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Home You Can't Save the World

You Can't Save the World

For only ten dollars a day, a week or a month you can feed starving children in Africa. For only the price of a cup of coffee a year, you can make sure that no one in Kansas City ever goes hungry again. For just a third of your paycheck, you can subsidize a vast bureaucracy that will conduct studies on the best way to save the world and then come up with proposals that will only cost you half your paycheck.

 This misplaced philanthropic confidence is the idiot stepchild of life in a free enterprise society where anything can be accomplished for the right price. Do you want to build a house on the edge of a cliff so that the waves crash under your window? Do you want to play on every golf course in the world? Do you want to clone a dinosaur so you can hunt it?

It hasn't been done yet, but it's probably doable.

So why can't we end world hunger for only the price of a cup of coffee every six seconds or forty percent of the national debt or some other appealing figure that looks good on an infographic?

Hunger isn't a resource shortage problem. That seems implausible to free worlders who think that hunger is what happens when they can't find a fast food place open late at night or are on a diet.

The Soviet dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich told an American cab driver about meat rationing in the USSR. The cab driver refused to believe him and demanded to know why people didn’t just set up more chicken farms.  Voinovich tried to explain to the incredulous driver that under Socialism, setting up more chicken farms doesn’t produce more chickens.

The USSR had plenty of land, labor and experts. It went from exporting wheat to importing wheat despite throwing everything it had into agriculture because there was a disconnect at every level in the process of planning and production.  Like a sack race with three hundred legs in one sack, the harder the USSR tried to increase yields and production, the worse they became.

Sending the USSR food, as the United States repeatedly did from its early years when Hoover fought famine with an army of aid workers to its waning days when the Evil Empire went deep into debt buying American wheat, didn't solve anything. Soviet attempts at copying American successes in agriculture actually backfired leading to worse disasters. The only solution to the USSR's agriculture problems came with the collapse of Soviet feudalism whose central planning had created the meat shortages and bread shortages.

Most "hungry" countries aren't Communist, but they are dysfunctional. They aren't going to be fixed for the price of a cup of coffee a day or an hour or a second. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into Africa and it's the opinion of African economic experts that the money did more harm than good by crippling developing economies with a weak global social safety net.

Every "free" item sent to another country is one item that isn't going to be sold or manufactured there. An aid economy works a lot like a regular economy except that it can't sustain domestic production or domestic experts. Its doctors are trained by Western countries and stay there instead of going back home. Their place is taken by Western professionals who enjoy the feeling of satisfaction and the philanthropic credentials of helping out in an exotic country for a few weeks a year. The same is often true for teachers and any other role that Western aid tourists cheerfully show up to fill.

An aid economy is planned, instead of responsive, and so it depresses local production without fully satisfying local demand leaving the population in a state of semi-deprivation. And the aid never properly reaches the people who need it because of the monopolies and corruption that caused the deprivation that made the aid necessary. This cycle of corruption feeds an aid economy by knocking out the middle class who might otherwise step into the roles of merchants and professionals and rewards anyone with enough guns to hijack the aid and shake down the charities that distribute it.

Trying to save Africa for the cost of a cup of coffee a day has made it a much worse place. And that's as true of the United States as it is of Africa.

Domestic warlords don't have child soldiers who drive around with machine guns on pickup trucks. Instead they wear suits, they coordinate with community organizers and they clamor for more money for broken inner city neighborhoods so they can siphon it off. There are parts of the United States that are just as broken as any Third World country because they run on the same aid economy that rewards political warlords and discourages independence and initiative.

Every year, activists and politicians announce that for only twenty billion or two hundred billion we can end world hunger, educate every child or give every family their own cow. These proposals all apply the free enterprise logic of solving a problem by 'buying' a solution. But you can't buy solutions to human problems the way that you can solve engineering problems by building a house on the edge of a cliff. People have to become their own solutions. Buying a solution for them won't work.

And even if it could work, it wouldn't work on that scale. Helping people isn't like building cars and aid isn't mass production. Throwing more money and people at the problem only makes it that much harder to solve.

Buying a homeless man a sandwich for two dollars is a direct investment of resources. Appropriating twenty billion dollars to feed a sandwich to every homeless man in America will feed sandwiches to a small percentage of the homeless at a cost of four thousand dollars a sandwich.

This is where the comfort zone of a industrial society where everyone is used to the benefits of mass production leads idealists astray. Socialists treated the factory as a metaphor for human society with experts planning everything from health care to leisure entertainments for productive output. But human society isn't a factory. A factory is where people agree to work in order to earn money for the things that they care about. Once work becomes non-consensual, production drops off, as it did in the USSR, and when all of life has the flavor of a factory, the motivation to do anything disappears.

