30 Jul

Okay. I just have to get this out.

I’m growing rather weary of aid non-insiders and aid commentators and aid wannabes calling us “elitist.” Ahem – calling us “elitist” as if that’s some sort of bad thing.

I mean, no one complains that neurosurgery is a terribly elitist field of practice. Or what about high-stakes contract law? Those fields are both dominated by a very small and, for lack of a better term, elite group of practitioners. And for very good reason, as I think most of us would agree. There are horrible consequences for even the smallest error while a patient is on the table. One misstep during the proceeding of a contract lawsuit can have far-reaching effects, beyond even the immediate issue of money.

It seems to me that the stakes are no lower in humanitarian aid work. In fact, I’d argue that the stakes are higher. What we do affects not just a single individual, but entire communities, regions, in some instances maybe even nations.

And yet, somehow we think that this is a field of practice where any random well-meaning person can be relevant to the conversation? You kidding?

I could just about kiss Paul Currion right on the lips for this post on crowdsourcing (don’t worry, I won’t try it). I mean, on one hand I see the huge amounts of potential in crowdsourcing a-la Ushahidi, as well as some social media platforms. I certainly enjoy me some good Twitter now and again.

But on the other hand, really? If the future of emergency humanitarian aid really is crowdsourced data, then God help future disaster survivors. And I write this sincerely. Such a trend would be more or less the aid equivalent of scaling back professional law enforcement and allowing neighborhood militias and vigilantes to administer justice on the spur of the moment.

* * *

By no means do I mean say that the humanitarian aid industry as we know it currently is perfect. Or even adequate. It very obviously is not. There are glaring deficiencies, as there are glaring inefficiencies, and allowing these to remain unacknowledged and unaddressed is not an acceptable way forward in my view.

But it needs to be recognized and acknowleged that while humanitarian aid remains unregulated like, say, neuro-medicine, law, or law enforcement, it is still a professional field.

It is possible to do aid wrong.  Imperfect as it may be, aid does require particular skill sets, a knowledge base, and experience to get right. It takes experience and specific knowledge and wisdom and sound judgment to be able to walk into a disaster zone and know how to respond. Not just anyone can do it. And not just anyone should.

From where I sit, humanitarian aid is the opposite of elitist. It is incredibly porous. As a professional community, we tolerate a level of “input” from individuals who should be bodily removed from our offices and do “due dilligence” on utterly preposterous ideas for “innovation” that would be plain laughable in any other field with the reach that we have into the lives of actual, living people.  Among all of the other things that can be said about the Haiti response, it certainly proved that pretty much anyone can go in and muck around “doing aid.”

I dunno. Maybe it’s time to make aid more elitist.

32 Responses to “Elitist”

  1. Martha 30 July, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    I just wanna say that because of this entire thread of conversation I got into a huge fight with my ex-husband (Mr. Sean-Penn-is-a-hero) that lasted an entire 30 minutes. Reminded me of why I left him in the first place. Not that I was regretting my decision–but it was nice to have more confirmation of our complete incompatibility.

    • J. 30 July, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

      Sounds like you made the right decision. Good to see you’re still reading my blog, Martha!🙂

  2. Anonymous 31 July, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Aid Elitist

    Aid is not just about providing bottled water to an impoverished, marginalised rural community. Nor is it about westerners experimenting with their theories of liberal economics. It is about doing the right thing right. ie addressing the specific needs of the recipients and empowering them at the same time.

    As a profession, it is still restricted to very few western individuals who as for their entry point, required them to spent 6 months in a rural school and then come back as country directors and experts.

    Only a few missionaries have really understood the real life of a rural impoverished community. Even they do not understand it all.

    What we say is this capacity building of local communities hullabaloo should be unmasked. Imagine if suddenly the world was devoid of any suffering and disasters? How will the whole aid machinery be sustained?

    Aid is an industry that has its own life and defenders, a closely knit network of “experts” whose voices donors listen to. Never is the voice of the recipient ever allowed to be heard.

    • c-sez 1 August, 2010 at 2:53 am #

      Bottled water? Bottled water? Trucked water, sometimes yeah absolutely. But you kinda lost me at that first sentence, anonymous.

