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 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 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