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Cruel to be Kind? June 29, 2006

Posted by skinbad in Politics, Religion.

My mentor in Viagra research, steve_in_hb, said something in the Nuke the Muslims? thread (certainly, the thought has been expressed elsewhere as well) that got me thinking about the concept of aid and charity in general. Sayeth Steve:

An example of what I’m talking about is the Palestinians. They elected a terrorist organization as their government. Fine, make them live with the consequences. None of this crap about trying to funnel aid money to the population using channels outside the terrorist government. Doing this just subsidizes the terror government and encourages continued destructive behavior. I know children, elderly, etc will die. Tough crap, as a group they chose their government. Eventually they will suffer to the point where they will make legitimate attempts to settle with the Israelis. Then we can help them build a decent society.

My head agrees, but I find myself choking on the particulars. And, yes, the election of Hamas makes me more comfortable with Steve’s position on the Palestinians than the situation of a dictatorship. Let them have the full consequences of their decisions. 

A few years ago, my church, along with many other charitable organizations, donated a lot of food aid to North Korea. They’ve done similar things in Somalia and Ethiopia and other places. If I call those countries hell holes and their leaders evil and corrupt I doubt I’d get much in the way of serious disagreement. Honestly, it bothered me when I read about the church’s aid to North Korea. And, as Steve mentions, even if (a huge if) donors can be assured that the aid goes directly to feed starving people, that aid just frees the corrupt government up to funnel its available resources to lavish living and protection for the regime.

Could you, could I, cut off humantiarian aid knowing it would result in the starvation of thousands and thousands of innocent people?  We might think there is a possibility the people could rise up and replace the government. But do you really think the North Koreans (for example) have the means to do it? It will never happen unless the military turns on the leadership.

So on Africa, there’s Bono, who I think is a well-meaning person trying to use the benefits of being a celebrity to help people:

“Overall, there is one cheer on debt, half a cheer on AIDS and boos and wolf-whistles for what is happening on trade,” Bono said.

And there’s Walter Williams (the black, conservative, economist not named Thomas Sowell): 

No amount of Western foreign aid can bring about the political and socioeconomic climate necessary for economic growth. Instead, foreign aid allows vicious dictators to remain in power. It enables them to buy the allegiance of cronies and the military equipment to oppress their own people, not to mention being able to set up “retirement” accounts in Swiss banks. The best thing Westerners can do for Africa is to keep their money and their economic development “experts.”

I confess that Williams makes more sense to me than Bono does, possibly in a confirming my own biases way. Maybe I shouldn’t feel any guilt about trusting an economist’s view compared to a rock star’s on this issue. But is keeping my money in my pocket really the “best thing” I can do for Africa?  Or will withholding aid just result in silent deaths by disease or starvation that could have been prevented?


1. Dave in Texas - June 29, 2006

Rewarding despots does not help people.

It “feels” good, you think you are making a difference.

You’re just prolonging their suffering.

Encouraging free markets, tying aid to measureable commitments from their governments is the only way to persuade them to come forward and join the world. It’s the only meaningful, long lasting and positive impact we can make.

When the Weimar Republic fell, and the National Socialists were given the reins, and their evil darkened half the planet, we had to commit ourselves to a crushing campaign of death and pain to crush it, totally.

I sure hope we can avoid that again. As you’ve pointed out, an awful lot of innocent life hangs in the balance.

2. steve_in_hb - June 29, 2006

As you pointed out, one of the keys here is the fact that Hamas was elected. I know that the motivating factor may have been a rejection of fatah corruption and that fatah made the tactical mistake of running multiple candidates, resulting in splitting their base. But they are still the elected government of their people. I have no problem with saying live with the consequences of your decision.

It’s more problematic when you have a government imposed on people. I agree that aid benefits the dictators in a number of ways, yet it’s difficult to withhold help from people who are in a horrible situation that they didn’t have a hand in creating.

I sometimes wonder whether a more effective way to help these people is for charities to fund mercenaries to eliminate the dictators. Don’t worry so much about nation building afterwards, just kill off the dictator and his bully boys and withdraw. Let the society sort itself out. I know that the odds are the result would be just a different boss/general establishing power, but isn’t it worth a roll of the dice? I don’t know if things can be made worse, and we might get lucky.

I know that my suggestion is silly, will never happen and has obvious flaws. But I don’t see that to keep doing what we are doing, only with even more money, will work. The simple truth is that most of the people starving today are doing so because it suits their government’s purposes.

3. Michael - June 29, 2006

I sometimes wonder whether a more effective way to help these people is for charities to fund mercenaries to eliminate the dictators.

Makes sense to me. Maybe UNICEF could contract with Blackwater for some hit teams.

4. Pupster - June 29, 2006

I’ve been kicking an idea around in my head since I heard Walter Williams talk about this issue, and I would like to know what you guys think. Why don’t we send foreign aid in the form of American Made goods and services? Would the people of (insert third world hell hole here) benefit more from some Caterpillar or John Deere equipment or money in the government coffers? I understand a certain government in the Middle East is in need of some bridge building and power station equipment. We make that stuff, right?

We could boost our own economy with our own money, actually help the recipients of the aid, and stop enabling the dictators with cold hard cash. Sure, they could still let the stuff rot on the docks, but at least we would get the benefit of the sale here at home. What do you guys think?

5. Michael - June 29, 2006

Pupster, I’ve read somewhere that we already do that due to legislative mandates catering to U.S. special interests, such as the farm lobby. The article I read involved food aid, and it was a scathing criticism of the pernicious effects of sending in American farm products, thereby ruining the local farming economy and exacerbating the poverty, and ultimately the hunger, which we were trying to alleviate.

