Humanitarian aid - an intervention of helpers?

by Thomas Gebauer Director Medico International

"Today's relief workers do not spend much time considering the background of a crisis. Where in former times the motivation for action was based on the concept of a different kind of world, today there is a political pragmatism that does not want to interfere or take sides - and yet is relentlessly intervening because victims are only seen as objects of efficient relief measures."

Humanitarian aid - an intervention of helpers? This question points to an important development, indeed. It is true that aid activities are presently undergoing remarkable changes. When we speak of assistance today we hardly mean the sustainable overcoming of human need and dependence, but mainly only of cushioning those damages that are mercilessly produced on a daily basis by a world order founded in constantly growing inequity and division.

This also explains why humanitarian aid is gaining in importance relative to development cooperation, and we can understand why the relationship of those seeking help and the actual relief workers is increasingly dominated by technical requirements. Required are efficient routes for provisions, competent implementation capacities, and relief workers who don’t waste their time looking for causes but act immediately. Just take a look at the media reporting on relief operations. There you see relief workers setting out for their mission with impressive equipment, relief workers asking for access to the crisis area, relief workers explaining the situation to journalists, relief workers fighting with bureaucratic red-tape, relief workers who are instrumentalised and threatened, relief workers who have to withdraw from areas of operation, and relief workers who are honoured as the true and sometimes tragic heroes of our times in talk shows and charity events.

In contrast, the disaster victims often appear as a helplessly cowering mass of human misery as a backdrop to fundraising appeals, dramatically put in the limelight. The slogan a German fundraising alliance is presently using for advertising purposes is quite trendy: Wanted-----rescuers, it says bluntly, where earlier it would at least have sounded a critical undertone: Rescue wanted! And above all, for whom!

Let me make this clear: I am far from trying to ridicule aid and relief workers as such. In a great number of emergency situations there is no alternative to immediate humanitarian aid. But this is the very reason why aid agencies must ensure that in the end their aid programmes do not produce the contrary result of what was intended.

Yet, this has unfortunately been and still is quite often the case. A case in point is Kosovo, when the massive and by no means unselfish presence of foreign aid structures has to some extent contributed to suppressing the last of Kosovos civil society, which was able to withstand Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing. Independent intellectuals, human rights activists and experts for primary health care have turned into drivers, interpreters and clerks in the service of aid agencies. When I reported this sad state of affairs during a Hearing in the German Federal Commission on Humanitarian Aid and Human Rights there was at first silence and then the meaningful remark of a member of parliament: ‘‘That doesn’t matter, the main thing is that we offered help.’’

This answer should make us think. Indeed, it clearly shows how aloof assistance has become from the needs and rights of people in need, and to what extent aid has become an end in itself. The strategic interests of the donor countries increasingly determine the materialization of aid. Crises which are at the centre of global events and which hit the media headlines generate a surplus of aid while other, less spectacular disasters fall into oblivion.

Aid agencies are also responsible for this state of affairs. All too often they are interested in staking an early claim to projects, in securing contributions and above all in accessing the media where the fundraising fight is in full swing even if it is not even clear what is to be done at the disaster location ----- something which once again became absurdly obvious during the prelude to the war in Iraq.

Under such circumstances not much is left of the kind of aid that aims at overcoming need and dependence, and at establishing autonomy. Today, the popular established motto, ‘‘Give the hungry a fish and he will be satisfied for one day; teach him how to fish and he will no longer go hungry,’’ seems quite outdated. He who asks for the causes of hunger in the face of a starving child is not trust-worthy in the eyes of the general public. Today’s relief workers do not spend much time considering the background of a crisis. Where in former times the motivation for action was based on the concept of a different kind of world, today there is a political pragmatism that does not want to interfere or take sides ----- and yet is relentlessly intervening because victims are only seen as objects of efficient relief measures.

The nature of current aid concepts manifests itself in the iconography it has generated. You will all remember the flood disaster in Mozambique. The photograph of a white helicopter pilot rescuing a newborn black baby from a tree submerged by the floods. This very picture epitomises the kind of ‘‘intervening aid’’ that flies in from the outside only to quickly vanish again. This is aid that no longer has any context or social value.

But this is exactly the treacherous error. Whether in Mozambique, in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world, social communities are functioning on the basis of a complex network of rules, agreements, informal relationships, family relations, clan structures, mutual commitments, etc. It would be completely absurd to believe that such patterns would vanish overnight because of the disaster. Quite the opposite: all our experiences have shown that it is mainly these local social structures that play a crucial role in overcoming the disaster and during the reconstruction phase.

