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.
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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.