Maybe the idea makes more sense in the case of manufactured goods like tractors, that probably aren’t made locally anyway. But a lot of aid is in the form of food, and we may be doing more harm than good in the long run with policies like that.

6. Feisty - June 29, 2006

I wholeheartedly agree, steve….If your elected government is hostile or uncooperative with the rich nations of the world and their major allies (i.e. Israel), it is unreasonable for one to think that the people of those nations would be tripping over each other to give your people food and drink.

7. Pupster - June 29, 2006

Yeah, I’ve read pretty much the same thing about all the donated clothes and shoes putting the tailors and cobblers out of business. I say we send the seeds, not the flour. Send the well digging and irrigation equipment, and some boot straps, just not the boots.

8. steve_in_hb - June 29, 2006

michael,pupster –

I think you guys are ignoring the fact that many times the fundamental problem is not the amount or type of aid – it’s that the aid doesn’t get to the intended people. The bully boys take most of what is sent or direct it in such a way as to help their power base/tribe/etc and eliminate rival tribes/religious groups/etc.

Feisty –

Yeah, I don’t get it. “We hate you. We want to kill you. We applaud those with the balls to actually kill you. How dare you don’t give us money, you’re so selfish”.

If you hate the West, fine. Go your own way and let us know how things work out for you. Oh, by the way, where’s all the money your Muslim brothers promised you? What, that was all just big talk and they didn’t come through with the cash to finance your government? Wow, sucks for you.

9. The Comish (sic) - June 29, 2006

skinbad, I admire your crisis of conscience, but I assure you, whether you send aid or not matters very little to the country’s leaders. Whether their citizens are receiving aid or being sanctioned, the leader’s lifestyle will differ very little. Folks like Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein seem to find the money to build guilded bachelor pads regardless of how their citizens are doing.

Unfortunately, that goes for aid ,too. If you remember, when the American troops rolled into Iraq, they found warehouses of food and medicine — aid from foreign countries — rotting in warehouses. The aid had been sequestered for use by Hussein and his cronies, and the unused portions were left to rot. So at the same time Hussein was complaining to the UN about 500,000 children dying from sanctions, he was actively driving that number up because he and his cronies benefitted from the aid.

Pupster, Michael’s right. When the US gives foreign aid, the US usually gives some kind of mandate as to how the money can be used. Sometimes, the US makes the money contingent upon the recipient using the money to buy American goods, like John Deere tractors.

And, as Michael said, the problem with forcing the Palestineans to use our aid money to buy American tractors is that it’s terribly wasteful. Someone has to pay to ship those tractors to Israel, the Palestineans presumably aren’t trained in how to operate American tractors, the US has little or no control over how the tractors would be used once they get over there (tanks? sold for parts? knock down security fences?), and when something goes wrong with the tractors, there aren’t a lot of John Deere-approved service stations in the Gaza Strip.

As for nuking everyone, I think war in general gets a bad rap. I’m a military brat, so I strongly believe in the value of killing bad guys. It’s possible (perhaps even likely) that some innocent people will be killed in an armed conflict, but 1) fewer of the people killed will be our guys; 2) it will be taken care of now, rather than later; 3) over the long haul, fewer Palestineans will be killed by a huge bomb, as opposed to letting them suffer from starvation and medical deprivation; and 4) we’ll know how it turns out, rather than just hoping the bad guys just shape up and fly right.

10. Feisty - June 29, 2006

Let’s face it, the reason why most regular people give aid to corrupt foreign nations is to make themselves feel better or relieve personal guilt. I’m sure thousands upon thousands would still donate even if it was said that “the food you give will likely never reach the people you want it to reach because 80 percent of the food we have given in the past was intercepted by armed gunmen.”

I donate food only to the local food shelves because I’m reasonably certain it will reach poor women, minorites, hookers, mentally ill white people, and drug addicts in the St. Paul area.

11. steve_in_hb - June 29, 2006

Interesting discussion about Gaza.


12. Muslihoon - June 29, 2006

Muslim states gave lots of money to the Palestinian National Authority. Most of that money went into Swiss bank accounts.

Most of the roads in the Palestinian Territories were built by Israel, by the way.

Personally, I’m extremely picky about donations. I donate only to causes I strongly believe in (my church, Salvation Army, Magen David Adom, others), which I know will use the money efficiently. Otherwise, when it comes to humanitarian crises, I donate items, never money. No one can be sure the money will get there, but items (clothes, blankets, food, et cetera) – they can’t really be used to make weapons or be stashed in bank accounts.

Sending items to the Palestinian Territories, I think, would not be a bad idea. Even medicines. But no money.

As a principle, I never donate money to Muslim charities. A large number have had their accounts frozen throughout the world for acting as channels through which money was being funnelled to terrorist groups. Clothes, shoes, other needed items I and my family donate generously and freely. But never money.

13. Muslihoon - June 29, 2006

I have to say, I admire people like skinbad who’re less cynical and pragmatic.

14. skinbad - June 30, 2006

Thanks for the responses. I guess I was running the idea around in my mind that if my signature was required to halt food going to say, North Korea during a famine, would I be able to stand on principle and not allow it? I don’t think I could. And I agree, Comish, that the lives of those people are of so little consequence to their corrupt leaders that it might make no practical difference if the aid is sent or not. Brings “Oil for Food” to my mind. What a worthless charade.

I actually think the U.S. (ably lead by John Bolton’s Moustache) and allies in Europe are doing a decent job putting the screws to Hamas. I hope they keep it up.

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