current debate

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Does aid (actually) aid in avoiding disasters and rebuilding after them?

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The moderator’s opening remarks

For decades, scholars and think tanks have debated the effectiveness of aid in reducing poverty. In this debate, we will build on previous arguments about the effectiveness and value of aid, but focus on its role in disaster risk reduction and post-disaster reconstruction and recovery.
Scholars, think-tanks, celebrities, and politicians have claimed aid is crucial to prevent famines, diseases, and deaths. They argue that donors’ money can be used to solve basic problems in areas like sanitation, vaccination, education, housing, and infrastructure. Aid can also be used to fund monitoring activities and learn from interventions. More importantly, they contend that traditional markets alone cannot resolve housing and infrastructure deficits. They note that the poor are often stuck in feedback loops that economists call “poverty traps.” In other words, millions are poor precisely because they live in poverty. Slum dwellers, for instance, find it difficult to escape poverty because they pay proportionally more for services and infrastructure than wealthier citizens. Foreign aid is needed to break these vicious cycles and replace them with virtuous ones that make vulnerable people more resilient. For defenders, the real problem is lack of funds, not present mechanisms of aid. From their view, people use criticisms of aid merely as excuses to justify not donating money.
On the other hand, critics often find too much money is “wasted” on aid. For them,  initiatives seldom produce positive long-term change and—in many cases—even create more damaging than desirable results. They contend that donors’ money is spent on band-aid solutions that rarely have long-term impacts. They argue that aid is largely controlled by political agendas, feeds on forms of neo-colonialism, focuses too much on technology transfer, creates dependency, and bypasses legitimate governments and authorities. They contend that aid is often based on centralized schemes produced by over-confident and idealistic decision-makers with little knowledge of what is needed “on the ground.” For them, aid is often driven by ideology, and lacks the performance incentives and accountability mechanisms found in competitive (and typically “more efficient”) markets.
For this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts in humanitarian assistance and interventions to defend each viewpoint.
Our panellists will present their most persuasive arguments over the next ten days, but the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.
anna konotchick
Anna Konotchick argues that humanitarian aid helps in avoiding disasters and rebuilding after them.
Anna Konotchick is the Director of Housing and Human Settlements at Habitat for Humanity International for the Asia Pacific Regional Office in Manila. She leads the Housing and Human Settlements team in the following fields: construction, engineering, housing, urban planning, land tenure, disaster response, recovery and resilience. From 2014 till 2018, she was the Canaan Program Manager for the American Red Cross. She managed directly-implemented and partner-implemented projects in Canaan urban development and resilience portfolio. Prior to this, Anna worked for the World Bank, providing technical assistance on beneficiary satisfaction in the Haiti housing reconstruction.  She received her BS from MIT in 2007 and two masters degrees from UC Berkeley in Architecture and in City Planning in 2013.
jason von meding
Jason Von Meding argues that humanitarian aid doesn’t really help in avoiding disasters and rebuilding after them.
Dr Jason von Meding is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida and founding faculty of the Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience (FIBER). Before moving to the U.S. he spent 6 years at the University of Newcastle, Australia, where he established the Disaster and Development Research Group. He obtained his PhD from the Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, where he also spent 3 years on faculty. His research focuses on the social, political, economic and environmental injustice that causes people, across global societies but particularly in the developing world, to be marginalized and forced into greater risk of being impacted by disasters. Jason is the writer and an executive producer of the upcoming DEVIATE documentary and often contributes in more journalistic style to “The Conversation”.
The proposer’s opening remarks
Aid can improve vulnerability reduction to natural hazards, as well as the recovery process for disaster-affected communities. However, the systems to deliver aid are imperfect and require that each one of us work within our institutions – be it NGOs or governments, academic institutions, private sector, or community groups – to make it more effective, fair, and just.
Research proves that investments in disaster preparation saves in monetary terms, $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves society $6. Those savings also predominantly go to average families. In countries like the Philippines where 40% of the population have had their home damaged by natural disasters, hazard-resistant homes not only save the average family’s precious financial resources, but also ensures stability and security during a moment of crisis. Early warning systems, evacuation plans and cadres of professionals and community volunteers trained in first aid save lives every day. Every life is precious.
In addition, post-disaster recovery efforts are becoming more effective and responsive every day – from individual response efforts to global agreements. Greater emphasis on direct cash transfers places decision making back into the hands of disaster affected families; they simultaneously reinforce local livelihoods and reduce previous inefficiencies in NGOs or implementing agencies. The Grand Bargainrequires that more effort and resources be placed on greater transparency and on localizing financial, technical and coordination resources. The World Humanitarian Summit reinforced that aid is not purely the project of more traditional aid players like NGOs, but requires coalitions of local communities, governments and private sector. The “Communication as aid” effort focuses on raising the prominence of disaster-affected voices in recovery efforts and decision making. Systems to ensure humanitarian accountability to affected populations improve every year. These efforts save lives and restore stability, but do require more resources.
However, more is needed to ensure good stewardship of those resources. Aid can and must evolve. Paradigm shifts are necessary to address the root causes of vulnerability to natural hazards. We know that structural issues and power inequalities make the poor disproportionately affected by natural disasters. This has in part spurred important social movements like climate justice. The poor occupy lands that flood more often. They have less political power to demand disaster mitigation infrastructure. True humanitarian practitioners must recognize this. We must recognize how our interventions can either disrupt unjust systems, or inadvertently be complicit with them. We must move beyond thinking of simplistic “solutions” or “projects” that narrowly focus only on the symptoms.
The question posed by the moderators deconstructs the notion that any one agent, particularly foreign “experts”, can solve poverty and vulnerability to natural hazards. A new generationof humble “double agents” is required: double agents who have the courage to recognize their complicity in the political and economic systems that cause such poverty and vulnerability to natural hazards, yet are still motivated to transform those systems. This is a collective challenge and responsibility, regardless of whether you work for an NGO, government, private sector, academia, or a community group.


