'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.
Disillusioned with his own experience as aid worker in Ethiopia during the famine in 1984-85, Hancock wryly observes that contrary to media reports that play up the relief workers as hard pressed saints, recipients of charity have expressed doubts about those who come to help. As one African refugee cheekily asked, ‘Why is it that every US dollar comes with twenty Americans attached to it?’ The truth of the matter is that in many third world disasters, considerable amount of money is spent on the expertise provided by the Americans and Europeans.
According to a detailed report on refugee relief in South-East Asia most of the Red Cross staff enjoyed the food imported from Europe while the refugees starved. In Thailand the Swiss went in air-conditioned cars and spend their weekends on the beach.6 At the height of the drought in Sudan in 1985, the Hilton Hotel in Khartoum (room rent of $150) was full with aid workers to assess the tragedy.
‘The folly, irrelevance- and sometimes dangerous idiocy of much that passes as humanitarian assistance’ writes Hancock ‘are not publicized by the agencies.’ Hancock cites documented proof of relief work in Somalia where refrigerators flown in from US proved useless as they operated on 110 volts while in Africa they had to operate on 220 volts. Laxatives and anti-indigestion remedies were other favorites among aid agencies that were required to provide relief to the hungry. A Public Health Official in Nicaragua exasperatedly said, ‘whenever anybody donates a medicine, there just seems to be an overdose of milk of magnesia. We said we could use it to whitewash the building.’ Other useless items shipped to hot African countries were electric blankets and frostbite medicines from USA. Huge consignments of Go-slim soup and chocolate flavored drinks for diet conscious consumers were sent to starving Somalians. Flimsy shoes were sent as emergency aid to Mozambique where woman have to walk several miles to fetch water.
More controversially, the author asks a question which is central to the economies of the developing world, is aid helping the poor countries? Or is it creating dependency, which is exploited by the West? Hancock addresses the issue with a bluntness that is both honest and refreshing. According to him if all financial flows from North (Rich nations) to South (Poor nations) and from South to North are totaled an interesting fact emerges: since the early 1980’s as a result of decline of new lending by private banks coupled with repayments of high interest rates on old loans, the wealthy countries have been net recipients of funds from third world and not net donors to it even when Overseas Development assistance is taken into account. The amounts paid towards debt servicing by the poorer countries to rich countries between 1980 and 2001 came to $4,500 billion. Thus the notion that the Rich countries aid or help third world countries is highly suspect on the basis of the negative transfers alone.
‘In these closing years of the twentieth century’, concludes the author, ‘the time has come for the lords of poverty to depart. Perhaps when the middlemen of the aid industry have been shut out it will become possible for people to rediscover ways to help one another directly according to their needs and aspirations as they themselves define them.’ Only then we shall repudiate the false claims of the lords of poverty and discover the true meaning of economic empowerment.
 Aid for Development: The Key Issues, World Bank, Washington, DC, 1986.
 National Charities Information Bureau, New York, 29 April 1986.
 Sunday Times, London, 7 December 1986
 Daily Mail, London, 14 January 1985.
 Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock, page 6.
 Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock, page 7.
 Quality of Mercy, William Shawcross.
 Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock, page 8.
 Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock, page 12.
 Plain dealer, quoted in Lords of Poverty, page 13.
 Help Yourself: The Politics of Aid, Third World first Links Magazine no 20, Oxford, September 1984.
 Who owes who, global Issues, page 83.
 Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock, page193.