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The heroic humanitarian narrative: A force for good or bad?

The heroic narrative is almost irresistable as a storytelling strategy.

But many in the aid and development community think it frequently does more harm than good:

  • By implying individual, private efforts (i.e., DIY or “Do-It-Yourself” aid) are somehow superior to large-scale organizational or government-run programs when the evidence (one rebuttal to DIY aid) suggests otherwise;
  • By disguising a poorly functioning program (e.g., Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea scandal) or perhaps advancing a commercial interest (e.g.,TOMS shoes) through compelling personal stories that may do more for the hero than those he/she is supposed to be helping;
  • Or by simplistically glossing over the complex political, economic and social problems that often contribute to the problems of poverty, disease or inequities these humanitarians say they are trying to solve.

It is the dog days of August, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly strong negative reaction based on these kind of concerns to a recent column by the New York Times’ David Brooks. Other such tales — though usually well-intended — tend to really irritate those working out there in poor countries for humanitarian organizations actually trying to help poor people.

David Brooks

Brooks, who is traveling in East Africa, wrote about The Rugged Altruists in which he — perhaps taking a cue from his NYT colleague Nick Kristof, champion of DIY aid — celebrates the good work of some individuals he’s encountered on his trip. Brooks opens by saying:

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that (sic) do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

Brooks offers brief anecdotes of these good people and their stories of service to others. They’re inspiring stories and certainly worthy of note. But then the columnist concludes by saying:

As you talk to people involved in the foreign aid business — on the giving and the receiving ends — you are struck by how much disillusionment there is.

Very few nongovernmental organizations or multilateral efforts do good, many Kenyans say. They come and go, spending largely on themselves, creating dependency not growth. The government-to-government aid workers spend time at summit meetings negotiating protocols with each other.

There’s truth in that complaint as well.

But Brooks appears to conclude from all this that the large-scale traditional aid or development organizations and government programs are either largely ineffective or self-serving — and that it is the work of individual altruists that really makes the difference.

It’s a nice narrative, but fundamentally anecdotal — lacking in evidence, that is.

For example, there’s no question that the large-scale, multilateral and government-to-government projects created to fight AIDS, malaria or other massive health inequities have saved tens of millions of lives. I’m not sure how you could compare the success achieved by these large, bureaucratic, usually government-funded projects to all the the work done — somehow separately? — by all the rugged altruists in the world. But I suspect it wouldn’t even come close.

Which brings up another aspect of Brooks’ conclusion — the false dichotomy of the individual do-gooder versus the slothful or corrupt bureaucratic organization. Doing good actually requires both dedicated individuals and organizational structures. Many celebrated by Brooks are in fact working for NGOs or government agencies. Did he just happen to select the few good ones?

We will soon see a raging debate in Congress about foreign aid. While the conservatives now running Britain and our political allies in Europe seldom have to make the case that foreign aid is in the national interest, American political leaders appear fearful to even talk about it.

What’s needed are hard-nosed, evidence-based reports on the impact and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of our aid and development efforts. What’s needed is a good public discussion that informs Americans how foreign aid and development serves our interests.

Heroic narratives are, at best, an inspiring distraction and, at worst, a misleading portrayal that actually fosters ignorance about how things really get done.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.