Lords of Poverty (book review)

Unusual times require unusual readings and I finally found the time to read Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty-The power, prestige, and corruption of the international aid business.

I had always thought of Lords of Poverty as the source of Ross Coggins’ famous The Development Set poem, but it is not so I finally had to turn my attention to the remaining 200 pages of his book…

Similar to Cassens’ Does Aid Work? or Linear’s Zapping the Third World, Hancock’s book, first published in 1989, fits into an emerging discourse around exposing failed development aid at the end of the 1980s in in the style of mixing journalism, polemic exposure, a linear narrative of wasting taxpayers’ money topped off with a good dose of bureaucracy bashing. And if you think ‘well, that sounds an awful lot like the Daily Mail’s coverage of aid 30 years later’ you are pretty much bang on the money!

All jokes aside, this makes the book such an important and useful contribution to the ‘aid does not work’ canon, because it highlights some of the roots of aid skepticism that is often used until this day that ‘anything but the UN system’ would be a better way to deliver aid to poor and needy people in the Third World.

My relationship status with ‘aid does not work’? It's complicated...
Before we delve into Hancock’s narrative properly I want to share some preliminary conclusions and overall reflections that I would usually save for the end of my review: Besides a simple and often simplified narrative, Lords of Poverty manages throughout the book to highlight important structural flaws and practical shortcomings of the global aid system prior to the end of the Cold War, emerging globalization and digitalization at the turn of the century.
Sometimes it is a bit scary to think how contemporary challenges of unsuitable humanitarian aid, failed coordination or lack of localization still are that Hancock points out throughout his book. And sometimes examples of expat excess, NGO glorification and general lack of professionalism are actually indications of how much the aid system has changed in 30 years-often even for the better.

My biggest problem with the ‘aid does not work’ discourse, including Hancock’s book, is that their chroniclers rarely make connections to the social, political, economic or cultural system in which development has always been embedded: The rise of ‘neoliberalism’ and new public management in the mid-1980s, stressing inefficiencies in the public sector and solutions mirrored after the private sector; corporate excess and a ‘greed is good’ mentality in many European capitals; the emergence of a mediatized society with 24-7 cables news, MTV and an ideal that ‘American’ values will quickly spread across the globe.
In short, this kind of critique needs to be read and discussed with historical references and an understanding of how societies’ views on aid are always linked to much broader discussions around root causes of poverty or inequality.

Year in year out, there can be no doubt that aid pays the hefty salaries and underwrites the privileged lifestyles of the international civil servants, ‘development experts’, consultants and assorted freeloaders who staff the aid agencies themselves (p.iii)
The beginning of the book sets the overall tone quite well and one of the challenges throughout is to find the interesting nuggets of critique and insight and not get tired out by the frequent tirades against ‘useless overpaid aid bureaucrats’.
But Hancock often points out important shortcomings of the aid system such as a lack of participatory approaches to listen to beneficiaries:
only a few researchers from industrialized countries (they are predominantly anthropologists or ecologists, who have no influence upon what happens) listen to the opinions of the supposed beneficiaries of the processes of development (p.23).
At the end of the first part I am almost tempted to set up an assignment for students to ‘translate’ Hancock’s language from ‘polemic’ to ‘reasonable’:
Precisely because their professional field is ‘humanitarianism’ rather than, say, ‘sales’ or ‘production’ or ‘engineering’, they are rarely required to demonstrate and validate their worth in quantitative, measurable ways. Surrounding themselves with the mystifying jargon of their trade, these lords of poverty are the druids of the modern era wielding enormous power that is accountable to no one (pp.32-33).
My version:
Unlike commercial activities such ‘sales’ or ‘production’ or ‘engineering’, ‘humanitarianism’ is often difficult to measure and requires qualitative and quantitative criteria to assess its impact. Often, being ‘there’, showing up in remote communities or amplifying local disasters to a broader audience are already important aspects of global solidarity.
Using jargon like any other professional industry, expat aid workers are often portrayed as powerful agents whereas local politics, global economic frameworks and decisions made in the donor capitals can have a far greater impact than individual decision ‘on the ground’; accountability has always been a challenging issue, but compared to the military-industrial or resource extraction-industrial complex, aid has often done far less harm and is generally much smaller.
But let’s return to Hancock’s analysis.
His next chapter, Development Incorporated, looks at expensive World Bank meetings and generous pension packages, but then again he also criticizes the infamous structural adjustments policies-not per se, because ‘there is no mileage in blaming others, or the weather, or the past-or any other external entity or influence for one’s own problems’ (p.61)-leaders of Third World countries spending and wasting more money than they earn that is.
But Hancock also acknowledges that structural adjustment has targeted the poor and has not been useful to hold elites in the North and South more accountable.