The opposition’s opening remarks
I would like to begin by speaking to the gross historical injustice perpetrated against the global South by the North. Since 1492, the “development” of Europe relied on the exploitation of those it could subjugate. Any conversation about whether humanitarian aid works without establishing this context would be lacking. The dominant development story today is also one that celebrates “progress” in human societies from a Eurocentric and paternalistic perspective. Countries that have been pillaged are called poor, underdeveloped or “developing”. Beset by these labels through which crimes are concealed, Michael Perenti calls our attention to the “set of social relations that has been forcefully imposed on countries.
So, at the outset, let us not make the false assumption of poverty as a first stage of development, or as something naturally occurring in society. Inequality and injustice underpin systems of governance, diplomacy and trade. We do not have time to deconstruct the concept of the “poverty trap” but suffice to say that my position is that both Jeffrey Sachs’ “more aid” and William Easterly’s “no aid” are different approaches to solving the wrong problem. I.e. they are both operating under status quo assumptions about poverty and inequality and development. The actual problem is located beyond any economic equation; a pathway to progress is too.
In this debate I will be arguing that humanitarian aid doesn’t really help in avoiding disasters and rebuilding after them. If we are ever to avoid disasters, we must aim much higher in reducing risk and, of course, in stopping risk creation. An ahistorical approach to disaster risk and development more broadly (such as that espoused by Bill Gates or Steven Pinker, for example) simply kicks the can down the road and assures us that we can all be winners. It’s a feel-good story. But I argue that the overprivileged, the oppressor, the elite – whatever the label – must sacrifice. I am white-western-cis-male-academic privilege personified, and an aspiring class traitor.
Most of the money spent relative to disasters is, as we know, focused on recovery. I’m sure that we all agree that additional spending on prevention is essential. But a tiny fraction of aid money actually goes to front-line local organizations – see If we look to post-disaster scenarios, profiteers move in rapidly – often under the guise of humanitarian aid. Although humanitarian agencies are staffed by some of the most inspiring and genuine (and sometimes a tiny bit cynical) people I have ever met, as a sector it often remains steeped in the paternalistic and neo-colonial attitude of “charity”.
Charity at best provides a band-aid and at worst obscures a status quo that needs continuing structural violence in order to maximize profit. Most disturbingly, some of the most enthusiastic proponents of philanthropy continue to benefit handsomely from an exploitative system. What about fighting the system itself? This is what humanitarian aid/development practitioners were once known for. The sector must get back to challenging the status quo, rather than assenting to tyranny.