The linear progression of a factory's tasks are at odds with the complex range of motives of the actors in human society and the human variables make every link in the chain of planning less efficient. It's easy to buy a homeless man a sandwich, but once you try to buy sandwiches for millions of homeless men, the sandwich money is eaten up by the expenses of planning how to identify the homeless men, what kind of sandwiches they would like, studies on marketing sandwiches to homeless men over social media, the costs of diversity training for the sandwich makers and a million other things.

Every lofty aid goal begins with a big number and bleeds down to the prosaic reality that the goal will never be met, but that everyone involved will be told to feel good about themselves for trying. The bigger the goal, the bigger the administrative overhead, the corruption and the inefficiency. Instead of scaling up results by scaling up funds, more money and more people lead to fewer individual results.

The aid economy of the underprivileged is the smaller half of the overall aid economy. The biggest piece of the aid economy is in the hands of the aid organizations that profit from an unsolvable problem that, all their fundraising brochures to the contrary, they have no interest in solving because it would remove their reason for existing. Africa's misery is their wealth. The worse Africa becomes, the more incentive the easily empathetic and the guilty of the West will have to pour money into their latest cause to buy everyone in Africa a goat, a laptop or a sandwich.

It's the old Soviet problem. The producers have no interest in producing anything. The aid recipients, distributors and providers have achieved a dysfunctional equilibrium. The system is broken, but everyone has learned their roles within the broken system. If the system changes, they will all have to get jobs. It was that inertia which kept the USSR going long after its leaders stopped caring about the ravings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. It took the energy of a younger generation that had yet to become invested in the system to topple it and it is the older generation that is most likely to march with portraits of Communist leaders and kiss them for the cameras.

You can buy a homeless man a sandwich, but you can't buy them all sandwiches because once you do that, you are no longer engaging in a personal interaction, but building an organization and the organization perpetuates itself. You don't need a homeless man to exist so that you can buy him a sandwich, but once an agency exists that is tasked with buying homeless men sandwiches, it needs the homeless men to exist as 'clients' so that it can buy them sandwiches and buy itself steak dinners.

In aid economies, the scale of the problem grows slightly faster than the amount of aid and activists hold out the tempting promise that by increasing spending to stay ahead of the problem, it can be solved completely. All it would take is for everyone to become engaged and care. That isn't a plan, it's a pat on the back for the people who do care and an incentive to show their moral superiority by continuing to throw good money after bad into the aid economy.

The West can't fix Africa no matter how much of the price of a cup of coffee it donates. By attempting to fix it,  Africa and the West become entangled in each other's problems, each worsening the problems of the other instead of solving them.

No one can save Africa except Africans. No one can fix Detroit except the majority of the people who live there. Social problems aren't solved by nationalizing them or internationalizing them. They aren't solved by engaging and guilt tripping those who have already solved those problems and live thousands of miles away but by engaging the people who live right there and are part of the problem.

If a man is drowning, you can toss him a rope. But if a man jumps into the water, tossing him a rope doesn't accomplish anything. A physical problem can be solved by applying the right resources, but a human problem can't be solved except when the affected humans change their attitudes or behaviors.

Trying to solve a problem rooted in behavior with monetary rewards only perpetuates that behavior. Instead of saving the world, throwing money at it destroys it instead.


  1. Technically you are right about the financial system disrupting aspect of foreign aid in whatever manner such is given, except by sending experts to teach the locals how to do or produce but you forget the enormous psychological feel good compensational aspect value to the individual giver of sharing some money out of one's western affluence to people who's miserable poverty one feels guilty about.

  2. Wait a minute...

    Are you saying Bill Gates’ recent prediction that world poverty will be eradicated by 2035 is hot air? But he is one of the 85 elite who own the world, so he should know. Poverty and hunger are on the way out. Definitely. That way, after all humans have been situated with plenty, Gates can repurpose his charity for other noble causes.

    Wait a minute...

  3. Anonymous3/2/14

    DP111 writes ..


    What do you think of Fair Trade? Is this yet another form of aid?

  4. Once you create an agency to solve a problem, you have guaranteed that the problem will never be solved. Look at the mistake the March of Dimes made. They cured polio, and nearly put themselves out of business. In response they turned to "doing something" about birth defects. They won't repeat their mistake about polio. Birth defects are forever.

  5. Anonymous3/2/14

    Thank you for this excellent article which explains the proliferation of so many NGO's today and why they can never be successful because failure is built into them. For the "do gooders" and "poverty pimps" that run them, it is not about the starving but about knowing what a good person you are and the added benefit of those steak dinners that keep coming as long as one child remains with sunken eyes and a big belly.

  6. Anonymous3/2/14

    Daniel have you read these articles regarding Africa and aid.



  7. As an outsider who has been trying to understand the American character for well-nigh a decade, I have concluded that this "save the world" attitude is the flip side of the "can-do" attitude that distinguishes the Historic American Nation among even its fraternal nations.

