“No, I don’t think so: a pump would need gasoline, spare parts, regular maintenance.  Ultimately the contraption would fail them.  They were better off hauling water the ancient way, with donkeys, goatskin pails, and goatskin water containers that when filled looked like little fat goat corpses.”  Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

Sitting at my desk unable to focus on anything work related I decided to try and finish another post before I leave for an upcoming trip to America’s Playground, a place better known as Las Vegas or if you happen to be in Latin America Las Begas. I can’t remember exactly what it was that compelled me to write down that quote but I think it was because rarely have I seen so much knowledge summed up so succinctly, especially from a qualified source – more frequently quotes about development and foreign aid come from academics deeply immersed in thoughts about how the world should work instead of how it does work.

We, in the Peace Corps community, are asked quite frequently what it is that we do, whether it be our friends, our family, host country nationals and/or quite recently our bosses from Peace Corps.  Tricky question to answer, a lot of other aid agencies have big shiny things to point to JICA (Japan) built a bridge over a river, GIZ (Germany) – endlessly funny although they don’t understand the significance of their own acronym when pronounced in English, which in itself is puzzling because quite a few of them speak English and can tell better dirty jokes than me – started a micro-finance cooperative, and USAID gave $80 odd million dollars for an irrigation project but what is my crowning achievement you ask, working with a fellow in the office to improve his Excel skills.

My opinion about a lot of things has changed over the last year, especially my opinions on development and foreign aid.  I have read a lot of articles written about the insignificant amount of money that we, the United States of America, spend on foreign aid and development and how we should spend more.  The amount is almost always contrasted with our ever-mushrooming defense budget, which is a completely unfair and unjust comparison.  Don’t get me wrong the amount of money spent on defense every year is out of control and a wider reflection of our non-sustainable imperial complex but that is a completely different article for a completely different blog.  It’s just that the amount of money spent on defense compared with any other budget line item looks horribly lopsided and allows you to draw a conclusion without thinking and in this case leads you to conclude that the amount of money designated for foreign aid and development should be increased.  My opinion is quite the opposite; the amount of money spent on foreign aid should be drastically reduced and the development budget should be left alone.

Before venturing any further, a distinction needs to be made as to the difference between foreign aid and development. Let us define foreign aid as any group that is primarily engaged in giving money away and let us define development as any group that is actively involved in the development of people on a person-to-person basis.

I along with any other Peace Corps volunteer that you run into that can tell you about the multitude of three quarter constructed decaying recreation centers or the fields full of high tech unused irrigation equipment, and in my case a house that I saw full of half the equipment that would be needed to build latrines, the other half was sold by a person within the community that decided the cash would be better.  These outcomes say nothing of the people I work with or the country that I live in because we are all human and we all respond to incentives in a similar manner.  Three quarter constructed recreation center, sounded better when the idea was proposed and we thought that it was going to have a television and you were going to build it. Fields full of irrigation equipment, gee I sure wish someone would have shown me how to use it better and left me a manual in my own language (true story). Supplies for latrines, I think I would rather feed my children and myself with the proceeds.  None of these outcomes make anyone a worse person but they should tell you something about foreign aid.

Most of the time foreign aid is a waste of money and even worse it promotes laziness and a sense of entitlement, which is becoming ever more prevalent not only in the developing world but also in the developed world. I work with an office full of motivated people who would like to do nothing more than change the lives of the people in the communities that they live in permanently.  Their approach is simple, they work with community leaders to coordinate and deliver educational talks on a variety of issues business, health, and education but I can only imagine that it is a little bit difficult to garner attention on the long-term when someone is giving away $80 million dollars next door.  The incentives have been skewed and the people that have done it are so caught up in the euphoria that comes along with giving that they forgot to consider the long-term effects of what they are doing.  Even worse is the cronyism, corruption, and political philandering that often accompanies these projects – something that definitely leaves a country worse off as a whole while enriching a few.  There is a stretch of road that I use on a monthly basis that has taken over 5 years and counting to pave; in the Unites States it would have been done within six months. Think there might be a problem?

Not to discredit Mr. Kennedy but there is no way that he could have known the genius of the program that he was designing.  The Peace Corps, in most corners of the world, functions on a very personal level and for next to nothing.  It has allowed a virtual army of Peace Corps volunteers to witness the things that I am talking about on a first hand and very personal basis and speak about them intelligently.  For the most part I dislike the music of U2, something that would greatly disappoint many of my Honduran coworkers, but I have nothing against Bono.  I just find it hard to believe that you can understand a culture, their needs, and the things that would benefit them most by (private) jetting in, parading around with a few highbrow politicians, and holding a few fly covered babies.  The Peace Corps, on the other hand, takes a very different approach, we live in the communities that we serve, we take time to get to know the people within them, and above all we do not come with a sack money to give away, we come only with the knowledge that we possess. So when asked what my greatest achievement is so far it is most definitely working with my buddy Onan on his Excel skills.  This is something he wants to learn, will increase his earning power, and didn’t cost anybody a dime.

Now, I am not against all giving but be absolutely sure that the community receiving the benefit actually wants it, has demonstrated buy-in and that there will be a person from your church, club, government, etc. on the ground making sure that things are going where they are supposed to go for the life of the project, day in and day out, and that people from the community will have the knowledge to utilize the equipment or things that have been donated after you leave.  If you can meet these criteria, then give away but I bet you can’t.

Sorry in advance to all of you looking for a more light hearted article and big ups to all my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers sleeping on tile floors because it’s to hot to sleep in your bed, eating cups of noodles for the fourth day in a row because you ran out of money, and any poor soul battling parasites.