Humanitarian Aid 101: #1 – Aid cannot and will not fix anything

27 Jun

If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this: Lesson #1. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

One of the most important lessons that we’ve never really learned is that, in fact, aid does not fix anything. This is most likely a difficult one for you to wrap your head around. It certainly was for me, and I only managed it after of several years in the humanitarian aid world. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

You wouldn’t know this from reading NGO promotional material. Actually, I would say that in general it is probably not a good idea to try to learn about or understand humanitarian work by reading stuff published by NGOs, because NGOs, for a long list of complicated reasons that I won’t go into right now, have very little (basically zero) motivation for telling anyone this particular truth. This particular truth being, specifically, that they cannot fix poverty.

NGOs cannot eradicate hunger. NGOs cannot stop human trafficking. NGOs cannot and will not transform communities, empower the marginalized, stop climate change, or educate the global illiterate… It is important to understand that this is true whether we’re talking about socially conscious grad students starting causes on Facebook, a small new-kid-on-the-aid-block NGO whose marketing shtick is that they “cut through the red tape and get it done”, or a huge global household charity with a gazillion dollars in annual revenue, massive programs and a long list of impressively titled publications.

Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

We (inside the industry) have allowed ourselves believe and then sold to our constituents (our donors, those outside the industry…) a fiction about what we can actually do. Although we rarely say it directly in so many words, the implication is clear: To hear us tell it, you would think that we can fix anything.  And we’ve sold this fiction so well that now when we fail to fix things, it comes back to bite us. The media gets mad. Ordinary citizens get mad. We get cynical and disillusioned. We’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid, we believe our own propaganda, and then when the harsh reality sets in and it’s disconcerting.

We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that our structures and our systems, our warehouses and our team houses, our fleets of white SUVs and our armies of volunteers will “fix” Tsunamiland or post-Katrina Louisiana or Port-au-Prince. We look at our own annual reports and those numbers look really big. Our annual budget number, the numbers of “beneficiaries”, the numbers of NFI kits distributed or MT of food handed out, the number of mothers who give birth with the help of a trained midwife or the number of pairs of shoes sent overseas feel really… well, significant. We begin to feel as if we can do more than we actually can, and we believe that we have done more than we actually have. But despite the best efforts of an aid industry that grows daily, despite more and more effort by more and more people, and despite the ever better application of even better science – be that social, environmental, political or economic science – poverty, hunger, abuse, disenfranchisement… all the ills of the world also grow at even faster rates. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

I don’t mean any of this to sound like I think that aid doesn’t matter. It does. But over the past two decades I have become convinced that we come to the aid enterprise with too great a sense of self-assurance, with a quantity and quality of confidence not yet rightly earned. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

As humanitarian aid and development workers, we are struggling against forces – economic forces, political forces, social forces – more vast and deep and far reaching than the vast majority of us are aware. It is hard and uncomfortable, but we have to keep in realistic perspective what we actually can and do bring, and scale our rhetoric – both internal and external – to match. We bring drops of relief in oceans of human suffering. Far too often we simply put band-aids on malignant tumors. And no amount of passion or “getting back to the basics” or being accountable will change that.

And so, while on one hand I understand and even applaud the energetic, entrepreneurial, Obama-innagural-address-esque “Yes we can!” sentiments of both passionate apologetics, and also the  strident, scathing critics of the aid industry alike, it is important to have realistic expectations of what aid can actually accomplish. Aid is a good thing to do. I fervently believe that. Aid matters. Aid makes a difference. But if you have delusions of grandeur or even delusions of something less than grandeur, understand this: Aid will not fix anything. Aid is “a measure of humanity, always insufficient…” Aid makes incremental, fragile progress, often at great expense. This is not a call for self-flagellation or self-deprecation, but rather a call for confident humility.

Aid chips away at the stone.

34 Responses to “Humanitarian Aid 101: #1 – Aid cannot and will not fix anything”

  1. Maria 28 June, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    I completely agree with you. (Unemployed and currently divorcing the industry at 35 and after only 4 missions and the realisation of The Fact). Still, some of us want to engage in the world waking up every day to do to something else than sell stuff, create needs in people, and make a profit on it. I personally need to get meaning in what I do, otherwise I get depressed and anxious-and guilty.

    Perhaps there is a way out in the classical aid industry. It is not going to end, as is already well established (although its so inefficient that if it was a private company it would already be bankrupt). But the machine goes on with all those trillion euros and those thousands jobs and failing institutions and all. And they want it to stay that way even if some of them would agree with you too.

    So perhaps we could start addressing (through independent research and dissemination?) the causes of injustice and structural violence that generate the situations in which the aid industry goes and puts band aids on, and their interrelations. The relations between the sphere of the political, the economic, the social, the “cultural”, the environmental. Then we could also try to use a bit more the universal human rights system so impunity would not be left to thrive. I tend to think law limitates the Horror and that a small condemnation for crimes against humanity/crimes of war is a already big step for humanity. But if is not enough.

