The Ironic Necessity of Politicizing Humanitarian Aid

Teuta Zeneli | February 2021

A U.S. Navy hospital corpsman treats a survivor of the Haitian earthquake in 2010

Take Haiti after the Earthquake in 2010 for example. On January 12th, disaster razed the small island country to the ground. An earthquake reaching 7.0 on the Richter scale hit Port au Prince, followed by two aftershocks of magnitudes 5.9 and 5.5, respectively. The Haitian government estimated that 300,000 people died in the disaster. Unsurprisingly, the world was devastated by this occurrence and soon politicians, civilians, and NGOs alike were scrambling to their pocketbooks to do whatever they could to alleviate the suffering in Hispaniola. This shared effort is something that philosopher Didier Fassin would say is rooted in humanitarianism: the shared human condition that causes those from distant locations to feel obligated to help strangers across the world. It’s a heartwarming sentiment, undoubtedly. However, Fassin also mentions that much of the humanitarian aid from those more fortunate than those they are trying to help is more about the benefactor than it is the recipient: what’s important to us is that it makes us feel good to give; once the money is sent there is less concern on what is actually being accomplished with it.

The most glaring example is seen in Haiti, where children affected by the earthquake were sent teddy bears from American children. It is a sweet sentiment but has been criticized as a misappropriation of resources. If Haitian children are without a safe and stable domicile, what good does sending them teddy bears do? There are several alternative actions to be taken on behalf of these children, particularly facilitating refugee applications to relatively safe countries and putting money away for rebuilding domestic infrastructure—but those two options are inherently political in nature, since they require giving Haitian nationals asylum in other countries, or influencing domestic politics. Being "political," they inherently involve challenging policy choices and a balancing of competing legislative interests, interests specifically pertaining to the effective usage of federal funds.

 

Due to a push to make humanitarian aid as apolitical and as uncontroversial as possible, many donors choose to use their funds to provide direct services, including giving refugee children teddy bears, instead of systemic and political services such as  infrastructure investments and in-kind transfers. In a scholarly journal, Jean-Michel Piedagnel of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) argues that aid legislation should be left to politicians, and that private humanitarian work should not be focused on long term solutions or anything of the like.1 To Piedagnel, it is the responsibility of  governments, as opposed to private humanitarian workers, to figure out long term aid solutions.

This is not a new concept. In fact, this idea of apolitical humanitarian aid started with the creation of the Red Cross and became an integral aspect of what is commonly viewed as "proper" foreign assistance. The idea is to help everyone, regardless of benefit or political persuasion. However, Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel prize in economics and outspoken critic of humanitarian aid, argues a compelling point. Specifically, Deaton claims this kind of topical solution to humanitarian aid is not much more than  placing a strip of tape on a leaky faucet. It is necessary to invest in long-term solutions, otherwise any aid provided is ineffective in a few years, and any money spent on relief is wasted. This uncalculated usage of funds often can result in a  project that does not end up actually helping foreign nations get back on their feet in the long term.

This problem of inefficient usage of aid financing ties back to the idea that humanitarian work makes us feel good. Donors routinely misunderstand the needs of recipients of humanitarian aid because of a lack of awareness or communication issues and end up doing things like donating teddy bears; it gives them the impression that they’re making a difference. The concept of feel-good humanitarianism is a pitfall and a symptom of unaware, misinformed, and misled consumers and non-governmental actors trying to engage in something deeper. This form of humanitarianism dilutes the bitter guilt and sadness we feel we see with easy, superficial fixes. 

A glaring example of this is the shoe brand TOMS. When TOMS first came out on the scene, they marketed themselves as a company that would send one pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair bought, which was designed to make consumers feel good about buying mass-produced shoes. However, it ended up hurting target countries’ economies by undermining local businesses, which in turn hindered any actual economic or social progress because it kept the recipient countries at least partially reliant on TOMS for aid. A consumer of this shoe brand may think that the company is harmlessly giving shoes to less fortunate people and may not consider the local shoemakers in aid-receiving countries who could be run out of business as a result. It’s a well-intentioned project and it feels like a good and easy way to give, so people participate. Thus, the cycle continues. People invest in projects or donate to charities that offer band-aid solutions for complex problems, and, as a consequence, individuals in recipient countries lack a clear and sustainable path towards economic development.

Providing short-term aid detached from the political process (e.g., through private donations) is the most uncontroversial way to provide assistance, so it’s popular. This apolitical aid is easy, but problems involving  refugees fleeing war zones or environmental disasters en masse do not require easy solutions: they require well-planned, targeted aid that rebuilds infrastructure, sustains public health, and provides security in target regions. Sometimes, we need to get a bit political and legislatively specific with how we distribute our aid—lest our efforts be in vain, and these recipients suffer any longer. While apolitical humanitarianism, including the TOMS example, feels good, it likely may cause more harm than good, and the longer that we send shoes to shoeless people instead of commissioning their local shoemakers, or send refugees teddy bears instead of granting them asylum or trying to rebuild their countries’ economic and political infrastructures—we are addressing the symptom of the issue instead of the root. 

We need to focus on long-term solutions, welcome refugees into safe countries so they can live more stable lives, and help governments rebuild infrastructure so their citizens don’t need foreign help in the future. We should be working with local governments, instead of just throwing money at a problem through private systems of charity and hoping that the money will be allocated responsibly and meaningfully. The solution lies in having more open communication and cooperation about where resources are being allocated, and focusing on investing for the long-term along with treating immediate issues

Problems obviously exist at the forefront—I’m not saying that if people are starving then we shouldn’t give them food. There is a happy medium to addressing more immediate problems. One way to achieve this medium and balance between the short run and long run is giving medical supplies to those who require attention immediately, combined with donating money to local NGOs and hospitals for long-term healthcare infrastructure development. Investing in long-term solutions takes much more research, and it might require more coordination with NGOs and IGOs in order to incentivize this kind of approach towards aid, but it is nonetheless a worthy project.

Giving should feel good, but it shouldn’t just be about feeling good—it should be about efficacy and utility as well. If the goal of humanitarian aid is to truly help people in need, then we should be looking at solutions that work in the long term. We need to use our money to incentivize and support policy that helps build structures needed for self-sufficiency. We need to get involved politically, and we need transparency about where our money is going so that we know it’s actually helping revitalize wounded communities.

Humanitarian aid is inherently political, because, anytime we try to save people's lives in foreign countries, we intrude upon domestic politics. So, if we are already going to intrude by offering our resources and our money, we might as well be effective with how we allocate it.

ould you like to donate to build a school in Africa?” Given the assumption that giving to charity is a good thing, there should be no controversy with this request. However, much of humanitarian aid is inefficient, and how we distribute our aid as a “fortunate” country is deeply flawed. The efficacy of humanitarian aid is so hit or miss that the inclination to give might mislead Americans into promoting and sustaining inefficient aid programs. 

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Teuta Zeneli is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies and French. Interested in foreign policy and human rights, she focuses on researching post-conflict societies and the national security implications of political insecurities within them. Outside of MC, she likes to write poetry, embroider, and cook Balkan cuisine.

Footnotes

1.

"Separating Humanitarian Aid From Politics." BMJ: British Medical Journal 324, no. 7333 (2002): 319. Accessed February 14, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25227404.