A Brilliant Polemic

One of Canada’s NGO leaders lays out what’s wrong with the world of aid

On the dust jacket of this book, Stephen Lewis writes, “This is an extraordinarily riveting book. The anecdotes are heart-wrenching; the analysis is trenchant, principled, uncompromising. I never read a book in one sitting: I read Damned Nations in one sitting, and I regretted that it came to an end.”

Hmm. It is no secret that Stephen Lewis is a past master at mobilizing hyperbole and sending it into battle. Reading a book in one sitting depends not just on its content, but its length and the amount of time you have available. I too have never read a book in one sitting, but I did read this one in two, and I have certainly never done that. Damned Nations is all that Stephen Lewis says it is, and more.

Samantha Nutt, a medical doctor, has worked on the front lines of humanitarian assistance in some of the world’s worst calamities: Somalia, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, the Congo, Liberia. She is a founder of the well-respected non-governmental organization War Child, and she has worked with a range of other academic and development organizations. The “damned nations” of her title are not just those at the pointy end of “greed, guns, armies and aid,” but also industrialized countries that are infected with greed, those that purvey weapons and those doling out aid that is often too little, too late and too foolish to do more than harm.

Nutt does not just take on some of the most sacred cows in the aid business; she slays them and kicks them over into some pretty deep graves. This book is not an attack on foreign aid or the humanitarian enterprise, however. It is nothing like the simplistic Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo, who cannot find a problem that markets and foreign direct investment will not cure. And it is not anything like Michael Barnett’s recent attempt to explain emergency assistance, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, which took me ten sittings at least, leaving me none the wiser at the end.

Nutt cuts right to the chase. She excoriates the competitive, uncoordinated NGO jamborees that erupt around humanitarian emergencies. She has no time for the onslaught of personal projects, novelty start-ups and celebrity-led aid efforts managed by people without experience. Doesn’t every little bit help? she asks. The answer is simple: “It does not.” The ubiquitous shipments of shoes, clothing and blankets are mostly inappropriate or unusable, and in Haiti, the baby formula that some well-meaning donors sent into an environment where education and clean drinking water were in short supply provided “a direct gateway for cholera and dysentery.”

And she has no time for the “exploding industry of volunteer tourism,” in which “gawkers and do-gooders … unable to resist the urge to do something,” often wearing “conspicuously matching T-shirts,” head off to dig latrines or build orphanages. These “voluntourists” may learn something important—perhaps a lot—but they rarely do anything that locals cannot do themselves. Where orphanages are concerned, they form bonds with orphaned children and then just as quickly break them, adding to the children’s feeling of abandonment. In fact, Nutt has no time at all for orphanages: the much-touted idea that in Haiti they are part of the social fabric is “utter nonsense.” “Every major study on this issue has found that institutionalizing children is harmful to their physical, emotional, and psychological development. That’s why orphanages no longer exist in North America.” Orphanages are, she says, symptomatic of a failed system of aid, one that should have been critically reviewed as part of a broader national child welfare and protection strategy before outsiders rushed in to rebuild them so feverishly.

The entire humanitarian movement “and the cacophony of NGOs it has spawned” is rooted in a 50-year-old fundraising industry based on developing country squalor, poverty and helplessness, exemplified by images of children—almost always under ten years old—and the message that by “sponsoring” or “adopting” one, a donor can make a lasting difference. Child sponsorship works, in the sense that it raises money. It probably accounts for 70 percent of all private donor fundraising in North America, Japan, Australia and some countries in Europe. It raises money because it shortens the distance between the giver and the receiver, even if, in reality, most of the money goes not to individual children but more sensibly to community development projects. But that is not how it is sold, and it is mostly not how it is understood. It is paternalistic in the truest sense of the word, it dumbs down donor understanding of what the real problems are and, as Nutt says, “it perpetuates racial stereotypes and ultimately marginalizes the very communities such programs are intended to serve.”

Nutt is not opposed to foreign aid. She is opposed to the way it has been explained, and the way it has been used to advance political and commercial agendas. And she rails against stupidity. The answer to misspent aid is not less; it is better. She recalls Lester Pearson’s 1969 creation of an aid target for western donor nations: 0.7 percent of gross national product. Some countries have reached the target without a great deal of angst, but Canada never has, and we wallow today in the shallows, our aid “capped” at a level that makes Canada one of the least generous nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Aid, Nutt says, is an imperfect response to a violently imperfect world, but she rejects the idea that aid in itself is a problem. Aid “can be enormously beneficial in improving education and health, strengthening governance, and promoting social stability. Aid has the potential to be of tremendous value in tackling systemic injustices and inequities, and in curbing deaths from war, famine, and natural disasters. The challenge is in knowing which factors contribute to the various sides of this equation.”

So how do we, or can we, know what these factors are? One way is by listening to the people we want to help. This does not sound very difficult, but in a world of organizations determined to show donors quick and tangible results (like an orphanage), the longer term in which most people hope to live is forgotten, and listening becomes a secondary concern. The assumptions and priorities of outsiders rule. Nutt talks about the importance of supporting women, not just with education and economic development, but in their quest for rights and justice. This requires investment in legal systems, including support for lawyers, paralegals and judges—not things that come readily to mind when the average Canadian is thinking of making a donation. “The next time you’re scanning a charity’s gift catalogue, forget the goat—give a lawyer. It might be harder to explain, but it will be worth the effort.”

