“Help the needy in a humanitarian crisis,” is a moral position that stubbornly resists scrutiny.
Over the next three weeks I want to explore the foundations of this position, its implications and unintended ramifications. I am not saying that no-one opposes humanitarian aid, many do, but when people oppose it they are often doing so on xenophobic, nationalistic, racist or ignorant grounds without framing their opposition in a coherent ethical framework that could be applied in all places. What I intend to do – and I don’t know for sure where it will lead – is to critique humanitarian aid and place it into a system of priorities that applies to all of our other ethical decisions. In the book Dead Aid, Dambisa Mayo argues that development aid is exacerbating Africa’s problems. She is one of the most controversial and outspoken critic of foreign aid but even she ring-fences humanitarian aid for natural and man-made disasters. Now, I don’t know about her original thesis but I am interested in this distinction: what is special about disasters?
I will look at the outcomes of humanitarian assistance and how they are measured. I will consider that there is a moral hazard in place that works for the agencies and their donors while excluding the people they are trying to help. I will look at the psychology of the aid worker, how our ideas about causation and limitations in understanding statistics might be holding us back from rational progress. I will think about the psychological effect of a disaster, who the death/disease is affecting, and the tyranny of present perception. Finally I will make the contention that humanitarian aid is not only weak within itself but that so long as it is inefficient and opaque the opportunity costs are extra people dead/diseased that we could have helped.
What I am not going to do is a Crisis Caravan style exposition of humanitarian workers in specific contexts. Not only do I lack the experience to do so, I don’t think that is the point. Individual actions/inactions are not the problem, nor are agency level actions/inactions. I am exploring the state of the system and how it came to be like it is.
With a crisis of immense scale unfolding in the Horn of Africa I appreciate that this is a sensitive time. But there are many crises, albeit slow/sporadic/spread-out ones, that are happening right now; and humanitarian aid is not helping them, perhaps even, the reverse.