Big-time international aid researchers like Bill Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier expend a lot of effort looking for case-studies to bolster their respective opinions about the efficacy of foreign aid. I recently came across this study (.pdf) from the York University Centre for Refugee Studies, which raises some questions about the international community's effect on one of its clients -- in this case the capital of the autonomous region of South Sudan, Juba:
There is an enormous presence of the UN officials and NGO staff in Juba. Since the signing of the CPA, the Juba area has experienced an influx of economic and other activity due to what many call an "NGO invasion" and the presence of a large number of Kenyan and Ugandan businesspeople. This has put pressure on the IDPs (internally displaced persons) and residents of Juba, as their access to surrounding land and resources is restricted and prices of commodities in the local markets have skyrocketed. Hundreds of new 4x4 vehicles are roaming the roads carrying the international development community from GOSS (Govt. of South Sudan) offices to the U.N. compound and accommodation locations. Local accommodation has been unable to keep up with demand. Renting a tent for the night costs approximately $150 USD and meals at restaurants serving the non-residents cost approximately $15 USD per person. A car with a driver costs a minimum of $100 USD per day. At the time of the study, the price of bottled water in the local market was six times that of bottled water found in Khartoum. These extraordinary prices are a direct result of the infusion of aid workers and development funds. . . . One NGO director stated that the "Juba miracle" is that residents are still able to survive.
Anyone spending time in post-conflict environments will recognize the symptoms. The question is whether despite these glaring negatives, suffering societies should welcome the international do-gooders with open arms and lack of oversight?
Arguing against humanitarian aid in the face of real suffering may be a fool's errand, but there is no reason why the real impact of all that effort shouldn't be catalogued and debated. Talk of sustainability is at the heart of all development conversations these days, so it's worth discussing why the privileges of foreigners who parachute in on missions of mercy are so prominent among the things being sustained.
(First published in World Politics Review May, 20th 2009)