Does aid (actually) aid in avoiding disasters and rebuilding after them?
Winners of the “best contribution” awards:
The committee members (Jason Von Meding, Anna Konotchick, Gonzalo Lizarralde, and Faten Kikano) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. They determined that the winners are:
Ekatherina Zhukova First prize – best comments
Vanicka Arora Second prize
Thomas Johnson Third prize
Congratulations to winners!
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 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 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 dorequire 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 generation of 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 http://newirin.irinnews.org/the-humanitarian-economy/. 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.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice– Dr. Martin Luther King
We seem to agree that vulnerability to natural hazards is a political problem that requires political solutions.Progress toward more just systems – and aid practices – is not a given, and is hard won. Like social movements in the past, it requires engaging the aid, political and economic systems at all levels, and it requires that even compromised institutions have double agents sympathetic to change. In fact, systemic political changes must be seen as part of our humanitarian goal (beyond immediate lifesaving efforts).
But how can and do humanitarians put that into practice?
For one, we can learn from the Global South. Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh has revolutionized both the formal banking sector in Bangladesh and around the world, as well as international development practice. Slum/Shack Dwellers International’s “Know Your City” campaign inspired post-earthquake Haiti’s enumeration and neighborhood recovery efforts. Home-grown development agency and micro-finance institution, BRAC, is one of the largest humanitarian responders in Rohingya crisis in Cox’s Bazar –nearly half a million people served by their tube wells. Humanitarian responders are increasingly a transnational community and should become more so; my expat colleagues are from Sri Lanka, Senegal, Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya – the list could go on.
Secondly, we can recognize that unjust political and economic systems also exist across different geographies than binary Global North versus South; they are also within nations and communities. Disasters by definition mean that local systems and institutions are overwhelmed; thus disasters are also moments when they are most vulnerable to external influence – progressive or not. As humanitarian workers, we have the mandate to work directly with marginalized communities and the disaster affected. As such, we have the opportunity and we have the agency to represent their needs when they are unable to, and to challenge unjust systems (global or local). Alternatively, any void in that discourse is easily filled by vested political and economic interests, and exacerbates existing inequalities. Humanitarians raise awareness of these needs, and call for action and change – through research and monitoring, placing resources in the hands of the vulnerable, or through quiet diplomacy. This is also precisely why repressive governments try to limit their mobility or powers.
Finally, we can continue to self-critique and learn. The humanitarian aid community recognizes that more has to be done; we continue to improve systems to be accountable to affected communities, establish clear codes of conducts and financial reporting, and ensure affected populations are part of decision-making. There is growing recognition that aid operates in political contexts, and new tools like political economy assessments are becoming standard practices to help design practitioners’ actions.
Disasters are precisely the time when vulnerable communities need humanitarian organizations to listen, to magnify their voice, and to provide space for them to negotiate their own recovery. The status quo will not do that for them.
The opposition’s rebuttal remarks
Anna has provided many excellent examples of the attempts of well-meaning practitioners and organizations to use aid as a vehicle for both disaster recovery and risk reduction. These achievements are fantastic – and somewhat miraculous – given that little aid actually reaches front-line communities. The system is dysfunctional, primarily through its intrinsic link to global capital.
I love the article that Anna referenced,Praxis in the Time of Empire. Ananya Roy states that “this article is written with the hope that praxis in the time of empire can turn the heart of power into a profound edge of struggle and dissent.” If we apply this to the current debate on aid in disaster recovery and risk reduction (and development, by proxy), there appears to be a case to be made for “double agents”. As I alluded to in my opening remarks, humanitarian practitioners used to be known for this.
But in the 21st Century, who are these double agents, and what do they seek to change? The “imperfect systems of aid delivery,” as my opposition suggests? In my opinion, to focus on how aid can “work better” assumes a continuation of the status quo as it relates to the economy, development, inequality and poverty. I would be delighted if the humanitarian sector was a staging ground for struggle and dissent – but most agencies are so concerned with continued funding that they cannot fathom structural change. Will they ever bite the hand that feeds?
