What are some examples of humanitarian acts gone awry?
June 13, 2014 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone provide instances of humanitarian efforts on a global or national scale that ended up exacerbating matters or creating new problems? What made these efforts different from successful ventures?

I am interested in humanitarianism gone wrong - either through misallocation of funds, a shallow understanding of the problem at hand or any other circumstances (internal or exigent). I don't want to hear about small scale failings, but acts that had widespread support and confidence only to fail, if not worsen the crisis it was meant to address.

Government examples are great, but I am also especially interested in NGO and private instances. My curiosity stems from wanting to understand how things can go wrong specifically for the task of refining my sensitivity for the public good that indeed does good. These failings can highlight how and why some humanitarian projects exceed expectations and change society for the better.

Thank you for your help with this question.
posted by jne1813 to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The book The White Man's Burden by William Easterly is well worth a look.
posted by HoraceH at 8:58 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's the Bangladesh arsenic crisis. Aid groups installed tube wells so people wouldn't have to drink contaminated surface water. But no one realized that the well water had dangerous levels of arsenic.
posted by monotreme at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2014

Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh is a good example of this. UNICEF built millions of wells in Bangladesh to reduce the use of contaminated surface water that was causing chronic diarrhea in children, but failed to test the wells for anything other than biological contaminants and 20% of the wells ended up drawing on ground water contaminated with arsenic.
posted by MadamM at 9:05 AM on June 13, 2014

The 2010-2013 cholera outbreak in Haiti, which was likely the result of a combination of poor sanitation (exacerbated by the earthquake) and infected UN peacekeepers from Nepal.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:15 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is a pretty good epidemiological explanation of that Haiti cholera situation.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2014

Operation Iraqi Freedom?
posted by bluejayway at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't have a link but I have had excellent, informative conversations with a person with the wonderful name Blessing who explained to me with considerable patience exactly how clothing donations to developing nations did significant harm due to the deleterious effects of such donations on local textiles industry.
posted by Sternmeyer at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

One that I remember was all the Live Aid, Band Aid concerts and records to raise money for food in Africa.

Sure, tons of food was delivered to the continent, but warlords took it over and used the food aid as ways to strengthen their regimes.

It was a great idea, but the infrastructure in African nations just wasn't there, so a lot of food rotted at entry points because they didn't have the proper vehicles or roads to get the food aid to those who needed it.

Another one that I can think of is the War on Poverty and the building of housing projects. It seemed like a great idea, government subsidized housing for the poor. But it was executed so clumsily. Projects were built in out of the way places, so they weren't served by mass transit. Jobs were harder to come by close to home, and getting to a job from the projects was difficult, to impossible to do. The density of population made it a magnet for drug dealing, just stand in the courtyard and customers will come to you. The Wire shows this culture, and how things changed once the projects were removed.

I worked on sorting clothing for victims of Hurricane Andrew. About 2% of it was usable, the rest was just garbage. Ditto canned foods, etc. It is much better for the Red Cross to deal with the logistics of getting food and water into disaster areas, than to gather up provisions and...what? Mail them? Drive them in yourself?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:24 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Formula donations to nations without adequate sanitation (especially during disasters) have make infants sicker in some cases (link in article to UNICEF pdf report). Not-as-purely-motivated formula giveaways to doctors, hospitals and new mothers in developing nations by Nestle have been the subject of controversy--and boycotts--for over 30 years.
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:24 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the early aughts, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan distributed food rations (HDR) packages that were nearly identical to BLU-97 cluster bombs.

Here's a photo for comparison and a report [PDF] from Human Rights Watch with more details.
posted by divined by radio at 9:27 AM on June 13, 2014

The TOMS model- "buy one for you and we'll give one to a poor person"- is highly flawed and pretty much nothing more than savvy marketing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:31 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

KONY2012 was a viral video that swept the america trying to get a warlord in africa tried. it kinda dried up once the guy behind it exposed himself in public.
posted by rebent at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2014

Clothing donations are sold in Africa, preventing the development of local textile industries.
posted by Spurious at 9:45 AM on June 13, 2014

Slightly off from your topic but the donation comment got me thinking. In public libraries we get HUGE amounts of donations. Everyday I have people bringing me boxes full of books. And the people are always so happy and feeling so good about themselves and bragging about how they want to share their wealth of books with the world because "someone else" will find them useful. They are almost all trash and cost the library in staff time in dealing with them and the disposal fees.
posted by saucysault at 10:04 AM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Road to Hell: Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren full of examples. The one I recall offhand, a well was dug to provide water in a remote area which attracted nomadic populations who settled nearby which led to deforestation as they needed wood for cooking fuel and decimation of the animal population for food, resulting in a desert. Basically, nomadism in search of water allowed marginal areas to regenerate in between visits. See also Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:06 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is a little bit more about what is wrong with donating baby formula to people in developing nations instead of supporting breastfeeding.

