Beyond Good Intentions: How to Fix the Broken System of International Aid

A former aid worker for Save the Children in Dadaab returns in an attempt to deconstruct the enchantment surrounding the “saving Africa” myth and find out how to improve public service.


| January 2013


There's a gap between the on-the-ground-reality of international aid programs and their perception in the American consciousness. Years after an internship at age 20, Tori Hogan returned to Africa to embark on a journey through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, searching for the truth about what does and does not work in international aid. Though there were glimmers of hope along the way, she discovered an aid industry mired in waste, ineffective solutions imposed by well-intentioned outsiders and humanitarian efforts that do more harm than good. In this excerpt from the introduction to Hogan's resulting book, Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid (Perseus Books Group, 2012), she highlights some of the perception bias of the international aid system—and possibly how to get beyond just having good intentions. 

The stewardess is remarkably alert compared to the half-asleep passengers on board this morning’s 6 a.m. charter flight. Her hair is carefully pulled back in a tight updo, her navy skirt and vest are perfectly ironed, and the white and blue silk scarf tied around her neck brings an air of French couture that seems out of place. I watch her squirming in the jump seat as the plane begins its descent, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, attempting to find the most dignified way to sit in a clearly uncomfortable chair. The green and brown Kenyan grassland we had been flying over has now turned into an endless expanse of red and yellow sand, dotted with clumps of parched brush and a few herds of goats and camels being marched along by persistent women in colorful veils. The stewardess puts her hand up to smooth out her hair, which hasn’t moved an inch the entire flight, to compensate for a particularly bumpy landing on the dirt airstrip. As the plane slows to a stop, she picks up the microphone and, amidst the screeching feedback from a PA system that has seen better days, she instantly transitions into perky stewardess mode and sweetly says, “We wish you a pleasant stay in Dadaab.”

I try to suppress my laugh. We have just arrived at the largest refugee camp in the world, and we are being encouraged by our lovely Kenyan stewardess to have a “pleasant” stay. I’m guessing they don’t tell the refugees the same thing when they arrive here.

She pushes the plane door open and lowers the stairs and I’m suddenly hit by the intense heat of the dry desert air, the kind of all-encompassing warmth that makes you secretly yearn for a bit of moisturizer and a frozen drink. I’m also enveloped by a wave of déjà vu. Not much seems to have changed since I last disembarked here eight years ago. A sea of white SUVs with massive antennas sticking out like tentacles have swarmed the airstrip awaiting their cargo of twenty-five “do-gooders” who are coming to heal wounds, write reports, and take photos of a forgotten Somali refugee population that has been forced to live in this makeshift desert community for the past eighteen years. Make that twenty-four “do-gooders.” I myself am not exactly here to save the world—or at least not this time around. That was me eight years ago: a twenty-year-old intern for Save the Children, naively arriving at this camp full of grand humanitarian aspirations to improve the lives of refugees.

Save the Children. The name alone conjured up images of goodness and virtue to me back then. Or at least it conjured up images of Sally Struthers and others who spent much of the eighties and nineties trying to convince me in between my favorite television shows that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could save a child’s life. I fell for it. But at the end of my time working in this camp, my virtuous dreams were dashed by the reality of the situation: I obviously hadn’t saved a single kid. Not one. Not even close. In fact, I left this camp back in 2002 wondering if my presence here had actually done more harm than good.

At that time, I thought I would never see this dirt airstrip again. I vowed to myself after leaving the camp that instead of being an aid worker I would try to transform the aid regime and all of its obvious failures. However, uncovering this calling hadn’t merely been a result of a summer full of vague challenges and disappointments. It was the result of a single moment; a single comment, in fact, spoken by a refugee boy when I was in this camp. In that instant, standing in front of a classroom of secondary school students, I faced what some would call a “moment of obligation” and my life would never be the same.

RaviVaghel
5/2/2016 8:16:19 AM

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