current debate

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Does humanitarian aid really help in post-disaster reconstruction and recovery?

The moderator’s opening remarks

Lately, the world has experienced several humanitarian crises. They leave an unprecedent number of people in need of assistance and aid. Amongst these populations are the homeless, refugees, and other victims of natural and man-made disasters. More than 95 percent of disasters occur in developing countries causing human, material, economic, and environmental loss, and disrupting the functioning of communities and local systems in a way that exceeds their capacity to cope if they rely on their own resources. Vulnerability of local systems and their inability to reduce the negative consequences of disasters entail external assistance delivered in the form of humanitarian interventions.
However, during the past decades, several disagreements broke out on the outcomes of humanitarian interventions and the topic became one the most central debates of our times. Till today, there is no consensus in contemporary academia on whether victims of disasters are being reallyhelps by aid and assistance or not. In fact, while some scholars and academics consider that humanitarian interventions are based on essential moral values of humanity, saving lives, alleviating suffering, and maintaining human dignity, others find that humanitarian actions do more harm than good.
Defenders of humanitarian organizations see that their interventions are crucial for post-disaster reconstruction and recovery of the most vulnerable population groups. First, they praise and idealize humanitarian aid. In whatever form it is delivered   protection, shelter, food, medical and psychological assistance, legal advice, or cash assistance, they find it to be based on the essential values of humanity and solidarity with the less privileged. Second, they find that aid and development approaches have proven to be efficient and have had huge known and monitorable results in recovery and reconstruction processes. Third, supporters of humanitarian interventions believe that developing countries often suffer from corruption, fragility, and mismanagement. For them, local governments and affected populations do not possess the required resources and the know-how to take charge of the process of reconstruction and recovery by themselves. They argue that, in such contexts of corruption, vulnerability, and unawareness, humanitarian assistance is vital. It must however be based on western expertise and avoid being caught down by local inapt strategies. In sum, this perspective holds that the efforts of humanitarian organizations are essential for the post disaster reconstruction and the recovery of vulnerable populations affected by disasters. 
On the other hand, opponents of humanitarian organizations argue that humanitarian actions do more harm than good. First, they claim that humanitarian interventions are undertaken according to donor countries’ political incentives and economic agendas. They base their argument on a number of examples, one of which is the case of forced displacement. They claim that “humanitarian governments” control the movement of migrants and refugee populations and segregate them in camps in order to prevent their integration in local societies. Second, they consider that humanitarian interventions are based on cultural hegemony and technocratic approaches to development that leave out from their equation the most important factor: people. In such interventions, the actual needs of affected populations are seldom taken into consideration. Decisions and actions are undertaken in a top-down and paternalist approach, with a lack of knowledge of the local context and an absence of consideration to local governments’ needs, expectations, and feedback. They argue that when aid process is based on patronising and external expertise, it reinforces the oppression of the poor and creates amongst them a state of dependency instead of empowering them. Third, opponents of humanitarian organizations believe that humanitarian interventions can never become efficient as long as they lack democratic accountability. They claim that due to lack of monitoring and accountability, in most cases, aid ends up by being wasted. Fourth, they believe that aid will never be equivalent to needs and will always fail to achieve recovery. The solution should then be strengthening the domestic capacity by building knowledge on the edifice of individual rights, which would allow people to acquire the incentives to fix their own problems. In sum, this perspective holds that the efforts of humanitarian organizations are often bad and unnecessary for post-disaster reconstruction and the recovery of vulnerable populations affected by disasters. These populations are resourceful and can recover by themselves. Instead of external aid, they need homegrown efforts of social, economic, and political reforms.
In this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts in matters related to humanitarian 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. 
Tom Fisher portrait
Jeffrey D. Sachs argues that humanitarian aid helps in post-disaster reconstruction and recovery
Jeffrey Sachs is an American economist, public policy analyst, and former director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he holds the title of University Professor, the highest rank Columbia bestows on its faculty. He is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty.
Sachs is the Professor At Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and a professor of health policy and management at Columbia’s School of Public Health.
He served from 2015 till 2017 as a special advisor at the United Nations under the UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. 
Thomas Fisher is a graduate of Cornell University in architecture and Case Western Reserve University in intellectual history. He specializes in design thinking and systems design, including transportation systems and transportation-related land use and zoning. Recognized in 2005 as the fifth most published writer about architecture in the United States, he has written 9 books, over 50 book chapters or introductions, and over 400 articles in professional journals and major publications. His 2011 book on fracture-critical design looked at how infrastructure vulnerable to sudden and catastrophic collapse characterized many post-WWII systems. Named a top-25 design educator four times by Design Intelligence, he has lectured at 36 universities and over 150 professional and public meetings. He has written extensively about architectural design, practice, and ethics. His latest book, Designing our Way to a Better World, was published in 2016 and he is currently working on a new book on On-Demand Cities.
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William Easterly argues that humanitarian aid doesn’t really help in post-disaster reconstruction and recovery
William Easterly is
Michael Mehaffy is a researcher, educator, urban and building designer, architectural theorist and urban philosopher. His work focuses on the dynamics of urban growth, urban networks, compact walkable cities, and effective new tools to exploit their social, ecological and economic advantages. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology, and has current or past appointments in teaching and/or research at seven graduate institutions in six countries. He is on the editorial boards of two international urban design journals and is the author or contributing author of over twenty books. He is a frequent author in professional and trade publications as well as interviewee of popular publications including The Guardian, Scientific American, Voice of America and The Atlantic. He is currently Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and Managing Director of Sustasis Foundation, a small urban think tank in Portland, Oregon.