inc on Netflix. Lots of examples of real harm inflicted by the NGO-industrial-complex.

  9. Our hotel in Mombasa was nothing special and libertarian gatherings are not, as a general rule, opulent affairs (especially in Africa!), but my brief conversation with the Kenyan taxi driver was instructive.

    And yet you flew to Kenya to have your conference. I’ve been to international conferences too. But never in Kenya. Because it’s not an easy place for Americans or Europeans to get to. Yet it’s the destination of choice for white folk wanting to have conferences about the economic state of Africa.

    1. Skype?

      All non-profits should be using Skype or go to meeting or office 364.

      There is a whole business outside of gov’t NGO’s that makes money off of regulation.
      What a massive misallocation of resources.

  10. Breaking news: U.N. wretched hive of scum and villainy.
    In other news: Obi-wan Kenobi still dead.

  11. The League of Nations was a narcotics price-fixing conspiracy. Just look at Article 23, repeated pretty verbatim in the Treaty of Versailles. The Senate had sense enough to stay out of it–and the Kyoto chicanery. But The Bomb gave the false hope that These States could clean up and reform Europs. There is no clearer example of entangling alliances than that Medusa-head of European knavery and vampirism.

  12. The way our money is abused is very depressing. We pay taxes all our lives and most we see is just waste and corruption.

  13. A very good book that shows how ignorant these foreign aid people are and therefore why nothing they do is helpful: “Doing Bad by Doing Good; how humanitarian action fails” by Christopher J Coyne. Highly readable and chock full of examples of the faulty thinking behind grand plans to help the poor, and the utter cultural ignorance about how people do live and need to continue to live in these foreign countries where we toss away so much money on big constructions that don’t function as planned, supplies that are useless to the inhabitants, and downright cruel transplantation of people to the wrong environments and with no instructions on how they are supposed to adapt to the new lifestyles imposed on them. Just so a few people an enrich themselves while patting themselves on the back for “helping the poor”.

  14. “My taxi driver shook his head and muttered, ‘You all fly here for a few days, stay at the nicest hotels, and nothing ever changes.'”

    Piss on this cab driver. He should be thanking the civilized world for trying to help his backward continent full of backward people. Obviously the West isn’t handing out enough money for this guy’s satisfaction.

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