Nutt takes on those who have whinged about the International Criminal Court and how the indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir led to the expulsion of several international NGOs from Sudan. The ICC was grandstanding, many said, and the indictment was little more than symbolic, scuttling chances for a negotiated settlement. Here, too, Nutt is characteristically forceful. “The indictment,” she says, “was a bold step precisely because of its symbolism,” and it may prove far more effective than negotiations and diplomacy “in holding to account those whose fingerprints are on civilian slaughter.”

When the campaign to halt blood diamonds began more than a decade ago, many in the diamond industry argued that diamonds do not kill people. Charlton Heston notwithstanding, guns do, they said. No one had actually said that diamonds kill people, but it took several years for the industry to understand and acknowledge that the way a mineral is mined, how it is sold and by whom can have a very direct impact on the peace and security of the country where it is produced. Rebel armies used diamonds to buy weapons, and despite the half million people who died as a direct result of Africa’s diamond wars, the Kimberley Process that was set up to regulate the international trade in rough diamonds continues to stumble badly. Nutt takes on the wider mining industry for its blindness to violence in the Congo and surrounding countries and for its contribution to corruption, instability and a plague of sexual violence against women. This is a complicated story, but Nutt sums it up well. In the United States, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act on improved financial regulation contained a small paragraph that could revolutionize the way American end users think about and report on their imports of tin, gold, coltan and other minerals from the Congo. In Canada, a private member’s bill—Bill C-300—would have required Canadian mining, oil and gas companies operating abroad to meet strict environmental and human rights standards. It was defeated. Companies lobbied strenuously against it, many of them saying that they would simply have to leave some African countries or even leave Canada if it were passed. There was an alternative, Nutt says: “they could just do the right thing.”

But she understands the diamond industry’s complaint and agrees that ultimately, it is guns that kill people. And she reminds us of the complicity of the industrialized world in arming dozens of poor countries “mired in the effluent of Cold War misadventure and colonial buffoonery.” Developing countries today account for some 75 percent of all global arms-transfer agreements, and while it is easy enough to pin blame on the end user, this is a business where it takes at least two to tango. Canada is among the world’s top ten arms-exporting countries, and Nutt points out that few Canadians are immune from indirect responsibility. The Canada Pension Plan holds over $200 million in investments in weapons-manufacturing firms, and all but two provincial teachers’ pension funds have invested in arms-producing companies.

This book can be read in one or two sittings not only because it is compelling, but also because it is not a tome. Nutt ranges across the wide spectrum of problems faced by developing countries and makes a strong case for a comprehensive approach to ending war and calamity. It is not just about Band-Aids, although there are times and places for those. It is about predictable, intelligent, long-term development assistance as well as attention to some of the bigger issues: how and where we invest, justice, human rights and the arms trade. There was room in the book for another chapter, perhaps, on trade. Trade is something all Canadians know is essential to prosperity and growth. But industrialized countries have bent over backward to protect their own industries with subsidies and tariffs while insisting that poor countries follow the orthodoxy of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. The United States, for example, spends on average a billion dollars a year to subsidize American rice farmers. Cheap American rice undercuts African rice producers whose governments, forbidden on pain of aid suspension from doing the same thing, must depend on imports or even food aid—often from the United States—to feed their people. The same applies to other countries and other goods, including the textile industry, which was the engine of the western industrial revolution.

Damned Nations benefits from two major strengths. One is that Samantha Nutt makes the issues easy to understand. The second is that her passion is evident, and she is at her best when she illustrates her points with personal stories, often of people she has befriended in her travels. Nadine, a 17-year-old Congolese girl, is trying to learn carpentry and construction because she knows she will never marry. Doubly victimized, no man will have her because of the dozens of times she was raped by soldiers and rebels. Margaret Hassan, a 58-year-old British national who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, manages the CARE program after the fall of Saddam. Openly disdainful of aid incompetents, she is ultimately abducted and murdered on camera by monsters who call themselves a “revolutionary” brigade. Aquila al-Hashimi, an Iraqi civil servant who is an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein, the American invasion and botched aid programs alike, is appointed to Iraq’s Interim Governing Council. A graduate of the Sorbonne, she tells her daughters that when the war ends she will take them for a visit to Paris. She hopes that it will be soon. “I am ready to live my life,” she says. Instead, she is shot to death in front of her home and her children.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Nutt thanks all those who assisted in what she describes as a lengthy and difficult drafting process. Damned Nations does not come across that way. It is a smooth but unsettling read. It takes the warp of Nutt’s messages back and forth through the weft of her personal experience, and it packs a wallop without talking down to the reader. This is an important book on an important subject. It is a readable, adult treatment of issues that have for too long been infantilized by fundraisers, abused by politicians and mishandled by well-meaning bunglers.