If you want a readable and short (167 pages) introduction to the many contradictions and debates that beset the aid business, I recommend The Anatomy of Giving (apologies for Amazon link – couldn’t find another). Dwyer’s subject is Haiti – ‘At just a two-hour flight from Miami, Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s own little piece of Sub-Saharan Africa.’ She’s been visiting on and off since 1985 and, inevitably, a lot of the book discusses the chaotic and widely condemned response to the 2010 earthquake.
What’s great about the book is that Dwyer is a progressive writer and journalist, not part of the aid business. She also writes really well – I first came across her when I edited her 1994 book On the Line, about life on the US-Mexican border, and her style has if anything improved since then. A nice mix of genuine curiosity about the real, messy lives and motives of people living in poverty, interwoven with sharp, often critical, analysis of the workings of the aid industry.
Here’s a sample:
‘Happy endings are what we look for when we try to help, positive conclusions to the negative, some kind of balance. Touched by true stories of suffering and hardship, we seek signs of progress when we give, some kind of movement in the battle against poverty and against the very fact that places like Cité Soleil exist in the 21st century. What the people who live in those places get, however, is far less clear and straightforward.’
Chapters work through the many facets of that industry: humanitarian response, long term development, support for export processing zones, voluntourism, celebs and philanthropists, the workings of the World Bank and other big institutions.
Overall, she finds little to recommend official aid – the chaos of the earthquake response, the penchant for panaceas, like ‘miracle trees’ or playpumps, the problems of ‘pathological altruism’ that does more harm than good.
But this is not a standard aid polemic: she largely avoids the straw men and has an eye for nuance, constantly reverting to the lives of real people to ground her analysis in what matters. In places it reads like an extended trip report, written in the first person, grappling with the confusion of conflicting versions of events as she tries to get to the bottom of what is really going on (always a lot harder than you expect). ‘Did I envy the T-shirt people their certainty? I had to admit that I did, actually. It must be nice to come to Haiti feeling enthusiastic and positive, instead of questioning everything.’
Her overall standpoint is that grassroots empowerment is the way to go – the book sings the praises of social movements in Haiti, traditional structures of social solidarity and bottom up approaches that build on the strengths of poor communities, rather than laments their frailties (asset-based community development, positive deviance). In contrast the aid business is beset by arrogance, paternalism and self interest.
Throughout the book she wrestles with the dilemma of all aid critics – does she want it reformed or scrapped? In the end, she ends up with a kind of Gramscian ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, arguing that if the aid business can find ways to help (and not harm) the kinds of grassroots initiatives she identifies and applauds, then it can recover its moral and political mojo:
‘As my flight circles above the denuded mountains of Haiti before zooming over the bright blue Caribbean, I realize that I am, after all, feeling optimistic about the potential for transformation of foreign aid and our attitudes towards giving. Maybe I shouldn’t be. But I feel that over the past few years I have been travelling towards a reaffirmation of the human spirit, from a sense of despair at all the mistakes we make, to a place of hope where we recognize that we are smart enough to change.’