They Come in the Name of Helping?

I both completely agree and completely disagree with Peter Brock’s movie, “They Come in the Name of Helping”. This undergraduate student from Skidmore took it upon himself to uncover the Truth behind the dynamics that animate Western aid to the developing world. While I applaud Mr. Brock for the courage he displays by trying to answer such a vast, complex question, I unfortunately feel that he falls short of providing a well-rounded perspective. Having studied the same issues and read the same books as an undegraduate and graduate student, and as someone who is actively involved in “helping” the developing world, Mr. Brock’s movie really stirred me. If you don’t feel like watching the whole movie, here is the basic premise, in Mr. Brock’s words:

“The unsettling coexistence of extravagant material prosperity and abject poverty in our world has caused many well-intentioned people in the more prosperous countries to worry about the condition of the poor. This concern has caused private citizens, corporations and even governments to donate their time, money and resources to the cause of development and poverty alleviation. Despite this deluge of support and the vast crop of NGO’s that it spawned and continues to sustain, the western world has faced considerable difficulty in its attempts to translate these copious resources into concrete improvements in the lives of the world’s poor. To explain these shortcomings, the most insightful critics of western development efforts identify our lack of local knowledge and narrow-minded approach as the root of our repeated failure.

Most of the West’s knowledge about the people of the developing world, and Africans in particular, come from heart-wrenching but superficial newspaper articles and TV news stories about genocide, famine and child soldiering. Even those westerners who wish to understand the issues of poverty and development usually find themselves reading reports from the United Nations or the myriad of NGO’s that make it their work to ‘end poverty’. As with the mainstream media, it is outsiders who almost always author these reports, and they are often written to please the donors who sponsored the project in question. While many western scholars have written lengthy critiques of the development industry and recommendations for its reform, I wanted to see what development efforts look like from the perspective of those they are intended to benefit. I wanted to know if we could gain insights into improving and reforming our development efforts by simply listening to those people whose lives we have sought to change.

With this purpose, I traveled to Sierra Leone, the world’s second poorest country according to the UN development index, and began to ask young students about the effectiveness of foreign development programs. As I had expected, the opinions I heard differed substantially from the hopeful and often self-glorifying accounts given by NGO reports and UN documentaries. These are their stories.”

The problem with this introduction – as with the whole movie – is that it entirely fails to operate essential distinctions between different realities. For instance, I agree that

Most of the West’s knowledge about the people of the developing world, and Africans in particular, come from heart-wrenching but superficial newspaper articles and TV news stories about genocide, famine and child soldiering. Even those westerners who wish to understand the issues of poverty and development usually find themselves reading reports from the United Nations or the myriad of NGO’s that make it their work to ‘end poverty’. As with the mainstream media, it is outsiders who almost always author these reports, and they are often written to please the donors who sponsored the project in question.”

But I simply don’t understand what the logical connection is between those people who have superficial knowledge of the complex issues affecting the developing world, and those who make it their life’s work to understand and bring about change in said developing world. Those are two VERY different categories of people. At the beginning of his introduction he discusses “our repeated failure”. This is something that is definitely hard to grapple with – William Easterly (whose book The White Man’s Burden obviously influenced Mr. Brock a great deal!), describes how the billions of dollars spent in the developing world by the West since the end of the colonial era have very little to show for today. While this is the unfortunate and undeniable truth, Mr. Brock fails to distinguish between the efforts of private citizens to make a difference at a grassroots level, and those of government international aid agencies who invest in infrastructure projects – and everything else in between. This comes back to a previous post about the different types of international organizations operating in the developing world – what a gross misconception to consider them as a whole!! Their goals, philosophy, modes of operation and income structures are so varied. We must aim to not fall for the easy shortcuts – USAID, the Chinese government, UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, and organizations such as The Niapele Project, TunaHaki Foundation or Under The Reading Tree cannot be amalgamated and considered similar. That amounts to intellectual dishonesty. In addition, his assessment that international aid has “failed” is rooted in the notion that this type of aid should be “efficient” and that it should show returns on investment.

We need – from this intellectual standpoint – to get some bang for our buck. I actually somewhat adhere to this position, because it is truly shocking that billions upon billions have been spent, and that, comparatively, very little has emerged from this constant investment. But we must really think about if coming to that conclusion leads us to say that we should then limit international
aid – what exactly would limiting or reducing amounts of international aid accomplish? And is “efficiency” the yardstick to be used to evaluate the impact of international aid?

Governments already spend a minuscule fraction of their budget for this (the stated goal is 0.7% of GDP – which is only attained by Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg and Norway. In fact, the average for OECD countries is 0.46%. Source:
OECD Development Cooperation Report 2007) In any case, whether or not that money is effective should not necessarily be the primary concern – it should be one of an array. I discussed this previously, but shouldn’t we be engaged with those whose situation we find intolerable? According to Mr. Brock, I shouldn’t be involved with Liberian refugees because “I do not fully understand the way their society operates” (repeatedly stated throughout the movie by various protagonists.) Should I then only engage with people I understand? I don’t understand Polish culture very well, in spite of the fact that they are part of the European Union, nor do I understand rural French customs and traditions (and I’m from France).