We must also not forget that we are in the midst of a global mass extinction event. We are pushing towards planetary boundaries that threaten human society as we know it, if not our survival as a species. Aid is a key component of the development engine that has brought us to this point. Is it ethical to help maintain such a destructive system?
Although aid is supposed to be the altruistic arm of development, for every $1 of aid that developing countries receive, they lose $24 in net outflows (Hickel, 2017). Overall, this overwhelming exploitation is clearly not helping the cause of justice. Arguably, charity exploits human compassion to prop up a failing model. Is aid being “wasted”? Raventos and Wark (2018) argue that charity is not a gift at all, and that the impossibility of reciprocity renders it a manifestation of class structure. Interestingly, this is a debate that goes back not only hundreds but thousands of years.
I remain intrigued by the idea that we can be both complicit and subversive. I recall similar assertions from Wendell Berry and Noam Chomsky. Roy looks for the opportunity presented and calls this an “ethics of doubleness.” She argues that such an approach is suitable “under conditions of extreme power where the ethical autonomy required to articulate disavowal and refusal might be lacking.” I wonder if that applies to humanitarian aid practitioners in the context of disaster recovery and risk reduction. Can one actually operate as an effective double agent and what is the end goal?
The proposer’s closing remarks
We cannot accept that working within a compromised system is not good enough – especially when there is no other alternative. Work in aid or not – you are complicit. You pay taxes to government systems that perpetuate uneven trade deals and cripple poor economies.
I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr because he can serve as inspiration for those willing to fight for change, even when it seems insurmountable, even if it means engaging an oppressive regime. He envisioned a more just society – a paradigm shift – but did not deconstruct the US government institutions that had systematically oppressed people of color. He revised them, he made them evolve, he worked to introduce the Voting Rights Act; there is still much work to be done. Paradigm shifts start small, and they start with hope, a dream. Similarly, as humanitarians we work with institutions – perhaps our own governments, or those where we work – to make them more responsive to the needs, and rights, of the marginalized.
I will thus end with a story that inspires my hope: Canaan.
Canaan is now the third largest city in Haiti that you probably have never heard of. Its homes, schools and 500km of roads were all built since the 2010 earthquake, but not by the government, aid, or the private sector. In a display of unbelievable union amidst tragedy: 60,000 earthquake-affected families invested over $100 million of their own resources in new homes and infrastructure, building their vision of a more just and livable city. However, their progress and vision for a hopeful future is anything but assured. Canaan is a battleground to assert their rights to the city, to be equal citizens. They faced evictions– their homes bulldozed to rubble. They were bypassed by all government services – no water network, no paved roads, no public schools. They thus also are home to the largest persistence of cholera in the country (DINEPA 2017).
Through humanitarian aid, this third largest city now has the first public school, operated and maintained by the government, the first paved roads, its first public water network. This is not charity, this is their rights as citizens. Accurate geospatial mapping and population estimates generated by aid agencies with the community changed government budget allocations; the Ministry of Health vaccination rates plummeted with the recognition of Canaan’s population, so they developed new outreach programs. Grey splotches on city maps turned into detailed maps of neighborhoods. This geospatial information now informs extensions of government services – water, drainage, roads. Yes, more still needs to be done, but change has started. Such a progressive shift in policy toward upgrading and extending services to informal neighborhoods is not assured. Disasters can easily be the opposite – opportune moments for governments or the wealthy to clear the poor from their high value land.
Humanitarians can foster such progressive steps because of its direct connection to affected communities and its mandate to serve the most vulnerable. Double agents in governments will always have influences from the powerful to serve themselves; they thus also depend on humanitarians to balance public discourse and to help represent the most vulnerable.