      If I was to point to the #1 problem with online discussions about aid and development, its lazy use of the word ‘aid’ to refer to

      *Emergency humantiarian aid (which J is careful to delineate above, but which may be lost on some readers);
      * Wonking great billions in ‘aid’ passed bilaterally between governments, often to actually end up spent on lovely fighter jets or summat from the donor country;
      * The meso scale capital behind some fairly business oriented microfinance;
      * The funding and practice of attempting at times decadal programmes of socioeconomic change;
      * Numpty Bob from #32 down the street and his Solar Powered Fan Hats For Haiti “aid work” he’s always bugging you for a tenner for; and
      * Bibles.

      If only we could come up with a clear and catchy word for each of these beyond ‘aid’.

  3. John 1 August, 2010 at 2:54 am #

    My house has caught fire and my entire family is inside. I call the fire department. They arrive quickly and get me and my family out safely. The house has suffered sever damage and is no longer habitable.

    Did the fire department do a good job? If you were there at the time they look like heros. To the unaware walking by a week later they look like bums.

    Such is the problem of aid professionals…

    • J. 2 August, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

      That’s a great way of putting it.

  4. c-sez 1 August, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    Also we need some more cool catchphrases.

    “Good intentions are not enough” is an awesome start, I think it really has legs.

    I’d also like to propose “Wasting the time of poor people is a crime.”

    Which is a big part of what this ‘elitism’ is about…

  5. Observer 2 August, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    Maybe that’s because such an obscene amount of “doing aid” is done for masturbatory reasons.

    What if a few respected professionals with proven track records sticking to managing emergency/humanitarian disaster relief is good enough.

    Then again, I suppose that means the canoe is too small for all the wannabe “development” workers who would like to see themselves in the boat, thus raising the accusations of elitism again. What to do? How to make this industry 80% smaller?

    • J. 2 August, 2010 at 4:50 pm #


  6. Sceptical Secondo 2 August, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    Getting a bit full of ourselves here are we? Not that I don’t agree on some of your points, but the overall tone is nauseating.

    May I suggest a portion Arturo Escobar to ease things a bit. Or perhaps a wide read on the philosophy of science. You know, ontology, epistemology and that sort.

    Best elitist wishes

    • J. 2 August, 2010 at 4:55 pm #



  7. Sceptical Secondo 3 August, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    Well, You were the one asking for more elitism. Remember that brain surgery includes lobotomy. Asides, some might claim that ‘progress’ in development paradigms are slightly more marked by trial and error than progress in brain surgery has been.

  8. RK 3 August, 2010 at 5:46 am #

    Picking up John’s fire-fighting analogy…

    Isn’t it good that the fire dept came properly equipped and trained?

    Well-meaning amateurs would possibly have saved some lives if their guess at the best way to respond turned out to be sound.

    But they lack the benefit of learning built on the successes – and mistakes – of generations past.

    For that reason they might just as easily have dashed around with water dripping from in cupped hands trying to douse peripheral flames while John’s imaginary family perished inside.

    • Alex 22 August, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

      If you really want to extend this metaphor, have a go with water + electrical fires.

  9. Amelia 3 August, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Well, I sort of know what you mean, but seeing as I call myself an aid professional and mess it up as often as lots of other aid professional I always feel nervous. I think that it’s annoying to call it elitist when you try to explain why, according to many lessons learned, screw ups (by aforementioned professionals), evaluations and common sense that someone’s ‘bright idea’ is wrong. This is because we have professional standards. And I totally aspire to the idea that if we had a more professional industry then we would reduced the number of screw ups. But… and for me it’s a big one. I would appreciate deeply if the sexist, show off, ‘I’m saving lives’ aid professionals (which you most profoundly are not J, but they do exist in our ‘profession’ as you wll know) need to remember most humbly that often the people who are affected are just as effective at saving lives as us. Which does not mean, anonymous et al, that Sean Bloody Know It All Penn, is more knowledgeable than a) elitist aid workers or b) affected populations.

    I have to say that as a part time member of the professional aid population I find lots of them bloody annoying and arrogant too, the difference being they aren’t film stars and some of them have learned lessons the hard way.
    yours ambigiously
    Amelia x

  10. Amelia 3 August, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    p,s: Sorry for the typos, grammar errors, am busy proof reading dissertations so can no longer write English!

