Archive for category Sustainable Community Development

Considering “The Road to Hell”

“The evil that is in the world always comes out of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding” Albert Camus, The Plague

Michael Maren, in “The Road to Hell” paints a grim picture of aid to Africa by telling the story of US assistance for Somalia a decade before the civil war until the late 1990’s. From the outset, Maren makes it clear that the local Somali citizens whose unknown faces were occasionally splashed across American newspapers with headlines highlighting their suffering from poverty, hunger, lack of capital, and disease would probably have fared better without US intervention preceding the civil war. Many readers will argue that international intervention to prevent mass killings of Somalis under the dictator Siad Barre could not have been denied out of a sheer sense of responsibility. As civil unrest continues, media coverage continues to focus on the shocking images of children with extended bellies. This has helped fuel a uniform image of Africa- the continent is so poor that the millions of people there could use anything and everything. The ugly truth is that “For television, the worst, most despairing picture [are] the best. Famine and horror [have become] a commodity” (Maren, 213). I do not advocate sitting back and watching a massacre take place. However, America’s aid has taken a toll on many livelihoods over the years by supporting and exploiting a destructive structure to ease the ill-will of many Americans and the image of the US on the surface and to dispose of excess agricultural commodities. Let’s be clear, aid has not killed Africa but it has not yielded any long-lasting results either.

Maren quickly dispenses of common misconceptions and mocks those who have unquestioningly donated to bureaucratic relief agencies who are working under the charitable guise of development aid (he most explicitly reveals the distorted budget of his employer, Save the Children). He writes, “…for $20 a month little Pedro can have a hot meal and a place to go to school and new pajamas. Problem solved. If everyone gave money we could dispense with all these unpleasant pictures of dying children once and for all”… “You’re a bunch of mush-minded guilty liberal assholes for believing them, for believing that money and guns can solve the problems of the poor” (28).  Relieving poverty is not a goal in and of itself; it is the result of something much more basic, fundamental, and encompassing. It is structural. Unfortunately in development work today, it is not the Somali who endures the greatest change; it is the white man who must grow accustomed to the lack of urban amenities. Maren succinctly writes that to exercise true development, the American who needs to reflect and change himself before imposing a flawed system that will only further exploit the continent. It is important to realize that since the 1960’s, when aid to Africa began to flow more heavily, the continent has not raised its living standards, decreased the poverty rate (many policies have targeted rural populations to help them resettle in an urban setting but this has resulted in even worse conditions- the sprawling slums), or seen an increase in opportunity.

Maren points out that the failures in development are most transparent in food aid where much of the money is spent on the process rather than the product. Many relief workers in Somalia before and after the Civil War knew full well that their work was endangering those who spoke with them and that their food aid packages stamped with “From the American People” were funding rebels. But each day they woke up to do the same work because of their commitment to the “greater cause” of alleviating poverty and bringing peace (97).  During the war, Oxfam was teaching refugees to grow their own food but the refugees were planning to return to a nomadic lifestyle as soon as possible so this skill set was useless and there was little incentive to learn this (98). CARE was distributing (and continues to do so) surplus US agricultural products (subsidized by the United States1.  Soon it became easier to just live in the refugee camp and receive free food than to work for wages, which no longer covered the expenses of food in the regular market. Rebels could easily steel the food and sell it in local stores where the profit margin would be far greater, crowding out local businesses and allow them to channel this excess liquidity to rebel groups. In the end, food aid has done absolutely nothing for food security; food aid has only fueled further corruption despite the charitable will of so many Americans.

"food aid has done absolutely nothing for food security"

Maren observed many other downsides of relief or development aid from institutions such as US AID, Save the Children, and CARE among many others. Monetary remuneration of labor has been a cornerstone of US aid and has shifted indigenous paradigms. Lucrative structures have been central to development packages and, instead of alleviating the reported suffering, have perpetuated a cycle of unrest, exploitation, dependence on foreign aid, and fed a corrupt bureaucratic system.  At the end of the Civil War Maren writes, “… in Somalia (as in much of Africa), relief and development are the most dynamic growth industries. An African entrepreneur doing a rational analysis of his economic opportunities would likely conclude that the future was in relief and development work” (165). The current system simply lacks a real goal to change and a system of accountability between agencies and their field-workers as well between donator and recipient countries and communities.