The opposition’s closing remarks
So, does aid really work? I believe that alongside its somewhat limited achievements, it regrettably props up a socio-economic status quo – structurally based on scarcity thinking – that causes misery for billions of people. This is why I argue against the proposition.
Of course, many worthwhile programs in both disaster recovery and risk reduction have been undertaken under the auspices of aid. The question for me is not whether there is some good being done but whether root causes of the problem are actually being addressed. If not, is aid just a band-aid answer to inequality, poverty and disaster?
Michael Perenti asks, “why has poverty deepened while foreign aid and loans and investments have grown?” As he goes on to argue in The Face of Imperialism, rather than being ineffective, investments, loans and aid work exactly as intended – not for but against the interests of the communities they claim to serve. He claims that the ultimate purpose of the sector is to “serve the interests of global capital accumulation.”
Anna argues that “systemic political changes must be seen as part of our humanitarian goal”, and I certainly agree. But I wonder how many charitable organizations would sign up for that, and how many large donors (especially the Davos class)? Aid is arguably the tool of the wealthy (individuals, corporations and countries) to appear virtuous without system change. Some philanthropists go so far as to admit that charity helps to preserve wealth. This is not justice.
Let me offer an example of this – Bill Gates could lobby for LESS STRICT patent laws and allow millions of people in the global South to access generic medicines. But he chooses to vehemently lobby for laws that protect his source of wealth accumulation, perpetuating global health crises. And then, without recognizing the irony, he graciously provides aid to ameliorate the situation.
Turning to the microfinance model, we see that despite broad adoption and powerful anecdotes, the long-term impacts are not so positive. Bateman and Chang (2012) argue that “continued support for microfinance in international development policy circles cannot be divorced from its supreme serviceability to the neoliberal/globalisation agenda.” Critics argue that the model is rooted in “the myth of the heroic individual entrepreneur, the rags to riches fairytales.” And this rings true for much of the aid sector’s rhetoric and practice; it is patently ultra-compatible with the status quo.
There is no doubt that many organizations operating within neoliberal systems are doing some good for some people. Should they simply cease providing aid? Of course not. I think that Anna and I agree that “double agents” are important in bringing about change. But we need to be honest about the scale of change required to achieve a society where a provision for basic needs is a right rather than a privilege.
Tinkering at the edges of the status quo is not in the interests of those who should be of central importance to humanitarians – the most oppressed and marginalized.
The moderator’s closing remarks
THE ETHICS OF AID: REPLACING THE AID SYSTEM OR CHANGING IT FROM INSIDE?
Aid faces several problems. But experts don’t agree on how to fix them.
Our two panellists—and almost all participants in our latest online debate—agree that aid needs a paradigm shift. But they don’t agree on how to reach this goal. Anna Konotchick, a senior officer in the field of housing and urban development, invites aid workers to recognize how their interventions can either disrupt unjust systems, or inadvertently be complicit with them. For her, institutions can have benevolent “double agents,” who support the most vulnerable people while promoting the emergence of more just social, economic, and political systems. Jason Von Mending, a scholar on a crusade to halt the dynamics of colonialism and disaster risk creation, argues that complying with the current system is no longer an option. According to him, oppressive systems demand more radical changes. His view was supported by 56% of voters, but it raises as many questions as it answers.
Given the environmental challenges we face, should aid be stopped? Can we do it in the name of helping the most vulnerable? Can poor countries and communities in the Global South—known to be the most vulnerable to environmental hazards—cope alone with the effects of climate change, mass displacement, and poverty?
Jason—along with some other scholars and activists mentioned in this debate—has argued that aid reproduces forms of colonialism, imperialism, and domination. In this sense, aid mechanisms are too embedded in neoliberal and capitalist practices to be fixed. But—surprisingly—these same observers often refer to data obtained or published byagencies or think tanks funded by aid. They also claim that the voices of the most vulnerable are often unheard in capitalist mechanisms, neoliberal policy, and geopolitics. But they fail to fully acknowledge that it is precisely charities and aid organizations that sometimes amplify the voices of the most neglected, oppressed and marginalized, an argument raised by Anna in her closing remarks. Finally, they claim that aid often resorts to Band-Aid solutions that fail to produce structural positive changes and tackle the root causes of vulnerability. But they stop short at suggesting what alternatives should be implemented. If the system is to be replaced, as more than half of voters seem to agree, what type of mechanisms or solution should replace it?
