Interesting debate here at LSHTM last night: “Does development assistance help or hinder?” with Rifat Atun, Imperial College London, Andy Haines, LSHTM and Nuria Molina, Save the Children.
Everyone agreed that there was a need for greater accountability in the aid industry. Which led to the inevitable calls for more governing bodies, and impartial seers.
But what, then, of the idea that poverty is a lack of choice? All of this planning is just another imposition on poorer (less powerful) people. The aid industry has huge power – through NGOs or governments – and is not inclined to give it away to the people. A selfish bureaucracy reigns.
Would it be so terrible to side-step the bureaucrats and give the money directly to the people who need it? Not top down, literally a monthly or yearly living allowance in their pockets. Without all that schmoozing to do and wasting time fighting at summits, aid agencies could focus on attracting people’s custom by offering the best services. Investors might invest in promising start-ups who could show innovation in the field of helping people. The people who are supposed to be gratefully receiving the benevolence of the aid industry would have, for the first time, a position of power and a position to choose. The aid agencies would answer to them.
Radical? Right wing? Not really. This is about shifting power from the richest to the poorest people in the world. While we’re falling over ourselves to please donors, do we ever stop to think about how we’re pleasing the people we claim to want to help?
“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.