James Glanz wrote a fun little exposé about the spectacular failure of American-sponsored reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Like every other American who's ever traveled with aid and development in mind, I find myself questioning my purpose here so frequently that it's easy to fall into despair. Dante asked why I don't write a more personal blog — it's because no one wants to read my self-inquisition:
What am I doing here? Am I helping anyone? Am I even capable of helping anyone? Why did I think I could do that? What skills or magic knowledge did I think I had? I'm 22 and have a Russian degree, of all things. Idiot.
Break out a few racks, some rusty chains and a vat of boiling oil, and you have a close approximation of the inner workings of, I'd venture, most development workers' minds.
I read a book last month that threw in red-hot pincers and a guillotine: Michael Maren's The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. It's mostly about (surprise) America's blunderings in Somalia, but the broader message is that the vast majority of aid and charity is nothing more than a self-serving industry that ends up harming more than it helps.
A real upper.
Maren writes exclusively about Africa, but Glanz points out that this trend isn't unique to the continent: seven out of eight "successful" projects designed to rebuild Iraq are non-operative due to technical problems, lack of maintenance, looting, misuse and local distrust. Millions of dollars worth of generators at the Baghdad International Airport aren't running because of missing batteries or broken fuel lines. A medical waste incinerator at a maternity hospital isn't being used (and the waste contaminating the water supply) because no one can find the key. Meanwhile, the U.S. is proudly touting these "successes" to the public.
I try to stay optimistic, and every once in a while I hear about a project that reminds me of the wonderful things that a little concerted, locally-initiated and externally-sponsored effort can do. Glanz quotes Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that "What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities." How are we still not getting this?
Um, hello? Government? Elected officials? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
I'm not saying that I could do this any better, but an 87.5% failure rate isn't exactly screaming "Great job, Team USA!" to me.
May Day resolution: stop reading depressing books and spend more time around people like Abramz, starting with this weekend's Hiphop For a Cause festival.