In the fifties and sixties, the American ‘‘Academy of Science’’ systematically investigated social behaviour during disasters. The studies revealed that already in the impact phase, i.e. at the moment the disaster happens, ad hoc personalities make their mark as leaders and exert a determining influence on the subsequent phases, the stock taking (how can help be offered, where are relatives and friends), and the phase of rescue (what can be done?). Survivors of disasters seldom remained locked in a state of shock or panic. But, according to staff of UNDRO, the disaster relief agency of the UN, which is currently a part of the UN Commission for Humanitarian Aid (OCHA), are remarkably enterprising. In Mozambique, too, it was the victims who shouldered the bigger share of the burden through giving neighbourly help in the aftermath of the flood.

Such facts are known to be adroitly ignored by politicians and journalists, and unfortunately even by some aid agencies. Instead of strengthening the local self-help capacities, aid agencies today increasingly appear on location with their own staff and slowdown or even paralyse the initiatives of the local population.

This leads to serious problems both for the quality of the assistance as well as for the relief workers. To corroborate this statement we must look at Afghanistan where after the end of the war in 2001 the inhabitants of Kabul were quite reserved about the invasion of the many foreign helpers. A great number of Afghans showed mistrust because the enormous purchasing power of the relief workers made prices explode, because rents for houses increased tenfold, and because the local NGOs lost their staff to international aid agencies. Those aid agencies that had been there for some time and wanted to defend their claims complained about this rigmarole when even more aid agencies wanted to come to Kabul. In no time some 200 aid organisations were present, hoping to get a share of the expected reconstruction funding.

It is high time to disrupt this unfortunate development. For this to happen we need to do away with all the myths woven around aid. It is just not true that the victims of disasters are completely helpless and unable to contribute to reconstruction. It is also a myth that everything on location is missing and that only the immediate provision of all available commodities will facilitate a fast rehabilitation.

It is true that myths of this kind, perpetuated for the sake of publicity and fundraising, mobilise the readiness to make donations. However, quite often they lead to absolutely inadequate aid measures: parcels with torn clothes, expired medications, dog food for the starving, acid drops against smoking, spaghetti sauce, slimming diets, biscuits baked in lard, etc., etc.

Serious experts caution about actions that are undertaken too fast. Their advice is to wait and see what the actual needs are at the disaster location. But, the reality of the actual relief situation is very different. Instead of planning together with the people affected, there is often a real rush to the crisis area in order to be the first one on the spot. A lot has been said and written in response to this harmful consequence. We have to ask ourselves why such myths are being upheld so persistently. Let me mention at least three reasons.

On the one hand, there is the fact that aid is increasingly mandated by economic interests and thus inevitably becomes an end in itself. Today, donors speak of ‘‘untying aid,’’ in the sense of flexibilisation of the aid markets and their subsequent opening for formal business enterprises. Aid agencies also contribute to such developments if they simplify the local situation and keep conveying the story of the dynamic relief worker encountering allegedly helpless victims.

Secondly, we have to deal with the requirements of the media, which are more and more demanding. Only those who are visible on the screen or in the print media are convincing in the eyes of media public. A physician seconded by an aid agency, with a T-shirt, flag and impressive vehicle is of course much more ‘‘visible’’ than the local staff member of a partner organisation, who can hardly be distinguished from the crowd of disaster victims. And, finally, there is the persisting paternalistic attitude, which perpetuates the myth of the victims’ helplessness and legitimises the permanent intervention in matters concerning them.

In this context, Sartre spoke of a ‘‘racist humanism’’ resulting from the fact that the misery of the world is not viewed against the background of the North’s economic, political and cultural dominance but mainly as a problem of the South. The solution to this problem appears to lie exclusively in the ‘‘humanitarian action’’, in the well-meant assistance to the poor blacks who suffer because they are what they are. And yet, as we already know, the world is not suffering from too little assistance but from conditions, which are necessitating aid to an ever-growing extent.

Today, the kind of aid that does justice to overcoming need and dependence must indeed be based on reflection, which is based on self-questioning and examination of our own motivations, without trying to cushion the need of others so as to simply to keep them in a status of dependent recipients of externally determined aid.

We have to strengthen the kind of aid that can challenge such tendencies. Fortunately, such aid does exist even though it is hardly perceptible, for the very reason that it happens to be in concert with the local partners. The kind of aid which doesn’t need to rush in but whose moving forces are already available on the spot. And the capacities and possibilities evolving from work that is built on the strength and dignity of the victims can be seen in Afghanistan today.

The German public hardly notices that the local partner organisations are involved in mine clearing and in supporting people injured during the war. The nearly thousand staff workers who are employed in these organisations will not be able to interrupt their missions and withdraw, nor will they want to be tied to strategies of security intervention. -- They will continue to struggle for an improvement of living conditions in the context of their everyday social interrelation-ships. This is the kind of programme that Medico is supporting together with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe and Caritas.

Statement by Thomas Gebauer at the 50 Years Jubilee-Event, Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

September 16-17, 2004

Published: 17. September 2004

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