All Commentary
Sunday, June 1, 1997

The Road to Hell by Michael Maren

A Brutally Honest Personal Account of the Ravaging Effects of Foriegn Aid and International Charity

The Free Press • 1997 • 302 pages • $25.00

Mr. Vance is an instructor at Pensacola Bible Institute and a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida.

The old cliché says: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is, the best of intentions often result in the worst of consequences. Yet, although everyone would certainly agree that feeding starving children is one of the best intentions that anyone could have, few would ever imagine that such noble humanitarianism could have disastrous consequences.

The Road to Hell, by Michael Maren, is a brutal indictment of the whole business of humanitarian intervention and the industry of aid. And for most of the participants it is just that: a business. Just as war is big business for defense contractors, the purveyors of food to starving children likewise gorge themselves at the public trough.

Maren is well qualified to make such an indictment, having spent much of the last 20 years in Africa both as an aid worker and a journalist. And just as Maren has written for Harper’s, The Village Voice, and The New Republic—not exactly known for their advocacy of free markets and limited government—so The Road to Hell is not a polemic against the welfare state and foreign aid. But therein lies the strength of the book. It is a brutally honest personal account of what the book’s subtitle calls the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity.

The focus of the book is on Africa in general and Somalia in particular. According to Maren, the countries of Africa are much worse off today than when he first arrived in Kenya as a Peace Corps worker in 1977. In fact, after billions of dollars were dumped into Africa, the countries that received the most aid have slid into virtual anarchy. So if the problem is not money, then what is it? Maren hits the nail on the head when he relates that famines always occur in authoritarian states, when the government mismanages the economy. So, as usual, corrupt, heavily bureaucratic governments are the root of the problem. This should come as no surprise to proponents of limited government and students of history. For just as the War on Poverty in the United States ended up subsidizing illegitimacy, so foreign aid creates chronically hungry countries that are dependent on foreign food.

In recounting his experiences as an aid worker in Africa, Maren makes some statements that will astound many who have answered heart-tugging appeals to sponsor children. He claims that humanitarian aid could be positively evil and that it was probably killing as many people as it was saving. He asserts that 90 percent of all the food aid handed out is not for starving people at all—it is for sustainable development. Food aid, says Maren, attracts people to refugee camps, where they die from dysentery or measles or other diseases they wouldn’t have contracted in the bush. And many times the starving people don’t get any food at all.

So what happens to all the donated food? Maren notes several destinations. The first is the corrupt governments of these countries. He claims to have seen military warehouses packed to the ceilings with refugee food. Donated food, complete with NOT TO BE SOLD signs, was openly sold by the government for a huge profit. But even when food slipped through the hands of the government it still never made it into the mouths of starving refugees. Maren contends that many refugees got so much food that they were able to sell it. In fact, several refugees actually opened shops to market the food to merchants from the city of Mogadishu.

In The Road to Hell, Maren boldly names the groups that have contributed to the paving of the road. Big names like World Vision, Childreach, Save the Children, Christian Children’s Fund, UNICEF, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, and USAID. Indeed, Maren holds nothing back, indicting farmers, grain companies, the news media, the U.N., agribusiness giants, the Peace Corps, the USDA, and our spendthrift congressmen—even the shippers that transport food overseas. Throughout the book Maren makes the case that aid distribution is just another big, private business that relies on government contracts.

The Road to Hell is the story of corruption, murder, theft, vandalism, lies, and greed—all a direct result of foreign aid and international charity. It is certain to forever change the way we look at pictures of starving children.