    The white man looks at a gulf and sees a bridge. He looks at a swamp and sees a golf course. He looks at the heavens and sees himself in chariot galloping to the moon.

    His nation is so vast that is like the world. It is the world. What is true for his nation and his people must be true for others. After all, it would be uncharitable to conclude that different races have different abilities. Isn't that a sin? Oh, dear, I sometimes wish we had a Priest who could make sense of the contradictions in the Bible. Too bad we decided to become our own Priests. The Blind leading the Blind.

    His arrogant provincialism doesn't account for Evolution and its consequences. He cannot leave well alone. It is impossible to accept that the Iron Law of Nature doesn't exempt his "exceptional" nation. Forgetting that his nation is only "exceptional" because it is a vast, resource-rich born in relatively Civilized times, and out of a relatively Civilized quarrel with a very Civilized Power and, for most of its history, comprised of ethnically and religiously homogeneous Tribes which enabled exploitation of, virtually, limitless natural wealth with minimal friction and under the protection of two vast oceans.

    A cocky confidence has devolved into outright life and reality denying arrogance. Hubris. We all know what comes next,

  8. Anonymous3/2/14

    Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime....
    (or simply Let the man learn to fish)

  9. Anonymous3/2/14

    As Frederic Brooks observes in "The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering", it takes nine months to make a baby, no matter how many women are assigned to the task. He is commenting on the reality of large software projects, but his logic can easily be applied elsewhere.

  10. Economist PT Bauer did a terrific job of explaining this very reality.

    Unfortunately this Administration's Promise Neighborhood initiatives, with 11 federal agencies coordinating to ensure womb to tomb oversight is likely to continue to make the inner cities highly dysfunctional. The problem with the Great Society of LBJ was NOT insufficient coordination among agencies. Add in the requirement of equity and the suburbs are being pushed into becoming dysfunctional as well.

  11. Anonymous3/2/14

    Here in Michigan our potholes are blooming, along with the calls for higher budgets/taxes to fix them. I wonder why they have not hired a person that can take care of the problem with the current budget unless they have realized that the problem is what makes them money/larger budgets. Our state is anti business in the sense that performing badly at a job can increase revenue..

  12. Anonymous3/2/14

    BarryCuda Americans are exceptional, thank God and exceptional in compassion to others is praiseworthy.

  13. DenisO3/2/14

    The "good intentions" of Liberals are the end of their thinking. Results are never as intended, but that doesn't matter. One must keep on trying the same things that never work, because "feeling good" about fruitless attempts is enough.
    Obamacare has wrecked a good medical care system, but there are no regrets because the intention was noble and the Demorats are able to claim it is not their fault that it turned out the way it has. They know it was someone else's fault, those in Congress that hate the"poor" without medical insurance. Even if it's true that giving each of them $1 Million would have been 3 or 4 times cheaper, and would not have harmed those who had insurance, it's not their fault.
    In the meantime, that $ Trillion gets spent and some of it comes back to every member of Congress in one way or another. A reason they don't fight it very hard.

  14. Empress Trudy3/2/14

    In America you can save puppies and African kids for more or less the same $19/month. At least in the puppy's case part of that money goes to spaying and neutering.

  15. Anonymous3/2/14

    There's another problem as well.

    I used to work for the United Nations. One day, of the top PR men asked me this: "Guess what the through-put is for food aid in sub-Saharan [black] Africa?"

    [Through-put is the amount that gets into the mouths of the starving.] Mindful of the corruption of the African "kleptocrats," I guessed: "75%?"

    The Stalinist snickered: "FIVE percent," he giggled.

    I was stunned. This UN guy was saying that only five percent of the food aid ever gets through to the starving -- shock one; he thought it was funny -- shock two.

    Why funny? Well, because the international Left, or as Whittaker Chambers straightforwardly called them, the communists, have one guiding passion in life, and it's not "caring for the poor."

    It's all about destroying the West. So draining wealth from the Western donor nations to support dictators is a splendid joke to them: the ultimate punk.

    Remember this when you hear them bang on about "helping people," as they do their utmost to destroy the system that has brought more REAL freedom, dignity, and prosperity to the common man than anything in the history of the human race.

  16. Anonymous3/2/14

    I guess we need to raise awareness. What the hell does that mean, anyway. Let's raise awareness for breast cancer, let's raise awareness about global warming, etc. It is all just a marketing ploy. I am quite aware of breast cancer and the fallacies of global warming, thank you very much. How about raising awareness about how much government controls every facet of our everyday lives. Government study anyone? Didn't think so.

  17. Anonymous3/2/14

    Very insightful!

    Unless the causes of failure are addressed, treating the symptoms won't solve the problem. Solutions require the creation of a culture of work, respect for others and a legal system which protects the fruits of labor for any society to succeed. It also requires tolerance of an inequity in results.