The Aristocracy of Mercy
In The Aristocracy of Mercy (I have to admit that this is a catchy chapter title…) he follows a similar pattern: Legitimate critique about the perks of the expat aid elite and shortcomings about high-level, political appointments in international organizations result in the conclusion:
Thus, at every level of the multilateral agencies, maladjusted, inadequate, incompetent individuals are to be found clinging tenaciously to highly paid jobs, timidly and indifferently performing their functions and, in the process, betraying the world’s poor in whose name they have been appointed (p.99).
Sigh…but in all fairness the 1980s were also a time when such a blanket critique of the multilateral institution was made all too easy by some institutions: FAO’s massive leadership and corruption problems (Linear’s book focuses more on these issues) or an UNCTAD budget that ends up spending 36 million dollars on staff and offices, 4 million dollars on conferences and another million dollar on external consultants (p.101) are certainly not stellar examples of poverty reduction outside of Geneva…

And as much as I am happy to defend the UN system as an important pillar of international cooperation, highlight UNICEF’s achievements on child well-being (under the leadership of Jim Grant who was particularly active during the 1980s), point out the contributions of UNDP’s Human Development Reports or highlight WFP’s logistical expertise in humanitarian crisis, there is sometimes an element of truth that seems rather timeless almost 35 years after Hancock sat down to write his book:
When you subtract from the ‘achievements’ of the UN all the silly conferences, all the ineffectual meetings, all the inane committees and sub-committees, all the reports produced by learned groups recommending that more learned groups be convened to produce more reports, all the reform measures that have left things as they were-then, what remains? (p.107)
But aid has always been an ‘imperfect offering’ (as James Orbinski wrote), riddled with political challenges and factors that often lie outside the control of any bureaucratic organization and an aspiration to a mirage that if only the ‘best and brightest’ would sit in New York, the UN would transform the world into a beautiful butterfly of equality, justice and sustainable development.

The lack of experience that many high-level bureaucrats have when it comes to understanding poverty, parachuting missions that often stay in urban centers (regularly highlighted in Robert Chambers' writings), the World Bank’s appalling human rights record in connection with financing large infrastructure projects, including dams, tied aid to purchase Northern goods and services, including from large for-profit consultancy firms, these are all important problems that Hancock points out as well; more than 30 years later we are still discussing many of these problems and I really like Lords of Poverty as a testament that we have ‘always’ known about them and find it difficult to change the foundations of the aid system nevertheless.

Despite Hancock’s overall conclusion that aid is ‘inherently bad (…) and utterly beyond reform’ (p.183) I found the last part of his books actually a bit more nuanced.
As a hybrid of commerce and humanitarianism, food aid displays the worst aspects of both its parents and seems to have inherited none of their better qualities. The efficiency and single-mindedness of private enterprise might have salvaged something out of the Somali disaster-and would certainly have saved lives; instead incompetence and confusion ruled. The selflessness and devotion to duty of a genuinely welfare-oriented institution might have helped; but the day was won by petty bureaucratic concerns, snobbery and hubris (p.170).
Sure, food aid systems have improved a lot since then, but there is more than a kernel of truth in Hancock’s assessment that aid often seems to be ending up with a melange of ‘worst of many worlds’ rather than ‘the best we can do’.

Do not leave the book and subsequent discussions unsupervised

In the end, Lords of Poverty is still a valuable starting point to challenge ourselves about development, aid and an aid industry that we want. Perhaps not the best resource to discuss aid with your right-leaning Uncle who believes in black UN helicopters, it can provide a basis for discussion on what has actually changed, for whom and why.
Whether given for dams in India, resettlement in Indonesia, power-stations in Bangladesh, structural adjustment in Mexico or balance-of-payments support in Sudan, our aid does not help ordinary people ‘to help themselves’ and it does not promote broadly based prosperity (p.183).
Some of these problems are no longer pertinent issues on the aid agenda or have moved outside the realm or traditional North-South cooperation-and others have emerged since the invention of the Internet, for example.

I think you can and should use Lords of Poverty as a teaching resource-but have statistics ready and supplementary reading in close reach to provide a critique deserving of the project rather than polemical dismissals, because someone is driving in a Landcruiser through the village…

Hancock, Graham: Lords of Poverty-The power, prestige, and corruption of the international aid business, ISBN 978-0-87113-469-1, 234pp, ca. 10 USD, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.


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