Is South-South aid, for instance, a viable alternative to the traditional North-South dynamics? Respondents are not sure, and point to examples in which patterns of domination and exploitation are reproduced withincountries of the Global South. Should governments avoid mingling with aid agendas? Again, participants are not sure, and point to examples in which deregulation of humanitarian aid has permitted abuses and has favoured partisan agendas. Is local aid better than the international sort? No. Local charities are typically constrained by political interests that hinder their capacity to produce radical change.
Anna has an answer to these questions. Attempting to fight the system is probably naïve, counterproductive, and simply overwhelming. Instead of getting rid of aid altogether, and risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater, she argues for the role of aid double-agents, who can be “complicit” and “subversive” at the same time. Yet her approach raises several questions too. Given that aid organizations and charities depend on sustained funding, can they actually enforce structural changes and contest the status quo that supports them? What about the moral implications of playing these double games? What ethical boundaries must be drawn when we are complicit with dodgy governments or institutions? Isn’t complicity a form of endorsement?
Both panellists agree that most aid workers are well-intentioned and virtuous individuals. But “the system” in which they work has many deficiencies. This said, I don’t think readers are convinced that the aid industry behaves as one single and homogeneous system. Instead, with the multitude of stakeholders engaged in the aid delivery process and their divergent interests, aid increasingly appears as a constellation of multiple systems and subsystems—many of which do not necessarily overlap and behave in dynamic ways. If multiple systems coexist, should we discard them all at once? Otherwise, which ones must be the target of subversion? Which ones are the source of complicity? How can system replacement, complicity, or subversion be achieved when we are dealing with moving targets and diverse contexts?
After ten days of debate, many questions remain to be answered. But raising them points to fruitful research agendas for social scientist and graduate students. These questions also challenge practitioners and aid workers, hopefully inviting them to improve their work. In this sense alone, our latest debate was a success. Its online impact was also strong. The debate page was visited more than 2000 times by over 1000 visitors from almost 40 countries. Over ten days, the debate gathered more than 90 votes and about 2500 engagements in social media. It was also enriched by 40 comments on the blog and many more on social media platforms.
I want to thank Jason and Anna for being insightful, thought-provoking panellists. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of Faten Kikano, who coordinated the event, as well as the valuable comments by Ekatherina Zhukova, Vanicka, Red Slider, Elsa Monsalve, Mahmood Fayazi, Gabriel, Tushar Pradhan, Mittul Vahanvati, Thomas, and other contributors on the blog.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the next Oeuvre Durable–i-Rec online debate!
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 http://poems4change.org/second-responders/intro.html
And to those who chose to look into our concept a little further, thank you. Omoiyari.
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?
Is it possible to deal with displacement and refugee crises without aid?
Join our online debate on aid in DRR and reconstruction: https://oddebates.com/
Vote and comment.
Find here the 2017 report on Global Humanitarian Assistance by Development Initiatives (2018): http://devinit.org/post/global-humanitarian-assistance-report-2018/
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:
Elsa Monsalve Sánchez
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
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?
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?
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?
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).
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.
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: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/02/cuba-chernobyl-health-children
Do you have a link to the story about the Columbian NGO and Haiti earthquake?
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!
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: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01436597.2015.1128817projecthatiprojecthati
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?
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?
I find it strange that writers like Hickel argue against aid, while also using data (about inequality, poverty, segregation and social injustices) that has been collected and disseminated by think tanks and NGOs that have benefitted from aid. Would have been possible to produce this data about social or environmental injustice without funding?