  18. Anonymous4/2/14

    As one who has witnessed U.S.A.FOOD AID being re-labled from the warehouse to the distribution point, I applaud a real-world politic view of the matter.
    However, as long as the same siren song is sang by State Depart. clones this will not change.
    This useless distribution of largess will continue and the recipients will continue to depend upon it rather than learn how to feed themselves.


  19. Anonymous4/2/14

    I guess we need to raise awareness. What the hell does that mean, anyway

    Mark Steyn summed up awareness campaigns thus:
    Ah, yes, "awareness." The age-old, unshakable belief that "everyone would agree with me if they only knew."

    I have yet to read a more concise, accurate meaning of "raising awareness"

  20. "It's the old Soviet problem. The producers have no interest in producing anything."

    They have no interest in producing because they know that the moment they create, make, produce anything, it will be grabbed at gunpoint by the government.

    Barrycuda - Americans have prospered, thrived, because until recently, ours was the most free nation on earth. It doesn't matter how many natural resources a country has (and there are other countries/areas with equal or greater natural resources than ours, check the Soviet Union and Africa) if no one wants to develop them because they know that it will simply be taken away from them.

    The cure for hunger, poverty, and all the other ills of the world is freedom and individual rights with their corollary, limited government. The United States was such a place. We are no longer. but we have a chance to turn the trend of sacrificing the individual to the state around. We'll see if we do.

  21. Anonymous4/2/14

    Now replace "Africa" with "black" and you have put your finger on it. Which you almost do!

  22. Anonymous5/2/14

    By Mark Steyn
    Posted on June 03, 2007 6:34 PM
    Michael Ledeen’s Darfur post from yesterday has stuck in my mind all
    day. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve read on this site, and it’s
    entirely correct:

    The killers largely operate from helicopters and small fixed wing
    aircraft. We could destroy them all in an hour or so. But that would
    be “wrong,” because it would violate the current hymnal.

    Go tell the victims. Explain why sanctions are better, because it
    makes the Western politicians feel pious.

    Recently I interviewed Don Cheadle, who starred in that marvelous film
    Hotel Rwanda a year or two back. He’s now written a book about Darfur.
    Very nice fellow. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate that the big
    lesson of Rwanda is that the thugs understand very clearly that
    whenever the west starts working through the UN it sends the message:
    We’re not serious. Indeed, we’re so unserious we’re going to “solve”
    this problem through a process which gives mass murderers the one
    thing you need if you want to kill hundreds of thousands of people –

    So Cheadle’s book proposes all kinds of things you the citizen can do
    for Darfur – write your Congressman, send a letter to the local paper,
    etc. There’s a lot of it about. A week or two back, the following
    caught my eye:

    On Sunday, April 29, Salt Lake Saves Darfur invites the greater Salt
    Lake community of compassion to join with us as we honor the fallen
    and suffering Darfuris in a day of films, discussion and dance with a
    Sudanese dance troupe.
    Very nice. But wouldn’t it make more sense to try the Ledeen solution
    and save the Sudanese dance troupe for the post-victory party? “Salt
    Lake Saves Darfur” looks like doing wonders for “the greater Salt Lake
    community of compassion” but rather less for the people of Darfur.
    There is a grotesque narcissism in the determination of the Save
    Darfur campaign to embrace every strategy except the one that would
    actually save Darfur while there’s anyone still left to save. The
    reality seems to be that these groups prefer to go the ineffectual
    dance-troupe route because it makes them – the “community of
    compassion” – the focus of things.

  23. Anonymous5/2/14

    Great great great post that sums up my own separation from both liberalism and the NGO/non-profit/save-the-world sector.

    Just a quick comment on the person who said they "understand the fallacies of global warming." Sorry, honey, but if you don't accompany that statement with math, you're hootin out your downspout.

  24. Once a pastor at our church used the bully pulpit to rail on about forgiving the loans the west had made to the third world. "We need to share our wealth with the poorer nations of the world" conflating wealth creation with wealth.

    I argued that we do indeed need to share our wealth with the poor of the world but our wealth is not money nor tangible items. Our wealth are the concepts that made us wealthy. We need to export the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, we can't wad up that old rag fast enough, testing that old Lincoln saw about cutting the legs off of the tall to help the short. Who's going to send aid to the poorer nations when we are no longer rich? Who's going to send us aid when we can no longer feed ourselves?

  25. Anonymous7/2/14

    It goes even worse. The left leaning NGOs that are channeling the aid, are at the same time teaching poor Africans not to be thankful for the charity done onto them. Instead they tell them to demand and take whatever they fancy by whatever means. Not surprisingly their caravans are being looted and the NGO activists themselves are been kidnapped for the ransom. Typical leftist wisdom at work I assume.


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