How the best of intentions may result into the worst of consequences

UN sodiers undertaking humanitarian duties. Net photos.

“When colonials came ashore, they didn’t say: ‘We are here to steal your land and take your resources and employ your people to clean our toilets and guard our big houses.’ They said: ‘We are here to help you’.” Michael Maren writes in “The Road to Hell”.

The book, published in 1997, discusses the consequences of foreign aid in Kenya, Somalia and Rwanda.


It portrays development agencies as self-perpetuating opportunists exploiting the world’s misfortune.


Michael Maren is an American journalist who also doubled as an aid worker in Africa in the 1980s.


The bulk of the book focuses on humanitarian organisations operating in Somalia. But in the very last chapters, Maren turns his eyes to Rwanda.

In 1995, after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, he travelled to Rwanda to inspect the impacts of mismanaged aid.

In a mortified tone, he recites how he found out how Genocide orphans were being illegally sold for adoption in the U.S. and Europe.

Some humanitarian organisations would create orphanages and use them to publicise and make money, which was later criticised by the Government of Rwanda.

On the other side, the genocidaires in Zaire (present-day DR Congo) were exchanging aid food for arms to invade Rwanda. 

Although having been published in 1997, “The Road to Hell” is a ringing bell to developing countries that still rely on foreign aid.

Today, the largest recipients of foreign aid are in Sub-Saharan Africa. But the statistics and international rankings show that the level of progress in Africa suddenly appears to be very low despite the huge sums of money received.

Corrupt humanitarians

Reflecting on his life in Kenya, where he worked as a teacher, Maren recounts how foreign aid had become synonymous with corruption. 

Officials in charge were becoming “rich from aid” and none was willing to bring this into light. He was willing to intervene but was hardly heard. 

This milieu prompted his way to Somalia to work as an aid worker.

He argues that the thriving industry of relief agencies was doing more harm than good to those they purport to serve.

In Somalia, humanitarian assistance has been offered since the 1980s due to famine and conflicts.

In 2019, after over 25 years, according to the UN, armed conflicts and violence risk leading 1.5 million Somalis into an acute level of food insecurity. The UN will spend over $1 billion of humanitarian assistance on 3.4 million Somalis in need.  

There is every reason to believe that the idea that food would solve famine is a simplistic assumption. Famine runs much deeper than that. It invariably has to do with corrupt governments.

Government and UN’s failure

The author gives a vivid picture of how manipulated the Somali government was. How it sold aid food for huge profits and how refugees opened shops to sell aid food. 

Maren claims to have seen military trucks packed with ‘NOT TO BE SOLD’ laboured bags of food. 

The government didn’t actually try to develop any sustainable way to improve the lives of refugees because then the aid would stop.

In 1993, when an American assault to arrest “warlord” Farrah Aidid failed, the Somalis started recognising the inefficiency of humanitarian organisations and the UN Peace Corps. “UNOSOM (United Nations Operating in Somalia) was viewed by the Somalis not as a credible mediator but as a resource to be exploited,” Maren writes.

However, the fact that there were aid programmes and projects that actually did some good around the world, should be kept in mind. 

In Somalia’s case, some people did care. For instance, Chris Cassidy was an American aid worker who spent six years in Somalia working for Save the Children. Despite security threats that took his first son, he tried hard. 

As projects manager, he paid his staff out of his own salary to keep a water project in the interest of Somalian nomads running.

Maren also takes a look at media coverage of the issue.  He argues that journalists are too dependent on such aid organizations to properly evaluate them. He proposes that an independent agency be established for that purpose.

A proposal that seems difficult to implement even over 22 years later.  

For instance, in 2018, Oxfam, a British charity, admitted the misinformation on the sexual behaviour of aid workers in Haiti.

The book is not against the welfare state and foreign aid, but has an honest account of what Maren calls “the ravaging effects of foreign aid”. He discusses them in a details, comprehensible style.

The cover of the book “The Road to Hell” by Michael Maren.

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