Tushar S Pradhan
If financial aid could have solved all the persistent problems of any country then there would not be any country free of such adversities. Aid as a concept involves financial, technical support, physical infrastructure, equipment support, technology transfer etc. It’s the base to build back the lost entity. But, what about the pre existing vulnerabilities of the country (Physical, social inequalities, limited access to resources,
Lack of institutional capabilities) which were neither addressed nor worked upon due to which the population are not capable to cope any natural or human induced disaster. Aid could be a source to just come back to normal or in case a bit more proficient in terms of infrastructure but it can’t be resilient unless the capabilites of victim population is enhanced through collective participation and decision making. Also, aid creates dependency which at a later stage diminishes the same small developmental goals achieved as they are unable to bear it’s maintenance cost. Holistic understanding is required through Participatory approach where the last miles aspirations and expectations could be met. For illustration: – It’s not only better to provide an earthquake resistance houses given to affected population but a better livelihood opportunities must be provided so that these population are able to maintain it…!!
Here an interesting site to learn more about aid: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/10/does-foreign-aid-always-help-the-poor/
Deaton makes quite a number of interesting arguments. One of them is a statement against the universal aid “toolkit”:
“While Deaton agrees that many development projects are successful, he’s critical of claims that these projects can be replicated elsewhere or on a larger scale. “The trouble is that ‘what works’ is a highly contingent concept,” he said in an interview. “If it works in the highlands of Kenya, there’s no reason to believe it will work in India, or that it will work in Princeton, New Jersey.”
Thank you, once again, Anna and Jason, for your through-provoking contributions. I will start with Anna’s contribution and then move to Jason’s. Anna has provided an impressive overview of achievements done in the humanitarian sector and improvements of their working principles over time. Particularly encouraging are home grown initiatives from the Global South. One such initiative which comes to mind is the growing field of digital humanitarianism when digital mapping helps establish areas where aid is needed most during the emergency.
When it comes to the agency of humanitarians to address the needs of the local population, I would like to ask how these needs are identified? Is there a match between what humanitarians think the needs of the disaster affected are and what they themselves think they need? Who is in charge of this identification? Elizabeth Dunn problematised this some time ago in her article “The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid: Adhocracy in the Republic of Georgia” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/466206/pdf
In addition, the impartiality and neutrality advocated by the IFRC code of conduct has long been problematised as not working in practice (for example, the article by Dorothea Hilhorst and Bram J. Jansen “Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2010.01673.x). The question then to think about – what to be done to make the improvements written on paper match the realities on the ground?
Moving on to Jason’s contribution, he raises an important problem of the 21st century; that is, climate change. More climate disasters mean we need more preparedness and risk reduction before they strike, more emergency relief when they strike, and more development in the aftermath. It is not a surprise to anyone that less privileged countries get more climate disasters because they have less capabilities to minimise their impact in advance and recover afterwards. However, the massive fires that swept across Europe (e.g., Sweden) and USA (e.g., California) during 2018 have shown that the more privileged countries are not immune from climate disasters either, but they just have resources to cope better. The more climate change will manifest itself, the more climate disasters we will have in different parts of the world. How are we to address these challenges? As Jason points out, aid is one of the mechanisms to form the system that has contributed to climate change in the first place. Are we to use aid to address the increasing number of climate disasters? If not aid, then what?
Both Anna and Jason have made compelling cases with regards the failures and successes of international aid disbursers and the broader political economy that supports (or not) these systems. I wonder if it may be useful to also critically look at the beneficiary/ aid recipient as well as the network of distribution itself.