Today we are left with a chicken and egg story where local African governments blame colonialism for the poverty on the continent and US and international agencies blame laziness and the general lack of education of the people.  Maren’s main conclusion, after having worked in Somalia in the 1980’s and 90’s, is “that doing relief and development work in the context of oppression is counterproductive. Any real commitment to development requires political action, speaking out against the power that keeps populations from developing themselves” (88). Development aid must focus on the structure rather than the symptoms- on the underlying causes of poverty, malnourishment, child mortality, and disease. This is an ongoing debate in the international community and consequently Maren’s expose has been met with much critique because many organizations are in fact questioning the status quo. But the next time you see an image of a malnourished child and feel that sense of guilt, think twice before sending those few dollars through the organization and pick up the Road to Hell- it’s a quick and informational read. I also feel that sense of responsibility; I cannot sit idly as a bystander.  But let’s engage in a form of aid that is sustainable, research oriented, tailored to indigenous communities, and constantly questions the state of affairs.


After several years of providing food aid under the Marshall Plan in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, Europe bounced back and was able to satisfy its own agricultural needs. American farmers were producing a surplus and so needed new markets quickly to prevent destitution. “In a normal world, the rising surplus would lower prices — and profits– driving people out of the grain market until supply and demand  would settle into some sort of harmony” (192). But this was not the case because the US government agreed to set a price floor. “It required tariffs and quotas to keep foreign commodities out” (193) and implemented a food “Cargo preference, which requires that 75 percent of certain foreign food aid be shipped on privately owned U.S.-flag vessels” (189). The real cost of production far outweighs the real benefit (therefore not representing free market competition, which is the idea that the US has been exporting). The cost of storing even sometimes outweighed cost of production. “With Europe’s markets satisfied by their own domestic production, there was only one place to go: U.S. grain would have to be sent to the Third World” (193). These underdeveloped countries had little foreign exchange but “needed a benefactor, someone to buy the food for them, or at least accept their rupees, cidis, and shillings…. “The answer was obvious: The U.S. government would have to be the middleman and absorb the foreign currencies” (193). The US recently tripled its aid to the African continent as revealed in the Washington post in 2006. One can hope for a change in policy…

Maren, Michael. The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. The Free Press: New York. 1997

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Overview of Rural Underdeveloped Communities

Rural communities are faced with many challenges today, “unemployment, the price of food and other essentials, commodity prices, drugs, gambling, community conflicts, and health” (Alam, 13). Climate change is just another hurdle that will affect everyone especially those living in rural impoverished communities especially in the developing world. This is because these communities often rely on a regular supply of and access to natural resources, which could be jeopardized by drastic and increased frequency of weather changes as well as heat waves causing an infestation of pests leading to malaria and other diseases. Additionally, these communities rarely have access to emergency government weather warnings, health care, or property insurance.

The International Institute for Environmental Development  (IIED) suggests that it is imperative to rely as much on local indigenous gendered knowledge as scientific information to facilitate both short and long-term adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency to climate change (Alam, 13). According to a report published by the IIED, “community-based adaption to climate change is a community-led process, based on communities’ priorities, needs, knowledge, and capacities, which should empower people to plan for and cope with the impacts of climate change” (Alam, 13) Considering the vulnerability of rural communities and their lack of government support, they should be at the forefront of climate change research. However, this is not uncomplicated especially when communities are faced with civil or governmental crises and when donor interests diverge.  

The meshing of rural community and Western donor knowledge is difficult and rare. Many developing communities reject scientific knowledge imposed by developed countries who they declare responsible for most environmental problems. Many contend that Western countries in particular should be responsible for funding indigenous research on livelihood alternatives rather than demanding already-impoverished communities to compromise their standard of living by adopting foreign technologies. Western countries argue that these communities do not have developed knowledge and that their advanced technology would be much more efficient for any and all communities no matter the culture or region (Alam, 23). This relationship is strained and may take many forms according to the IIED including: passive participation, participation in information giving, participation by consultation, participation for material incentives, functional participation, interactive participation, self-mobilization (Alam, 24). With the possibility of climate change looming, the traditional Western top-down approach may not be viable and it will become increasingly imperative to recognize the spectrum of information sharing.


(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

The report’s conclusion is that climate change consideration should be central to all development programs and plans if they hope to be upheld into the future. For this to become a reality, it is important to incorporate indigenous knowledge- especially that preserved by women.

