The aristocracy of mercy and the conservation industry in Africa: the similarities


I have just finished Graham Hanckock’s groundbreaking text ‘Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business‘. As I read the book, I could not help but find some fundamental similarities between the aid industry (which Hancock refers to as ‘the aristocracy of mercy’), and my beloved conservation industry in Africa. What are the similarities?

  1. White capture

These two industries are submerged in whiteness. What comes to your mind when you think of aid worker? A blond-haired, tanned white person who has been working in the Congo, trying to save Africans from themselves? What comes to your mind when you think of the term conservationist in Africa? A tanned Khaki-clad, white person who is trying to rescue African wildlife and landscapes from Africans. These are two industries where people (white people) can become experts without being necessarily trained in that area. White skin, or skin that is perceived as white even if it is not, is your passport to success in these two industries. The white people working in these two fields are paid salaries that Africans working in some of these organizations can only dream about.  Somebody will be quick to point to the UN and other large agencies, where salary structures are more standardized. But who occupies the top decision making positions? I do not think they are occupied by Africans or other Global Southerners. If these industries are about solving the problems of the  Global South, why don’t Southerners occupy those top positions?

Of the Aid Industry Hancock has this to say:

“At every level in the structure of almost of all of our most important aid-giving organisations, we have installed a tribe of highly paid men and women who are irredeemably out of touch with the day-to-day realities of the global state of poverty and underdevelopment which they are supposed to be working to alleviate. These over-compensated aid bureaucrats demand-and get-a standard of living often far better than that which they could aspire to if they were working, for example, in industry or commerce in their home countries. At the same time, however, their achievements and performance are in no way subjected to the same exacting and competitive process of evaluation that are considered normal in business. Precisely because their professional field is ‘humanitarianism’ rather than, say , ‘sales’ or ‘production’, or ‘engineering’, they are rarely required to demonstrate and validate their worth in quantitative, measurable ways. Surrounding themselves with the mystifying jargon of their trade these lords of poverty are the druids of the modern era wielding enormous power that is accountable to no one.”

Essentially, the Aid industry has entrenched a new class of rich and privileged people, using the misery of the poor and oppressed as a catalyst. Ditto conservation industry. There are no poor white conservationists in Africa. If you know of any, please let me know. Gado’s cow cartoon below is an excellent visual aid in understanding how both aid and conservation funding are used. In the ICT area, we should probably add security in the case of conservation.

  1. Big spenders, but to what end?

The two industries are big spenders. Huge sums of money are spent on activities that do not necessarily achieve the core goals of ending poverty or achieving conservation goals. Hancock writes:

The 10,000 men and women attending the conference looked extraordinarily unlike to achieve this noble objective[of ending poverty]; when not yawning or asleep at plenary sessions they were to be found enjoying a series of cocktail parties, lunches, afternoon teas, dinners, and midnight snacks lavish enough to surfeit the greediest gourmand. The total cost of the 700 social events laid on for delegates during that single week was estimated at USD 10 million.

When I read this passage I forgot that he was talking about a World Bank meeting. It sounds like a very good description of Kenyan members of parliament – but I digress. Now, the question is – Wouldn’t that 10 million USD be better invested in practical interventions that would save lives, or solve a particular poverty-related problem? In the conservation industry you see heavy spending on conservation infrastructure – drones, white people’s dogs, fences, collars, helicopters and so on, turning conservation areas into militarized war zones – spaces of surveillance. All these machinery and dogs have to be bought from the West, so the money raised for conservation circulates in and out of the same countries. To bring this point about the economic hitmanship of monies in the aid Industry home, Hancock presents us with a solid example:

In the 1950s the then President of the World Bank, Mr. Eugene Black, travelled around USA drumming up support for increased aid. His message was a simple one:

Our foreign aid programmes constitute a distinct benefit to American business. The three major benefits are 1. Foreign aid provides a substantial and immediate market for United States goods and services 2. Foreign aid stimulates the development of new overseas markets for United States’ companies 3. Foreign aid orients national economies towards a free enterprise system in which United States firms can prosper – Purchasing of goods and equipment.

Ditto conservation industry – as explained above. Eugene’s quote above reminded me of an aid-funded project I worked on. One of the things we were to purchase was a speed boat. The funding came with a condition that the boat and related supplies had to be bought from the same country from which the aid originated. It is not difficult to understand how  or why some countries are fabulously wealthy and while others are not.