Regarding the agency and participation of the recipients of aid. A recent example is Bhaktapur, Nepal where the local municipality of the city of Bhaktapur, after protracted discussions with the government of Germany, rejected aid for post-disaster reconstruction amounting to 30 million Euros (https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/clash-of-cultures-in-bhaktapur/). Here, multiple players were involved, with opposing agendas that eventually could not be mediated. The local municipality’s need to assert its independence- both in terms of financial capacity and technical capacity, not only from foreign influence but also from national intervention is one thread. Another is the growing pressure from local community groups to source materials and technologies locally. Yet another thread links to ethnic politics within Bhaktapur that has been emerging before the earthquake. These entwined decision making processes suggest that aid recipients are not always passive and without a voice or agency, but actors themselves and non-monolithic and non-binary.
Regarding the networks of distribution of aid. While the North/South, South/South arguments have been brought up repeatedly in this debate, aid is not simply a matter of transaction between nation-states, transnational organisations and governments, but moves through multiple levels of bureaucracy, politics and inefficiency. So while international politics and neo-colonising agendas are important considerations, local and national politics cannot be discounted. This also relates to the point made by Ekatherina regarding scales of aid distribution and how smaller networks tend to see greater success. Here too, some networks or some sections of individual networks may perform to a greater degree of efficiency than others.
Jason and Anna discuss different ways of changing the aid system (the status quo). Whereas Anna suggest to work from inside the system (to improve it and eventually produce more radical transformations), Jason claims for replacing it. Both positions raise some questions:
Is there one single “system” controlling aid? Or is aid a constellation of systems and subsystems (many of them weakly connected)? Are they static or dynamic? If multiple systems coexist in dynamic forms, is it possible to change them all? Which one must be the target of “subversion”? Which one the target of “complicity”?
If the current system is “destructive,” (as Jason suggests) which one can replace it? Should we understand that Jason would prefer a socialist system? Which one would avoid the pitfalls of the current one?
What are the moral consequences of working as double agents? What are the ethical boundaries that must be drawn? How is “complicity” and “subversion achieved” when we are dealing with moving targets?
Panellists and participants: What do you think?
Thank you Vanicka for pointing out also to local dynamics that escape the North-South narrative. Interesting!
Jason Von Meding
Oh. I see. Can you develop a bit more the idea? I find it interesting
Aid itself mean support and not taking over. While the arguments presented by both Jason and Ekatherina are valid, I argue that there is no perfect solution – there needs to be an inbetween. An inbetween solution known as subsidiary approach (Barenstein, 2006) was aopted by home-grown non-profit organisations in India, and whereby aid agencies were ‘enablers’ and not ‘controllers’ of power or money. By this appraoch, everyone played a role – government created a recovery framework (financial support, social support and technical support – building guidelines etc.); agencies provided on-ground support to the survivers as and when necessary (at times they also provided additional materials or financial support to those who were disadvantaged) and communities did all the decision-making. Having said that, such a subsidiary approach and owner-driven approach is rarely evident globally. Besides, the money from foreign aid agencies barely meets the demand, with agencies only reaching about 6% of those affected. In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, for example, less than 0.6% of donor funding reached the local NGOs or agencies, who actually know the local community, are locally rooted and are able to work with the locals over longer time frame. So, realistically, aid-agencies are no way positioned to reduce disaster risk or vulnerabilities of people living in low-income countries. I rather suggest that disasters have the power to toppling the current power-structures. Aid agencies from western countries who can go out for dinners, fly for work, live in hotels and have a relaxed life, might be completely ill-prepared for uncertain future – food insecurity, pandemic, floods etc. On the other hand, the people (or so-called ‘disadvantaged’ communities) who live on the front-line of risk, might be well equiped, having lived with and constantly adapting to risk. Thus, aid agenices are mere profit making corportations, which are growing rapidly, exploiting the future that is uncertain. If anyone, it is the local champions, who live close to the communities in need of help immediately after a disaster, can do good, in partnership with government support.
In answer to Gonzalo’s propositions, I see aid as not only a constellation of systems which may overlap, connect and conflict in myriad ways, but aid itself as a multi-pronged concept and conditional. Then, in order to change the system, several aspects need clarification.