Alam, Mozaharul, Rachel Berger, Terry Cannon, Saleemul Huq, Angela Milligan, Hannah Reid. “Community-based adaptation to climate change: an overview.” Community-based adaptation to climate change: 60 Participatory learning and action. Institute for Environmental Development. UK: Russel Press. December 2009.

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Racing to the metropolis

Cars shrieking to a halt. Reflections of green light glaring from oil-polluted neon puddles. Nobodies pushing their way along narrow sidewalks and between weaving bicycles. Cotton balls black with city grime. Cash soft as skin from passing through countless avaricious hands. Clumps of people laughing, smoking or joking – segregated in park corners. Nerves tying knots in deep shoulder tissue. You enjoy restless city life? Maybe the rush and excitement of taxis humming, the arts at your very fingertips, coffee shops open all night under glittering awnings, music wafting out of cracked windows three stories above you, people pushing with excitement to their next destination. You see an animated city of opportunity, entertainment, and progress? 

You, the reader, will most likely react to this romantic view of city versus rural life based on your upbringing, financial position or your personal interests. But for this short introduction to my independent study blog, let us put this aside and consider the impacts of globalization and of urbanization briefly.

Urbanization has provided humanity with unprecedented economic growth and technological innovation. It has also served as a learning center, a space for vibrant cultural exchange. A select few have the luxury to choose city life for the arts, night-life, higher education, research, well-paid jobs, and quick transactions. Most have been driven to the city for employment.

Urban Population Growth (Data provided by the United Nations

  World Developed Less Developed Least Developed
1950 29% 52.5% 18% 7.3%
2000 46.6% 73.1% 40% 24.8%
2050 69.6% 86% 67% 55.5%

(Urbanization is on the rise. Without drastic local organizational or government intervention, many people, especially poor populations, will be forced to leave cities and find other employment or will be at the mercy of the consequences of past consumer-driven actions).

Unfortunately, for many, urbanization has not been a choice. In the developing world, many have and continue to seek city-life to escape from extreme poverty and isolation. In the developed world, and increasingly in the developing world today, populations urbanized as the social value of farming depreciated, agriculture was mechanized requiring less labor or demanding illegal labor, and individuals increasingly sought to move away from environmental vulnerability. For this reason, the industrialization of food systems has largely been considered a prerequisite as well as a product of development and progress. People move to cities to liberate themselves from land labor and simultaneously cities need industrialized agriculture to produce surpluses to support densely populated cities. However, as capitalism drives countries to specialize, to lengthen production chains distancing producers from consumers, to compete, to measure success with monetary profit only, to mass-produce, many jobs are dehumanized. While cities have benefited a few, many have not been so lucky.

In cities, the income gap widens between rich and poor, food desserts appear, pollution is concentration, living quarters are cramped, and crime often goes up. Urbanization is considered by many to be the answer to a sustainable future- decreasing the footprint of individuals by sharing services such as transportation and housing. While a handful of small cities have become relatively sustainable (Portland, Oregon for example), mega-cities around the world are draining the underlying aquifer and depleting resources due to a contagious consumer-driven culture.  The following is a chart published by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).


Cities are isolated from their surrounding environment; if it does not fall from the sky, environmental changes are only experienced through increased prices of oranges for example. However, as resources become scarcer and pollution is increasingly concentrated (affecting underprivileged and poor populations most), life within the confines of the city will be forced to change. Cities will need to decrease in size and focus on community resiliency.

The free-flow of ideas, cultural exchange, and technological innovation will need to continue despite imminent environmental catastrophes. The transportation of people and goods however, will probably be forced to decrease. Government subsidies will no longer cover the cost of energy and food production and transportation as resources become scarce and prices rise. Consequently, locally-produced renewable energy and subsistence farming will become more important if not vital. This may seem like a step backwards or seen as a constricting measure because development has often been defined as an “emancipation” from the “land” and from the “home”. However, community development (either in a larger city or as part of a movement to re-localize), if married with modern technologies and connected to the international web of information, is likely to provide a greater sense of belonging, self-fulfillment, as well as allow for experiential education. City life breeds individualism and demands a constant vigilant and selfish race to the top. This has resulted in a culture of innovation. I believe that this same culture has the capacity and ability to bounce back and realize that with community support, development, and sustainability, everything is possible.

Deane, Phyllis. The First Industrial Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

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