Charity Begins … Where?
and the Lurking Menace of Presidential Wives
Two-thirds of the way into Cindy McCain's speech at the GOP convention, a small mental alarm went off. Mrs. McCain:
Much is expected of a country as blessed as America, and our people are at work all over the globe making it a better planet, doing their part. It was my privilege to work with the men and women of the American Voluntary Medical Teams in places like Zaire, Micronesia, Vietnam, watching as they relieved whole towns from disease and rescued countless children from sickness.
The reward for sharing in that work is truly indescribable. To see a child rescued from a life in the shadows by Operation Smile is to witness and share a joy that is life-changing.
And the challenges go on. I just returned from the Republic of Georgia, where HALO Trust … an organization specializing in the clearing of the debris of war, are rescuing innocent victims from landmines and missiles …
In my box tonight is Ernestine, a woman, a friend, a mother like myself, whom I met in [Rwanda] …
The reason that alarm went off was as follows.
A few weeks ago I spent several days knee-deep in the literature of international aid, by way of an article I was writing for another magazine. It was depressing stuff. Peter Bauer's insight of forty years ago that foreign aid is "a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries" remains as true today as it was then. Indeed, controversies about aid go back to the 1940s. The fabled Marshall Plan, the original Big Aid program, may have done nothing at all to help Germany's postwar recovery, according to (among many others) Alan Greenspan. It certainly did nothing to aid Japan's, which was not included in the Plan.
The language of aid has changed a great deal since Bauer's day. People in the aid business — hereinunder "aidbiz" — will hasten to tell you that today's programs are nothing like the ones Bauer was talking about. Far from being direct government-to-government transfers, they are exquisitely "targeted," "benchmarked," and "optimized," festooned with checks, balances, and audits, resembling 1960s-style aid programs no more than a modern laptop resembles one of the room-filling air-conditioned behemoths of the mainframe computer era.
William Easterley's 2006 book The White Man's Burden explodes all that. Nothing much has changed in aidbiz, Easterley tells us. (He put in sixteen years as a research economist at the World Bank.) "The West spent $2.3 trillion dollars and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families."
Well, in my reading and conversing, I came across a person — not Easterley — who is intimately familiar with the workings of USAID, the federal government agency responsible for giving our money to foreigners. Why does an agency like USAID just keep going, I asked this person (who, by the way, is a lifelong Republican), after decades of futility?
"It's the wives," he replied.
"The wives. U.S. presidents don't care about aid. George W. Bush was actually quite hostile to it when he first came in. Of course, Iraq skewed the whole thing; but so far as these other places are concerned [the President had just returned from an Africa trip, showering aid from country to country in his progress across the continent], they mainly do it for the wives. There's nothing Laura likes better than being photographed holding some African AIDS baby. Cindy McCain is worse. It's the damn wives that help keep it going."
Now, in all fairness to Mrs. McCain, there are some distinctions to be made here. The three agencies she mentioned in her convention address — American Voluntary Medical Teams, Operation Smile (which does facial surgery on poor kids with cleft palates, hare lips, and the like) and HALO Trust are not-for-profit charities receiving very little government aid. Operation Smile, for example, got about half of one percent of its 2006 revenues from government grants.
The problem is that the line between charity and aid is a blurry one. The gravitational pull of the international government- (or U.N.-, which amounts to the same thing) -funded aid bureaucracy is terrific, easily enough to drag a mere 501(c)(3) down to the status of an "NGO" (non-governmental organization, often awash in taxpayer money). Those involved in the one will be sympathetic to the other; and if near the center of government power, will be advocates for the official aid industry, for aidbiz.
There is at the moment, for example, a movement under way to get USAID, which at present is a mere "independent agency" reporting to the Secretary of State, elevated to full cabinet rank. The push here is coming from sources like InterAction, whose website declares it to be "the largest coalition of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on the world's poor and most vulnerable people."
Would an outfit of this kind like to have an advocate in the President's closest confidence? Are you kidding?
It would of course be callous to object to the work of organizations like Operation Smile, funded largely from the private charity of good-hearted individuals, and making dramatic improvements to the lives of infants with hideous deformities. It is only that in our world today, the boundary between private charity and government aid is all too porous, and needs strengthening. With an aidbiz sympathizer in the White House, that strengthening is not likely to happen.
Although the thought occurs: If I am going to worry about Cindy McCain in this context, how much more should I worry about Michelle Obama? Aidbiz is, after all, one of those enterprises which delivers very little, perhaps nothing at all, to its supposed beneficiaries, but offers masses of well-paid and prestigious positions to liberal-arts graduates, failed lawyers, aspiring politicians, and other members of the lumpen-intelligentsia who could never get a real job doing anything useful. In that respect it is very much like … Community Organizing. Aaaaaarrrrgh!