'Public money is like holy water: everyone helps himself to it' - Italian proverb.
The stereotyped image of a western aid worker is part of media folklore: a white woman dressed in pale blue frock, tired but pretty, measuring the circumference of black children’s arms or distributing biscuits to listless children with distended bellies. She is also seen on the scene of appalling epidemics directing workers to dig pit latrines. This powerful image is reinforced by the electronic media making the aid worker a potent symbol of the fundamental decency and rightness of international aid.
The emotional appeal of mass suffering is strong and direct. The Pavlovian reflex is to reach for the chequebook and make contributions to voluntary charitable organizations such as Oxfam, World Vision, CARE Incorporated and Medecins Sans Frontieres. Voluntary agencies rake in huge funds estimated to be in the region of $2.4 billion a year to finance humanitarian aid work in poor countries. The media attention on the Ethiopian famine raised the contributions to $ 4 billion in 1985. Total aid in 1987 was just over $50 billion. In the nineties it rose to $60 billion and today it is still growing.
Hancock’s book, The Lords of Poverty is a passionate denunciation of the freewheeling lifestyles, prestige and corruption of the multibillion-dollar aid business. He points out that the charitable impulse is often exploited with appropriate media hype to make refugee crisis, earthquakes, floods and other catastrophes into money-spinners. The impulse, argues the author, is a double-edged sword as it on one hand raises huge money and on the other it stifles questions about the use of the money.
The author is at his polemical best when he demolishes the myths of aid agencies. For instance, the Hunger Project received donations totaling $6,981,005 in 1985. Out of which a sum of $210,775 was passed on as grants to organizations involved in relief work. But the rest a staggering sum of around $6,770,000 was spent on enrollment services, committee activities, and fund raising and phone bills. In 1984 The Hunger Project’s British office raised British pounds 192,658 from the public of which a paltry sum of pounds 7,048 went to the third world.
In 1985, International Christian Aid (ICA), a large US voluntary organization, failed to send a single cent to Ethiopia out of the $16 million raised for famine relief. A close analysis of ICA’s 1983 expenditure showed that just 41% of its income went towards its humanitarian objectives. A similar example is that of Dallas based relief organization, Priority One International, which spent 18 cents out of every dollar it received for charity.