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.



15 thoughts on “current debate

  1. Without reading either of the principals in the debate (though I certainly intend to do so) I am pretty certain there is something that neither have thought to mention at all.

    When it comes to the long-term effects of recovery efforts, ones that can foster independence, self-description, the transfer of tools that not only serve as barrier to colonization, but permit stricken communities to resist the carpetbaggers, shock-doctrine opportunists and government formulas that lock communities into the prevailing narratives of the state, we have a suggestion that might help do all of that.

    It’s a strange one, one that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s table. At first sight, it may seem trivial, diversionary or ‘not quite to the point of rescue and recovery’.

    But it is there, waiting for someone to catch on. To mention it here, even briefly, would invite the same puzzled looks we have encountered in open forums like this. So I can only refer you to our page on ‘Second Responders to the Arts’, and let you see for yourselves what we have in mind.

    I will say this much, do not mistake the idea as one that has the rescue and care for a few artists or their organizations in a stricken region as its focus. You will have to read a little ways into the matter to realize we are reaching for far more than that. In essence, its aim is to help restore the capacity of a stricken community or region to dream once more, to imagine the possibilities for its own future now that the landscapes of its former existence have been reduced to rubble. And, it is designed to put tools in their hands to help them to do that for themselves. Given that much of a start, the concept can be read at

    And to those who chose to look into our concept a little further, thank you. Omoiyari.

  2. Welcome to our debate on aid. Here a first idea to start with:

    A paper by Kligerman and collagues published in 2015 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene finds that after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti there was “an increase in the total number of healthcare facilities, inpatient beds, and surgical facilities.” The authors find that international aid was “a driving force behind this recovery.” Aid funded 12 of 13 new healthcare facilities that opened since the earthquake as well as the reconstruction of 7 of 8 healthcare facilities that were rebuilt. They also find, however, that “despite increases in free, aid-financed healthcare, private Haitian healthcare facilities have remained at a constant number.” They conclude that “the planned phase-out of several aid-financed facilities [..] will leave Leogane with fewer inpatient beds and healthcare services compared with the pre-earthquake period.”

    This study seems to capture many of the advantages and common problems of aid. What do you think?

  3. Ekatherina Zhukova – wrote 6 days ago

    I think it depends on what kind of aid we are talking about and whose perspective is taken into account about aid effectiveness. I am taking a perspective of an individual aid recipient who was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. As “a child of Chernobyl” from Belarus, I participated in a humanitarian aid programme of recuperation abroad. The idea was that a family in a Western country would host one or two children from the contaminated areas in their home for one-two months and provide them with non-radioactive food, organise medical checks, etc. These programmes were successful because they were not just about technical provision of aid, but also about intercultural relations which created strong bonds between invited children and hosting families. I went to a family in Italy with whom I still have contact.

    This kind of aid (recuperation for children abroad) and from this kind of perspective (individual aid recipient) did work. I have shared my short story here, for those interested:

  4. Estoy de acuerdo con tu comentario, la ayuda a poblaciones afectadas por desastres siempre va a ser necesaria, considerando que hay muchas formas de ayudar porque los impactos o afectaciones son muchas, a nivel, emocional o psicológico, físico, económico, familiar, social y cultural

  5. Dear Anna and Jason,

    Many thanks for your contributions. Even though you are tasked to argue for the opposing views, I had a feeling towards the end of your posts that you both agree that the system has to be changed. More specifically, Anna argues for “a collective challenge and responsibility” through “double agents” and Jason argues for the aid system “get back to challenging the status quo, rather than assenting to tyranny”. So I would like to elaborate on this convergence – is it possible to transform the aid system at all and how?

    I sympasise with Jason on the idea of aid being a product of Western colonialism. My favourite author here would be Walter Mignolo, who respresents a decolonial collective and argues that even though colonialism is in the past, we are still haunted by its legacy which he calls “coloniality”. In this respect, it can be possible to talk about “coloniality in aid” today. One way out of it is to decolonise aid. To decolonise aid is possible by abolishing capitalism, a product of colonialism, which created aid in the first place. Given that capitalism is a system of 500 years old, it is not a one day job to get rid of it. How many generations will it take for capitalism to be dismantled? We are all using a mobile phone, a computer, social media, Internet, have a bank account, etc., all of which are products of capitalism. What can then be done in the not so long-term future to “reform” the aid system? What alternative approaches to aid, based on solidarity rather than domination, can there be? One of these approaches is already practiced through “South-South” cooperation (rather than “North-South”). Take Cuba, for example, with its medical internationalism: It has managed to provide 42,000 of medical personnel to 103 countries, outperforming G7. Do you think engaging alternative actors as aid providers, who have themselves been directly affected by colonialism, is a way forward? Or should there be a grassroots transnational disaster risk reduction and relief movement like, for example, People’s Health Movement (PHM)? What other alternative approaches can there be to address coloniality in aid?

    I also find the idea of “double agents” brought in by Anna interesting. I would like to emphasise here the role of one particular agent, that is, the aid recipient him/herself. The question then becomes whose voice counts when debating and acting upon the transformation of aid system? Is it again – the Western-white-privileged-male – who has created the system and are now tasked to transform it? Or is it the people who are actually directly affected by this system? I am inspired here by the postcolonial scholar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who asked a similar question (but in a different context) in her famous essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. This question can be applied to the aid system context to ask “Can the aid recipient speak?” The “can” here is constrained by historical, economic, social, political, and cultural factors. What then should be done for the aid recipient to speak about aid efficiency to the aid provider? The aid recipient is the one who experiences aid through their own “flesh and bones”. Hence, the intimate knowledge (based on experience) is the one that should be valued in the transformation process of aid system. What do you think?

