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.

Monique Jaques / Special to the Christian Science Monitor
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.

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.

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.

But as long as there has been foreign aid, there have been questions about whether it helps or hurts. Waste, fraud, and abuse are constants. Critics on the right believe that foreign aid is like welfare, stunting individual initiative. Critics on the left say it keeps developing nations dependent, enabling the rich to exploit their resources. On the ground, it all comes down to what works.

A recent report in the journal Foreign Affairs examined the use of development assistance in the fight against insurgents in Iraq. Much of the reconstruction aid has not helped reduce violence, say researchers Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro. What has worked best are small projects with a relentless focus on local involvement.

Foreign aid is under scrutiny now in Afghanistan, where corruption runs deep. There is evidence that officials have siphoned off money to build luxury villas in the Persian Gulf. There are half-
finished projects and too many middlemen wetting their beaks. For all its problems, however, development assistance has achieved notable successes during the last half century: the “green revolution,” the fight to eradicate malaria, the frequent fast deployment of relief shipments after a natural disaster like the Haiti earthquake.

The modern concept of aid can be traced to the Marshall Plan, which speeded the recovery of a broken Europe after World War II. Before that – as far back as the Roman Empire – governments funded temples, aqueducts, and ports in their own territories but rarely helped other nations directly. The Marshall Plan was a historic leap for humanity. It was the moment when a victorious nation decided that instead of becoming the overlord of a supine continent, the United States should, in the words of Secretary of State George Marshall, work to restore “the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole.”

Aid should lead to self-reliance. Plenty can go wrong, but sometimes the calloused hands of a Homer Atkins make things better. That’s the ugly American at his best.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor

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