You can lead a horse to water, but why then drown him in it?
February 23, 2011, 12:40 am
Filed under: Editorializing | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes good intentions go wrong. It’s bad enough when it happens on a small scale, as when an intended compliment of today’s haircut turns into an insult of last week’s haircut; but it can be tragic when it happens on a large scale, as when international aid and investment projects with the ostensible goal of helping people actually turns out to harm the so-called beneficiaries. As I heard tonight, help forced upon you isn’t really help.

That insight comes from Jeremy Levine, producer of an excellent film called Good Fortune. I recommend seeing it. The film follows the stories of two Kenyans: Silva, a midwife who was living in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, and Jackson, a teacher and farmer who lives in a rural area on the fringes of a large rice plantation owned by Dominion Farms. Silva’s life was uprooted by a UN Habitat sponsored project to redevelop the slum in which she lived; Jackson was uprooted by flooding from Dominion Farms’ dam, which destroyed his house, farm, and livestock in the name of bringing development to rural Kenya.

The film is impressionnant (forgive my French, I didn’t have a better word in English) in a couple ways. Obviously, the perspective is limited to only two stories, but the filmmakers do a good job of weaving in the viewpoints of UN Habitat and Dominion Farms as well, and there is no overlay narrative, allowing the Kenyans to speak for themselves. And they speak eloquently. Jackson and his community are quick to identify the risks the rice plantation brings, with the degraded quality and malaria-risk of stagnant water and the exposure to chemicals sprayed from planes onto the rice. They draft and sign a letter to send to the government and to human rights groups. Silva, for her part, points out the new buildings already looming on the border of the slum, built by politicians under rhetoric of providing affordable housing, which as it turns out became housing for politicians. She has no illusions that international aid is the solution they’ve been waiting for. And the Kenyan and UN forces pushing for the redevelopment of the slum make the all-too-common mistake of confusing “engaging the public as partners” with “educating the public on why our ‘expert’ plans are better.”

The film by no means proves that international aid is as a rule harmful, nor does it set out to do so. But it does show very clearly two cases in which it has been quite harmful, serving to remind us that we must ask more of those who, regardless of their intentions, use our taxes, donations, and savings to “help.”

Just as green has its dark side (e.g. pollution from manufacturing PV cells or from disposing of hybrid car batteries, or rainforest destruction and rising food prices from biofuels), so has aid. I highly recommend Thomas Dichter’s Despite Good Intentions for more cases of how aid doesn’t live up to its intent (and to a lesser extent William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, with the caveat that he perhaps includes aid figures that weren’t necessarily intended for development, e.g. military aid during the cold war). [Also good is this article on Slate which presents some examples of where Hernando de Soto’s innovative ideas presented in The Mystery of Capital haven’t worked as intended.]

So the upshot is that we must be more skeptical in letting our money, whether taxes, charity, or investments, go toward development or other good intentioned plans, both domestically and internationally (and this includes SRI and impact investing). And we should take seriously the task of listening and empowering people to act on their own behalves, which can be more powerful than money.

I wish I’d had the chance to ask the producer at the panel tonight whether he also remarked on the irony that while he was making this movie, a development project was kicking people out of their homes … much closer to home. The stadium at Atlantic Yards in downtown Brooklyn, currently being built by developer Bruce Ratner and supported by Mayor Bloomberg, is of course touted as bringing jobs and tax dollars to my neighborhood. [See Brooklyn Boondoggle here.] And I, like many of my neighbors, didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it, wish my tax money weren’t supporting it, tried to stop it, and will be getting it anyway. That’s not to say that my situation is anything like Jackson’s and Silva’s, but it is to say that I do wish we would fix our models of development before we thrust them upon others.


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