First- the conditions upon which aid is contingent need to be made more transparent and communicated better. In a sense, this responds to both Anna’s position that changes must be brought from within and Jason’s, regarding decentralization and participatory planning. One way of examining this may to be frame aid as a transaction as opposed to an act of charity. I do not mean this in the capitalist sense, but rather as an exchange of interests and conditions. What social capital or political benefits does the donor receive/ expect? I think demystifying interests may help untangle some of the complicit behaviour, supported by agendas that are suggestive, opaque and hidden. The ‘aid industries’, then would be understood through infrastructures and benefits (or not) to all participants. I argue that this cannot be done through a universal position or argument, in that, I agree with Deaton.
Second- the idea of ‘double agents’ used in this debate has been focused primarily on the donor networks, when in fact doubleness refers not only the privileged, but the (previously/ presently) marginalised as well (DuBois’s work referenced in Roy). Thus, the complicit and subversive co-exist on each side of the aid processes. Here, I think may the crux of the debate- in accepting doubleness, there is also an acceptance of the status quo (or to paraphrase Roy- that we do indeed live in the time of the Empire). Doubleness, then needs first to be set in its context- for its ethics to be debated- do we accept that some version of a hegemonic system is inevitable and ultimately inescapable? Then, doubleness is an ethical response and a way to adapt (and subvert, but not necessarily overthrow) to the system.
I am currently collecting data in Bangladesh looking at how the humanitarian sector is reducing disaster vulnerability during the Rohingya refugee crisis. Similar to the point raised by Vanicka on Bhaktapur, the Government here has also rejected some large donations as their agendas were not aligned. All foreign funded projects here require FD7 approval which ensures that the types of projects align with their political agenda. The most notable requirement being that projects cannot have a duration of longer than six months (previously three months). In this context, it seems that the humanitarian sector could reduce long term vulnerability of the displaced people if there were no restrictions from the Government and if they had the ongoing funds to help develop the host community as well. However, in almost every response, this is simply not possible.
From what I have seen in other responses, there is usually a focus on short-term hazard interventions rather than the root causes of vulnerability. I do not think that this is from a lack of understanding of disaster vulnerability, rather a consequence of the funding and difficulty in measuring effectiveness. Donations usually peak within the first year of a response and dwindle from there. This results in ‘band-aid’ fixes and does not reduce the long-term disaster vulnerability. There are some interesting alternative approaches to donations such as anticipatory financing. I would be interested to see if anyone here knows of any case studies where this is used successfully.
Dear Mahmood, interesting point. Implicit shades of grey hiding political incentives in examples of South-South cooperation that you are mentioning are also sometimes quite explicit. For instance, Jordan is hosting almost 600,000 Syrian refugees. In return, the Jordanian government has requested “the price” from the international community. Besides funds and donations, which are controlled by the government, Jordan has received International support in the form of investments in a number of development projects such as the Special Economic Zones. The same strategy was adopted in hosting Iraqi refugees. But in that case, Jordan did not receive the requested amount of money because Iraqis settled in cities and lacked visibility. Jordan learned the lesson and built for Syrians the Zaatari camp, an open air prison in the middle of nowhere with precarious living conditions, and intensely publicized it. This example, along with the ones you stated, challenge the idealization of South-South cooperation highlighting aspects that are quite similar to all the “evils” countries of the North are often accused of.
Thomas raises an interesting point. Yet I guess there are good and bad examples of Governments’ limits to aid initiatives. In Haiti, any type of aid has been accepted, and many people think that this has been a major problem. Restrictions can also have perverse consequences if the objective is to allow only projects and initiatives that support a partisan agenda. Is local government’s influence another intrinsic problem of aid? or it is a contextual circumstance that can be fixed case by case?
Banerjee and Duflo reject the idea that there are unavoidable poverty traps. For them, aid needs metrics, evaluation, and accountability. More of the status quo? or a change in direction?
Is this really a “radical” new way of thinking about poverty?