While I will recognize that there are enormous cultural divides between “us” and “them”, this “us” and “them” is a common yet almost meaningless distinction. I might feel closer to a South African, Ugandan or Brazilian who shares a similar global vision, than to my immediate neighbors. To brandish the excuse of “you don’t understand so you cannot help” is just a very convenient way for people to simply remain disinterested from the communities around them. And, personally, I don’t consider my community to be a geographic one… I (and I hope you do too, dear reader!) belong to a community of values and of vision within which racial, national and religious divides can be bridged.

In his movie, Mr. Brock shows NGO workers relaxing on a beach in Sierra Leone to show that they are disconnected from the reality which they are trying to ameliorate. His interlocutors also point out that there is a discrepancy between wanting to help, and then coming to a developing nation to live
in a big, clean house with a cook and maid, and drive around in a fancy Land Rover. I think this is a very valid claim on their part – indeed, it seems that this creates both resentment and breeds misunderstanding in a wide variety of settings. While this is how a number of international NGOs operate, a lot don’t. I’m not trying to “ring my own bell”, but when we work in Ghana, we don’t drive fancy cars and we live in the same type of house the refugees do (sans electricity or running water, let alone A/C!). In any case, it’s very unfair to denigrate the work that NGOs and international organizations perform simply on the grounds that they live in better circumstances. They should certainly attempt as much as possible to understand the conditions of the people which they are trying to help, but I am not sure that this would necessarily occur if they lived in the same conditions. We all aprehend our reality differently – and even if NGO workers renounced all luxuries while they worked in the field, this is not their permanent reality, and will never be. I think understanding the conditions of those you are trying to help really depends on your own capacity to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, whether you live in a mud hut or in a 4 star hotel is (almost) irrelevant.

Also, I’m not sure what Mr. Brock is trying to accomplish here – should we feel bad for wanting to help where we think we can make a difference? Should people who give money to charitable organizations operating abroad stop doing that on the grounds that they aren’t knowledgeable enough? What exactly is the purpose of pointing to all the dysfunctionings of the international aid sector?

There are horror stories – for instance, how the 2004 tsunami catastrophe was met by the international community by an overwhelming response. A lot of NGOs received unbelievable amounts of financial support that they had no capacity to use – a huge budget is ultimately not a
guarantee of success and can most definitely lead to money being wasted. The unprecedented levels of aid that were deployed in the aftermath of the tsunami have not met a match – the 2005 earthquake in the North of Pakistan did not attract a fraction of the international attention, and the continued, chronic plight of billions around the world still doesn’t attract as much attention (we might cynically note that the tsunami affected Westerners, and not just people with a different skin color, but that is a different topic).

In any case, Mr. Brock’s movie makes some incredibly sweeping claims about the nature and the value of international aid, as if it could be considered as a whole. His approach is based on a perception of aid to developing countries as “neo-colonial” – while this might be a correct framework of reference for some international aid, it certainly isn’t for others. I keep referring to Doctors without Borders, but really, how can we accuse them of being neo-colonial? What should DWB do? Should they no longer intervene when governments and the international community fail to do so? This also highlights the fact that Mr. Brock uses the terms “humanitarian aid” and “development aid” interchangeably, which is another amalgamation of two very different areas of international aid. Shouldn’t we be distinguishing between providing medical and food aid to displaced people and providing micro loans to women? Aren’t these two entirely distinct activities?

I had a wonderful professor at Sciences Po, Mr. Rony Brauman, who was the head of DWB (you guessed it) for many years, and who was one of the original founders of the French Doctors movement. He insisted that, as students and practictioners of international relations, we understand the differences between “development” and “humanitarian” aid – one aims to create or induce socio-economic change, the other has to do with providing urgent, necessary aid in times of crisis when a State is no longer able to take care of its citizens.

To go back to “They Come in the Name of Helping”, Mr. Brock and his interlocutors discuss the importance of education, and how it is the only way for the impoverished to ever fix their own problems. This is obviously extremely true – but currently, the quality of education in a lot of developing nations is pathetic. Besides the poor quality of infrastructure, the lack of books, chalk,
pens, educational materials and pretty much anything that makes a school a school, there is also a problem with teachers’ qualifications, overcrowded classrooms, girls being left out of the system, malnutrition leading to poor physical and intellectual development…. Come on, let’s get serious here. I sincerely, honestly, genuinely wish that today, we could leave it up to developing nations to educate their future leaders, but I don’t think that’s fair or realistic. The need for teacher training, for educational resources and improved curriculums is enormous. If we truly believe that education is salvation (I do, and Mr. Brock apparently does too), then why shouldn’t we support efforts towards that goal?