  11. Rachel 4 August, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    This is my own soap box, but I think that a big difference between the fields of (for example) neuroscience and aid work comes from how, institutionally, entry-level professionals are treated. In medicine and law, as in aid, clerks and interns are worked long hours and heavily relied upon; but in medicine and law, unlike in aid work, they are paid, given structured trainings, and lauded by their families. In aid work, masters degree or not, they are called volunteers and often asked to pay their own ways — no wonder every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they could do they same job.

    Plenty of professional, knowledgeable aid workers go out of their way to ensure that burgeoning aid workers are guided, given advice, and helped as they are just appearing on the aid worker circuit, but (with the rare exception of some programs such as CRS’s fellows program) it is not institutionalized at all.

    I truly, honestly think that better treatment of entry level professionals would go a long way in making the ENTIRE profession and field more respected and highly regarded.

    • Anon 8 August, 2010 at 4:34 am #

      Agree whole heartedly with Rachel. Aid workers want to be seen as professional yet to enter the profession you have to practically live off charity yourself. From my experience working in HQ of a well known UK charity, there does exist a rather elitist privileged culture which I felt came about from the fact that many people there were quite “posh” as we would say in the UK, smart no doubt, but terribly posh and everything that goes with it. Most people got their job through a connection and others having the support network to be able to afford years of “volunteering”.

      Maybe people call aid workers “elitist” because of this, not because of the work you try to do but of how people usually end up becoming aid workers.
      Frankly I am getting very discouraged and annoyed that in order to work in development, I have to be part of this.

  12. Shannon 4 August, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    I completely agree with this blog, as I saw many disaster tourists show up in Haiti equiped with nothing but matching track suits. The lack of training, knowledge and resources resulted in rape, prostitution (including child prostitution), and the strong litterally beating the weak for goods thrown out the bag of a van. Incredibly infuriating.

    I have also been called an Elitist for thinking that this field should be more regulated….most notably by readers of a Lonely Planet article encouraging people to become disaster tourists. Also by friends who are frustrated when my reply to their emails saying, “how do I help” is, “get trained and join an experienced NGO”.

    I’m currently looking into how to regulate entry into disaster zones in order to protect disaster survivors from these sincerely good hearted people who have no training. Hopefully OCHA will agree and take necessary steps.

    Keep up the blogging. Being a relief worker myself, I see a lot of my own experiences and frustrations mirrored in your writing. Glad to know that I’m not alone!


  1. Good Intentions/Blogging Elsewhere « Knowing Bliss - 6 August, 2010

    […] For those who don’t read development blogs incessantly, there’s been a furor lately (or maybe I’ve tuned in lately) about well-intentioned but somewhat ignorant people getting involved in international aid in one way or another. Sending stuff instead of cash to Haiti, when it clogs the ports and creates distribution nightmares. The later flashpoint of 1 Million Shirts, whose goal was to collect a million tshirts and send to Africa, despite potential disruption to local textile or clothing markets. The overall idea that humanitarian aid is something that can or should be done by everyone, rather than experts (well argued on the blog Tales from the Hood). […]

  2. Elite Aid « Knowing Bliss - 10 August, 2010

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    […] – are likely to demure. We don’t want to be seen as mean or arrogant or – heaven forbid – elitist. Most of the time, in social settings, I simply do not have it in me to call out and deflate those […]

  4. Interesting posts — Where am I from? edition « Find What Works - 18 August, 2010

    […] Amateurs! These posts are a bit older, but I just got around to them and they form a nice set. First, Tom (A View From The Cave) ponders why aid outsiders keep trying to enter the business. In response, Penelope M.C. echoes the concerns, but also gives examples of amateurs who have started projects that have become successful and respected. In a similar vein, J. (Tales from the Hood) argues that aid should be more elitist. […]

  5. I didn’t really want to quit anyway « Wait… What? - 21 August, 2010

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  10. Moving into the real world | Fragile States dot com - 13 June, 2011

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  11. Humanitarian Aid 101: #2 – Aid is never simple. « Tales From the Hood - 18 July, 2011

    […] than it looks. It’s also where D.I.Y. aid typically falls down. This is not elitism (even though I have exactly zero problem embracing elitism). This is recognition of the fact, again, that dealing with aid complexity requires enough […]

  12. DO something « Tales From the Hood - 22 July, 2011

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