The Bangladesh arsenic poisoning thing is a little more complicated than folks above seem to think. The wells were installed to address the quarter million deaths annually from people getting diarrhea and the like from drinking contaminated surface waters (collected rain water and the like). It did, in fact, largely fix that problem. Also, not all wells were a source of arsenic contamination. IIRC, wells less than 30 feet deep were fine and wells more than 100 feet deep were fine. Wells in between those depths were tapping into water in a rock formation containing arsenic. So some wells were fine and some were not.

Arsenic poisoning is serious stuff but it at least kills you slower than the diseases people were getting from drinking contaminated surface water. So the wells represented forward progress. Obviously, the poisoning is an issue that needs to be resolved. But, in this particular case, it is not a black and white case of "Bangladesh would have been better off had foreign aid not come in and dug all these wells." A few years ago, I did a couple of college papers on this issue. Last I heard, they were trying to a) determine which wells were safe and b) find some means to cheaply, effectively filter the water from the wells that were not safe. In addition, a lot of people were being treated for the arsenic poisoning -- many of whom likely would have simply died from disease had the wells never been installed.

You might try reading Diet for a Small Planet. A good portion of the book is about international politics. It is about promoting locally sustainable diets and how sending food to starving nations goes very awry. It details how starvation is almost never actually about an absolute lack of food resources but is, instead, about political problems like civil war. Sometimes, food donations sit on the docks rotting or get sold to line the pockets of corrupt people in power. Thus, it may not go at all to people who are hungry. When it does, it changes their dietary preferences from something locally sustainable to something not locally sustainable and this has significant negative impacts at both the household level and state level.
posted by Michele in California at 10:14 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

While looking for the story of the Norwegian-aid frozen fish plant that was built without enough electricity, I found this "Sorry Record of Foreign Aid in Africa, which includes several examples of money poorly spent, if not actively harming the local populations.
posted by ldthomps at 10:19 AM on June 13, 2014

NGOs that provide goods such as bottled water in the wake of natural disasters can actually end up putting local sanitary water companies out of business (why would anyone buy water if it's free)?

Source for how NGOs have made some things worse in Haiti.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:22 AM on June 13, 2014

The Play Pump was initially touted as a design revolution but failed miserably. Frontline has more.
posted by athenasbanquet at 10:24 AM on June 13, 2014

I believe a canonical example of this is what happened in the Red Cross refugee camps following the Rwandan genocide. While sheltering many deserving people, they also offered safe harbor to many of the perpetrators, providing them an opportunity to regroup across the border in the DRC, and thereby setting off a chain of attacks and reprisals that some analysts identify as one of the precipitating causes of the war in Congo. Jason Stearns' Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is a good overview; in general reading about Rwanda since the genocide would probably be useful to you as Kigame is an excellent example of a leader who knows how to exploit donor sympathy to achieve his own aims.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:43 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Saucysalt: sadly, people also pay to ship such crap to Afghanistan, "Africa" etc. The garbage I have seen on bookshelves and in bins in developing country libraries!

OLPC is widely seen as a failure. Development Initiatives had a great study on how much official development aid actually reaches the poor.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:33 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the Tiny Spark podcast, which bills itself as "investigating the business of doing good," and has profiled a few unsuccessful NGO efforts.
posted by eponym at 6:02 PM on June 13, 2014

Another commonly cited one: Scared Straight and similar programs to reduce juvenile delinquency actually increased crime (up to 28 percent) as compared with a control group.
posted by oryelle at 6:03 PM on June 13, 2014

"Miami rice" in Haiti is a good example of this. The governments and aid donations provided much free/nearly-free rice following the 2010 earthquake. This was on the surface good for a hungry population, but it also had the effect of semi-permanently decimating Haiti's domestic rice production. I am not familiar with the source, but there is a write-up here. And there is also this BBC article covering the situation.
posted by whitewall at 9:33 PM on June 13, 2014

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