  1. Sniffing the money

Both industries are excellent are sniffing where the money is and adjusting their interventions/interests accordingly. Hancock writes:

The most important element ion this is that all the institutions of Development Incorporated, whether bilateral or multilateral, seem to have at least one thing in common: an uncanny ability to sense the prevailing mood in the donor countries to adapt themselves to it. This is a genuine family characteristic, a genetic trait that programmes each and every one of them for survival. If humanitarianism is in the air, then they will make humanitarian statements, if environmental movements seem to be gaining political support, then the agencies will inject some ecology into their rhetoric; they will also –as and when required- make the necessary noises to assuage national guilt complexes to pander to security neuroses and even to emphasize the profit motive if that seems expedient.


Now, the two industries seem to be merging around the issue of climate change. That is where the money is after all. Traditional humanitarian organizations want in on the action, so coalitions and other kinds of working relationships are being forged.  The conservation industry is having to wade into poverty issues, because the fortress model of conservation has been collapsing around its own weight for some time. Now, those who only wanted to deal with gorillas and not Africans are finding themselves in unfamiliar territories. Interesting times lie ahead.

Safari pintest
Image source: Pintrest.
  1. Famous for producing documents

Reports! Reports! Papers! More reports! More papers! The two industries are famous for producing documents. Whether the poor or communities living around conservation areas read them is another discussion all together. Hancock  rightfully questions the logic of producing a plethora of documents.

What is all this in aid of? At one conference, on the Law of the Sea, the UN employed ninety mimeograph operators to work around the clock at twenty seven machines spewing forth 250,000 pages of documents a day. Each document was produced in three-and sometimes five – languages by teams of translators and typists…..Indeed, so great was the volume of paperwork generated that the list of documents itself ran to 160 pages. After seventy days of talk in the pleasant surroundings of Caracas, Venezuela, delegates made just one firm decision; a resolution to hold another conference on the same subject.

Ditto! It very much sounds like conservation research, where the recommendations are almost always a call for MORE research.

The white mans burden

  1. More aid=more poverty; more conservationists=more conservation problems

The more aid agencies you have, the more poverty you have. The more conservationists you have, the more protracted conservation challenges become. What is going on? Hancock argues that aid has done more harm than good because:

Aid is often profoundly dangerous to the poor and inimical to their interests; it has financed the creation of monstrous projects that, at vast expense, have devastated the environment and ruined lives; it has supported and legitimised brutal tyrannies; it has facilitated the emergence of fantastical and Byzantine bureaucracies staffed by legions of self-serving hypocrites; it has sapped the initiative, creativity and enterprises of ordinary people and substituted …[it with] superficial and irrelevant glitz of imported advice; it has sucked the potential of entrepreneurs and intellectuals in the developing countries into non-productive administrative ; it has created a ‘moral tone’ in international affairs that denies the hard task of wealth creation and that substitutes easy handouts for the rigours of self-help.

I once saw an exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum. The exhibition had some startling examples of failed development projects. Huge sums of money wasted on projects that collapsed after short periods of time, or projects that did not take off at all. One of the ones that I remember was a fish processing plant around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The project did not take off because there was no electricity, which was required to keep the fish refrigerated! But did the project developers not know that there was no electricity before they set up the project there?




I think the greatest problem with aid is that it makes the governments of the receiving countries irresponsible and uncaring of their citizens. Hancock discusses this in the book. He argues that a government that knows that it is going to receive aid would rather spend its money propping up dictators, buying weapons, stealing public resources, etc and not investing in education or health care. I have to agree with him in toto.  I think that when Africans see a white person in their community, they stop thinking for themselves. It is assumed that the white person will solve whatever problem there is, because white people know everything.

This syndrome also affects governments and government workers who increasingly become dependent on white thought and direction, and fail to tap into the knowledge and skills of the people they are supposed to be serving. Of course all of this applies to the field of conservation too. Who shapes conservation discourse in Africa? Is it Africans or white conservationists and white-led conservation agencies? Both the aid and conservation industries entrench white supremacy in Africa, and by extension, destroy or stifle African agency. These two industries have entrenched the idea that Africans do not know anything, and they need the hand of white person to guide them into navigating life. According to Kwame Nkrumah, colonial powers:

Were all rapacious; they all subserved the needs of the subject lands to their own demands; they all circumscribed human rights and liberties; they all repressed and despoiled, degraded and oppressed. They took our lands, our lives, our resources and our dignity. Without exception, they left us nothing but our resentment…

What is the difference between colonialism then and now?



8 thoughts on “The aristocracy of mercy and the conservation industry in Africa: the similarities

  1. Excellent summary. I am in conservation and tourism. And i have read Hancox’s great book. I endorse your good sentiments


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