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Editor's Blog

How an 'ugly American' can win the hearts and minds war

It is easy to criticize the misspending and poor execution of foreign aid in places like Afghanistan. Done right, however, foreign aid promotes self-reliance.

By Editor / August 5, 2010

A brother and sister fill up a water jug in Faizabad, Afghanistan -- a local water project provided by the US Agency for International Development. A Monitor special report looked at the hearts-and-minds problems that occur when aid projects fail.

Monique Jaques / Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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When you hear the term “the ugly American,” you probably think of a loud, aggressive Yank smashing cultural china and leaving mud on the carpets of ancient civilizations. What may surprise you (unless you’ve dug out a battered copy of the book by the same name) is that the ugly American’s namesake was probably the most exemplary American emissary in literature.

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Homer Atkins stars in a couple of chapters of the 1958 novel by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. He is “ugly” in that he is an engineer with dirty fingernails, calloused hands, and “the smell of the jungle about him.” Contrast him with the diplomats and government officials in 1950s Southeast Asia who loved big, showy development projects – highways and hydroelectric dams – rarely traveled into the countryside, and always “smelled of aftershave lotion.”

Homer Atkins understands the kind of hands-on assistance that makes things better. He devises a bicycle-powered water pump, finds a local partner, and changes the lives of farmers who have been lugging water up hills for generations. He acts locally and effectively. Long after Lederer and Burdick used Atkins as an example of the success of small and sensitive aid, we are still relearning the lesson.

The Monitor's South Asia correspondent, Ben Arnoldy, recently investigated two aid programs in Afghanistan. One – a shoddy, half-built canal – is a fiasco. Consultation was minimal. No one’s lives have been made better by it. Local residents are angry at Kabul and Washington. The other – a micro-hydro turbine that generates electricity – works. Villagers were part of the project from the outset. People are happy. They like the government.

Governments are not the biggest aid donors. Charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and hundreds of others raise and disburse aid money around the world. According to recent estimates, Americans privately give at least $34 billion to causes and projects overseas – more than twice the amount of US official foreign aid.

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