Using Somalia in the 1980s as a case study on the effectiveness of development assistance, as Michael Maren does in his latest book, is comparable to using 19th-century New York’s Tammany Hall to assess the success of the American democratic experiment: neither is a particularly representative case study. Using this defective approach, The Road to Hell presents the most sustained attack on relief and development assistance appearing in print in the United States in recent years.
Maren’s book covers the tumultuous period in Somali history between 1979 and 1993. The attempt by both the Carter and Reagan administrations to shore up the regime of Siyaad Barre by pouring massive amounts of aid into Somalia has long been regarded as one of the most egregious examples of abused aid in the post-Cold War period. Maren, accordingly, does not stint his criticism of those involved. He sharply criticizes the programs of two major American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), CARE and Save the Children, as well as the United Nations, the American news media, the American military, and Western government efforts to deal with the Barre regime and the famine and civil war that followed its collapse.
Questions about the effects of poorly considered international aid need to be asked and indeed are in a growing body of literature on humanitarian relief interventions in failing states. Unfortunately, Maren’s book addresses few of these issues. Instead, it is an attempt to write a popular book for the general public on an issue of enormous complexity using as illustrations events now seventeen years in the past. The Road to Hell ignores the past four years, during which there have been profound changes in the international aid community.
The first of these changes has come about due to the end of the Cold War. Maren argues that there is a connection between the collapse of three countries in Africa — Zaire, Liberia, and Somalia (he could have added Sudan to the list) — and the fact they were showered with the most generous aid budgets by Western governments during the post-colonial era. An arguable point. Maren fails to make the distinction, however, between serious development assistance and politicized aid. In each of these countries, the size and purpose of the aid budgets were so politicized by the Cold War that development and relief issues were pushed aside by the State and Defense departments. The aid was not in fact about relief and development, but about resisting Soviet expansionism.
If anything, Maren’s treatment of Western government development assistance to Zaire, Liberia, and Somalia argues for protecting the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from absorption into the State Department. It is an axiom of relief and development work that when aid is completely subordinated to geopolitics — and it was more ruthlessly in the three cases he has cited than any other in Africa — the level of abuse and the pernicious unintended consequences of the aid will increase.
On the nongovernmental relief side, The Road to Hell overlooks the fact that NGOs have outgrown the political naivete they suffered from years ago. In particular, the NGO relationship with the U.S. government has taken a much more discerning direction since the end of the Cold War. In December of 1994, for example, at least two dozen international NGOs announced they were withdrawing from Goma, Zaire, because European and American government food aid was being diverted for military purposes by the Hutu militias (responsible for the Tutsi genocide seven months earlier) that controlled refugee camps housing nearly a million Hutu refugees. In Liberia, NGOs agreed to a unified strategy that included denying aid in order to end the periodic looting of relief agency food aid stocks and equipment, which had been occurring over the course of the civil war.
One of Maren’s central criticisms of nongovernmental aid agencies is that they are cynically driven by the pursuit of income and market share. But his criticism of NGOs for trying to access both government grants and private funding begs the resource question: how are they supposed to do their work if they have no funding or staff? While NGOs do experience internal friction between marketing staff and program and policy staff, the financial bottom line does not always drive their decision-making. Despite the high profile of the relief effort in Somalia in 1992 — and the potential for government and private grants — many NGOs resisted becoming involved because of security concerns and because they were busy with emergencies elsewhere. As the USAID official in charge of the relief response, I had to bring the CEOs of a dozen relief agencies (the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, World Vision, CARE, and Lutheran World Relief among others) into the country to witness the severity of the famine in order to convince them that their agencies were needed.
In his analysis of the media response to threatened African famines in the early 1990s, Maren accuses aid agencies and the media with creating fictional crises presumably to raise more money from a “gullible” public. But in fact, the worst drought of the twentieth century did threaten nearly thirty million people in the Horn (1990-91) and southern Africa (1992) with famine. These famines did not take place thanks to massive donor aid agency, U.N., and NGO relief efforts, including nearly three million tons of food aid. The droughts were very real and the loss of life would have been massive without international relief efforts.
Maren charges that humanitarian aid in Somalia saved only a modest number of lives, and points out that the death rates began to decline before aid agencies or the military arrived. Most of the people would have died without it. The death rates were indeed dropping before the U.S. military intervened in December, but what Maren does not say is that the deaths in the summer and early fall of 1992 were the third wave of deaths from starvation in two years. By September 1992, the Red Cross and NGOs working in chaotic conditions were feeding over a million people each day. And had the military not intervened, a fourth wave of deaths would have occurred. Farmers would not have been able to return home to plant their crops and nomads could not have reconstituted their animal herds had the insecurity in the countryside continued. The relief effort saved hundreds of thousands of lives and allowed the Somalis to restore agricultural self-sufficiency to their country — no small accomplishment in anarchy
The Road to Hell argues that the U.S. military could never have only addressed the famine (as President Bush insisted) but by definition also had to get involved in nation building. In fact, Somalia still has no national government, but the agricultural system is functioning quite well in most areas, and there is no mass starvation. Nation building did not need to be added to the military mission.
No complex emergency response in the post-Cold War era has been as intensely studied as Somalia. Disputes linger in almost every area of inquiry: over the pernicious effects of relief aid, over the number of deaths and lives saved, and over the consequences of U.S. military intervention. That some poor decisions were made in Somalia by some decisionmakers — U.N., U.S. government, military and NGO — is indisputable. But what Maren does not examine is the dilemmas relief agencies faced: what the alternatives were and what their outcomes would have been; how to protect NGO staff from violence and threats and still get the job done; how to avoid the unintended but pernicious consequences of some acts of charity; how to define neutrality in anarchy; and how to design and run relief and rehabilitation programs in the middle of war.
The book’s most striking characteristic is its endless, unrelenting cynicism. All relief and development programs he mentions are not only failures, but damaging to the societies they are designed to help. I have seen some project failures, but far more successes. Maren would have helped us all if he had told us which relief projects work, which don’t, and why. The Road to Hell’s confused narrative and time line, its hyperbole bordering on historical caricature, its repeated factual errors, and its poor research make it an undistinguished book. Most humanitarian agencies have their problems and are engaged in a painful effort at self-analysis and self-criticism. They do need help. This book doesn’t offer it.