  6. Thank you Ekatherina for your comments. I suspect that there is a difference between the approach presented by our panellist. Isn’t Jason arguing for replacing the current system, whereas Anna is arguing for adjusting or improving it? What do you think?

  7. According to Jason Hickel (2017), rich countries take away significantly more resources from poor countries than what they provide in international aid. This raises the question: Should they provide more or less aid?

  8. Yes, this is a good wording – “replacing” for Jason’s approach and “adjusting” for Anna’s approach, thank you for that comment. My wording – “transforming” – is then somewhere in between. To replace means to dismantle and create something new out of scratch. This is an ideal solution which I strongly sympathise with, but find it difficult to implement in practice. To adjust is to build on the existing system, to improve it. This is an approach easier to implement in practice, but which does not solve the problem of inequalities. So, I would go for searching for alternative solutions (like south-south cooperation, just as one of examples, which is not perfect either), to bring more practice into Jason’s approach and for including the voice of aid recipient as one of the agents to complicate Anna’s approach.

    As for the second point raised by Online Debates (by Faten, Gonzalo, and Mahmood, I presume? :)), providing more aid to balance the resource taken away from less privileged countries can be one of the ways to decrease inequalities. So, I would say more aid, as unconditional aid. This can be also thought as “a pay back” for colonialism (as a reconciliation).

  9. Interesting argument Ekatherina. There are in fact interesting examples of South-South cooperation that bring positive results. One of them included a Colombian NGO building low cost housing after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Participants noted that, between partners in the South, it is sometimes easier to find common ground and align interests.

    I am writing under “Online debates,” which is the title the website provides me.

    Gonzalo L.

  10. Thank you Gonzalo, I have just looked up and realized that it is in fact stated on the right side of the page that you are a moderator, but I was not sure whether there were other collegues involved in the debate.

    The South-South cooperation on the basis of solidarity may have a potential to gradually overtake a North-South dependency. I wrote in my very first comment about the children of Chernobyl being hosted in Italian families, but even Cuba provided medical assistance by recuperating the Chernobyl children from Ukraine on their soil. South-South cooperation does not have “superior-inferior” attitude and can have cultural similarities and understanding, too.

    Here is about Cuba and the children of Chernobyl:

    Do you have a link to the story about the Columbian NGO and Haiti earthquake?

  11. Ekaterina: I like your point of view and the way you try to find more suitable alternatives. However, the idea of “south-south cooperation” is not necessarily free of “superior-inferior” attitude. It is better to see all shades of greys between white and black. The current global political geography is more complicated than only categorizing countries between “south” and “north.” As a person with several years of experience in the disaster management field, both in developing and developed countries, I don’t believe that south-south cooperations would be a better alternative. With the hope of getting a better position in the global political games, developing countries are always eager to provide aid to occupy a superior place. Aid provision is a measure to find new allies or improve your relationship with your old friends, who you, for instance, need to count on their votes when the United Nation Security Council want to decide about the violation of human rights in your country. This is a familiar story in countries such as China, Iran, Saudia Arabia, etc.
    In many cases, the aid provision is an investment with an altruistic gesture. I would refer you to the Iranian Government contributions to the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan after wars in the 2000s. Similarly, you can find exciting evidence if you compare the amount of aid that the Chinese government provided in Africa and the reduction of international debates over Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, and Tibet. To conclude, I would say that aid is often a political measure. The south-south cooperations might be even more precarious!

  12. Mahmood, very good elaborative points, I certainly agree with you. We can’t create binary oppositions between North and South either. The aid provided by Sweden is not the same as aid provided by the USA. Similarly, the aid given by China is not the same as aid offered by Columbia. The imperfections of the South-South cooperation exists because they are trying to build a competitive system on the existing Western capitalist system. When China provides aid to Africa, it does not come there with lectures about human rights and democracy, as the North does; it does not list conditions to be fulfilled before aid can be provided. Similarly, Africa is not lecturing China on their violations of human rights and democracy either. Democracy and human rights are all “Northern/Western” concepts imposed on the “Rest” of the world, no matter how “morally superior” they are, they are imposed. This is where a different approach of “superior-inferior” in South-South cooperation is – the attitude of China to the African people is different. Superiority starts later, as you have rightfully pointed out, when UNCS votes on controversial issues, and there African countries, who received aid form China, would support China. The same with countries receiving aid from the USA, they would vote for the USA. So, in this sense, South-South cooperation does not change the world order, it only changes the processes and relations within aid provision.

    The problem, as I see it, is not aid, it is capitalism. And this system is sustained by the North, no matter how different Sweden is from the USA. So the question we can ask are: (1) How can aid work within the existing capitalist system, if at all? Are there alternatives that actually can work better, even though not perfectly well? (2) If we want to abolish aid, we need to address the capitalist system. How do we do it?

    Here is a link to the article which discusses the pros and cons of South-South cooperation in more detail:

  13. Very interesting arguments about south south cooperation and aid. Let us remember that aid goes also to organizations and think tanks that fight for freedoms, justice, environmental protection and equity. Isn’t that type of aid desirable?

  14. Project Hati’s comment makes me think of a distinction between small-scale aid projects and large-scale aid projects. Small-scale aid is delivered by NGOs, large-scale aid – by governments, intergovernmental organisations, or INGOs. In my own experience working with small-scale aid projects (first as an aid recipient, then as a volunteer, and then as a researcher) and large-scale aid projects (as a bureaucrat), I could see that the level of satisfaction with the results of aid was with small-scale projects. Small-scale projects do not, of course, have a substantial amount of resources and their impact is very local. But because of less bureaucratisation and more embeddedness into the local community, small-scale projects might “remedy” the divide between North-South and South-South cooperation, because in both cases cooperation can have positive results and the risk of harm done by aid can be minimised. What is your take on that?

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