Why Good Works Produce Bad Results

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Foreign aid organizations are having a harder time raising money, because people are realizing how much aid gets stolen after arriving in the countries where it is needed, but before it gets to the people who need it:

The plundering has gone on for so long that the thieves have gotten greedy and sloppy. For example, the refugees from the 1960s-70s war in southern Morocco (West Sahara) decades ago are still sitting in Algeria supported by foreign aid. But it’s become increasingly obvious that, while the aid organizations are regularly providing aid for 120,000 refugees there are only about 40,000 real refugees in the camps. The rest of the aid goes to make a few Polisario (the rebel group that runs the camp) leaders and Algerian officials millionaires and many more underlings wealthier. For years people who lived in the camp have casually told outsiders, including reporters, details of how aid is stolen and resold and deals made with air officials to keep the loot coming.

The Palestinian aid scams are increasingly being documented, in part because Palestinian leadership has been split since 2007 between Fatah and Hamas and partisans for both groups are willing to offer up details of the misbehavior of their rivals. Israel has been complaining about this aid abuse for decades and now Palestinians are corroborating, in detail, many of the Israeli charges. This puts increasing pressure on donor nations to push Palestinian leadership. Some donors are not bothering with that and have simply stopped giving.

Now there are over three million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and the plundering is already underway despite the obvious suffering of so many of those in the camps. Moreover cell phones make it easier to document and expose the theft. No wonder the UN is having a hard time raising the $6.5 billion is says is needed to keep the camps going.

The UN, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are also in big trouble because of unruly refugee camps. It’s not just the thieves, but other types of criminals as well. The Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are increasingly out of control because this. Aid groups operate under the protection of local security forces, but as is often the case the locals are unable or unwilling to supply sufficient police or troops to keep the peace in these instant cities created by the aid organizations. While the Turks can mobilize sufficient additional forces to keep the camps peaceful this is not the case in Lebanon and especially Jordan because both nations have long had too much unrest and not enough money for a lot of police.

Aid groups are also beginning to confront the harmful side effects of their good works. The worst side effect is how rebels and gangsters sustain themselves by stealing food and other aid supplies, as well as robbing the NGO workers themselves. Usually the main complaint is the increasing attacks on aid workers. In the worst cases aid workers are assaulted or robbed and that eventually escalates to some getting killed. This is a trend that has been on the march upward for several decades. Islamic radicals have been particularly active in terrorizing and killing the foreigners who are there to help them. Aid workers are usually caught between different factions within the refugee camps. All factions see the aid groups as a source of income and supplies.

In the case of Syria there are also problems with Sunni Islamic radicals keen on chasing out all non-Moslem foreigners. The refugee camps for Syrians are particularly vexed by criminal gangs that prey on everyone, especially the women. The rebel groups recruit teenage boys to fight or, in the case of Islamic radical groups, to be suicide bombers (called “birds of paradise”). Younger boys are often sexually exploited (a common problem throughout the region).


The employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism. These foreign NGOs bring to disaster areas a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living and different ideas. Several decades ago the main thing these outsiders brought with them was food and medical care. The people on the receiving end were pretty desperate and grateful for the help.

But NGOs have branched out into development and social programs. This has caused unexpected problems with the local leadership. Development programs disrupt the existing economic, and political, relations. The local leaders are often not happy with this, as the NGOs are not always willing to work closely with the existing power structure. While the local worthies may be exploitative, and even corrupt, they are local and they do know more about popular attitudes and ideals than the foreigners. NGOs with social programs (education, especially educating women, new lifestyle choices, and more power for people who don’t usually have much) often run into conflict with local leaders. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted or even fought back. Thus the Afghan government officials calling for all NGOs in the country to be shut down. That included Afghan NGOs, who were doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. The government officials were responding to complaints from numerous old school Afghan tribal and religious leaders who were unhappy with all these foreigners, or urban Afghans with funny ideas, upsetting the ancient ways in the countryside. Moreover, the Afghan government wanted to get the aid money direct, so they could steal more of it.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Sophistry can’t be Moldbuggian-compliant because lies are inherently unstable.

    The employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism.

    Yet don’t stop when informed of the true consequences of their actions? Yeah. Sure they are.

  2. Stretch says:

    I had several friends in U.S. Army Civil Affairs units in Haiti. They said material goods suffered the “10% Rule.” Ten Percent of all material was skimmed off at every step of distribution. Monetary aid suffered the “50% Rule.”

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