In any case, Mr. Brock’s movie definitely touches on sensitive issues, and, for those of us involved in international aid, it does incite critical thought, which is great. But we must really be wary of generalizations that oversimplify extremely complex realities. While I agree with a lot of the premises that Mr. Brock puts forward in his movie – essentially, that we need to be respectful and work in genuine partnership with developing nations – I think his movie is quick to judge. Perhaps he should interview those who feel they have genuinely benefited from international aid…
I look forward to the day where Western money and efforts in developing nations will be completely redundant and useless. I really do. But are we there yet? In the mean time, let’s be careful not too judge all international aid as misguided, inefficient and patronizing.

“Both [Ben Bella and Boumedienne, Algerian leaders of the 1960s] are victims of the same drama that every Third World politician lives through if he is honest, if he is a patriot. This was the drama of Lumumba and Nehru; it is the drama of Nyerere and Sekou Touré. The essence of the drama lies in the terrible material resistance that each one encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that it just isn’t happening, that is is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an oppositon. The opposition organizes a coup.
And the cycle begins anew”

Excerpt from Rysszard Kapuscinkski’s The Soccer War.

3 thoughts on “They Come in the Name of Helping?

  1. Penelope,

    I am excited to see that my film provoked such a response from someone as devoted to development as yourself. Interestingly enough I completely agree with all of the critical points you have made. To be frank, the film was not so much intended for veteran development types like yourself, but rather for concerned yet inexperienced western students. But still, your charge of oversimplification is a valid one.

    While making this film (and even now) I laid awake in my bed at night wondering if there was a better way to express the need for respect without such generalizations. As you can probably tell, the film is more about human interactions than development. I was seeking to capture the in a convincing way the reality that development deals with real people’s lives, and furthermore that those ‘people’ are not merely passive sufferers waiting to be saved by the west (think ‘SAVE DARFUR’). I wanted to capture some articulate young Africans expressing their critical opinions as a (perhaps overstated) warning against the type of objectification of the poor that is so common in the west. I wanted to make a counterpoint to the countless images of emaciated African children that appear as advertising for major NGO’s such as World Vision, Save the Children, or CARE. I wanted to shatter this objectified conception of the poor African because I see it as extremely harmful and detrimental to the very cause of development.

    My intention was to make the viewer wary of simple solutions. I wanted to complicate the picture of development that is given by the internet ads reading “Click here to save a child!”. I wanted to make people reflect on why the help others and the way that they do it. I wanted to show African’s who were not hesitant to DEMAND respect from those coming to help them, not to deter them from coming, but to make sure that they come in the spirit of sincerity and cooperation. Hopefully you saw that the main message of the film was that we need a respectful dialogue.

    Also, if you listen closely, you’ll see that I never said that we shouldn’t help people that we don’t fully understand. I simply said that we have to recognize that it is inherently harder to help people and communities which are foreign to us. There a tons of ways to help people abroad, but the path towards each of these solutions begins by recognizing the limitations of our own ‘expertise’. Perhaps I was too harsh in my iteration of this point, but I feel strongly that the battle against the mentality of the savior (a re-incarnation of the colonizer) is extremely important.

    You are quite correct that there are huge differences between humanitarian and development work, but the point about respectful interaction still remains. You are also right to point out the diversity of the NGO world. However, I think that you’ll find that the smaller more grassroots NGO’s that you refer to posses the commitment to sincere and respectful interaction that my film tries to articulate. There are many aspects of development work that are simply beyond the scope of the film. My film is not about ‘development’ (which is a pretty ambiguous and loaded term in itself), rather, as I stated above, it is about human interactions in the context of development. The reality is that most of the particulars about development and development NGO’s are beyond the scope of the film. It is really about people. I make no claim to treat the subject of ‘development’ in its entirety. To do so would be just plain silly. I tried to identify one small but important aspect of development (the need for respectful and sincere interactions) that I felt transcended specific contexts.

    I hope that my comments have helped you understand the intentions behind the film. I greatly appreciate the attention you devoted to the film. The development community would be better off if more people had the type of experiences and convictions that you do.

    In Peace,

    Peter Brock

  2. So…how could I best get a hold of both Penelope and kendema? We, as citizens of action, and some who have experienced the inefficiencies of bureaucracies, are working to build a new global social network for development of third world, moving beyond the MDGs and more directly funding successful programs. Please see Anyway, if interested, also send me an email Cheers, Dan

  3. So…how could I best get a hold of both Penelope and kendema? We, as citizens of action, and some who have experienced the inefficiencies of bureaucracies, are working to build a new global social network for development of third world, moving beyond the MDGs and more directly funding successful programs. Please see Anyway, if interested, also send me an email Cheers, Dan

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