    I feel quite helpless and desolate in fact. I still feel angry and shocked when I see dead children’s bodies, the age of my nephew, that yesterday were running unaware and today they lie in hand-made coffins, Gone. I sense that somehow I should stay shocked as long as possible, never cease to be shocked. But shock and anger without action can destriy a person. one becomes a vegetable zapping on TV, or else falls into depression and anxiety (more my kind).

    Your posts are extremely to the point and lucid, which is more than great, but these days I just feel like reading Disastrous Passion and get away from bleak, owerwhelming, reality.

  2. Maria 28 June, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    BTW I’ve recommended widely your blog -and hum, Disastorus Passion- though my Linked In profile towards groups of people interested in aid and development. Hope you’ll notice it in your stats…:-)

  3. Mario Sorgalla 28 June, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    It’s interesting to gain insight into your experiences though they sound a bit frustrating.
    Who do you think makes the difference then? Who can alleviate poverty to a substantial degree? Is it the governments of the poor countries? Is it the international trade system? What do you think?

  4. Daniel Brennan 28 June, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    It was until this post that i had thought that i would end my fight with society to humanize all levels of its citizens. But i have decided to keep up on a more toned level, as i am understanding that revelation to my idea could be catastrophic. My idea is a simple one and aids only those who wish to help themselves, by setting fair and reasonable guidelines. The very truth of the matter is that each man who was born unto this earth, should be entitled make their bed upon this earth, so each man should be entitled to a piece of land large enough for a very modest home at bare minimum, this would set upon each society to know that this was a basic right that is required for owns feeling of worth, and as such their dignity depends on it. Those who already own property already own this dignity. My idea is a compromise if you will, between those in poverty and those consumed by the greed that stole this dignity, this basic human right. It encourage current markets and eventually stimulates the economy in a productive and sustainable manner. here is the rough idea, enjoy…
    So if a 27 unit building is worth 1.5 million, and each unit was being rented for 600 per month it would take 7.71 years to completely pay off the entire building thus creating a economic surplus of 1.5 million dollars every 7.71 years afterwords. the argument to this is that it detracts from those who earn income through renting. but what about the automation of all major industries in canada, this has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across canada, but the government has deemed this ok and has even given extensive tax break to corparations who “needed” to automate. lol.
    would it be fiscally responsible if the canadian government invested in its own housing projects out of monies intended for dispersement to those in need of social assistance. it would make sense to move these impoverished individuals from potentially unsafe living conditions created by the rise in rental costs. Once the structures are built, the government need only pay the equivilant to 7.71 years worth of shelter portion of welfare checks (no tax, just give automatic tax break!) thus creating a government surplus annually of %70 of all welfare dispersed, every year, as long as the structures stand. wouldnt this lower taxes. argument: im not on welfare anymore, why do i have to live in subpar housing. my retort, you shouldnt have to! if every person in canada was given the opportunity to invest in a condominium style home (basic standard of living) at cost, without tax, backed by the government (ei; welfare if necessary, bottom line they are paying it out anyway, it may as well be empowering to the citizen as they will have improved quality of life and higher social productivity)they would own that unit and would be allowed to sell their unit for no more than they had personally invested in order to move on to other bigger things. It is absolutely essential that no profit be made from government funded affordable housing solutions. but you as a rent-to-owner, should be able to get back your investment provided you leave your dwelling in as good of condition. this is not a mandatory thing, just an opportunity that i think should be made available by the government to those who it interests. this opportunity would definitely give our youth an opportunity to get ahead in economically destitute times. heres how it works.. if a person uses affordable housing and uses welfare, the government never has to pay welfare out of our taxes after the initial 7.71 years, greatly benifitting the economy by reducing taxation and national debt… if a person earns their own income and invests for the full 7.71 year period they may stay on in that dwelling as they had paid for it, thus additional income after 7.71 years would then be spent on other things, greatly benifitting the economy! and if the person wished to leave to move on to other things they would be able to receive back whatever they had invested of their own money as a jumpstart in the game of life, but they would not be intitled to interest or to profit from the opportunity, and would be required to return the dwelling in its original state within reason. when people did move on, the next tenant would be responsible for making payments to the government, and so
    would go the cycle of perpetual SUSTAINABILITY.
    i understand that this is very loosely written, it would need to be fine tuned so as to restrict those from abusing this seemingly plausible and sensible solution for a sustainable economy. If our greatest young thinkers got on it as if it were actually import it would solve the need for aid, so in closing i fully agree with you, aid cannot and will not end anything. Only a call for civilization will.

    • Jim 22 July, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      WTF? Canadian math and investment schemes? It would take years of University to explain all the flaws in your plan. I haven’t been ‘inside the industry’ for very long but I don’t blame those of you who are leaving it after struggling for many years. As a business guy I am amazed at how dependent the typical do-gooder is. It is not the responsibility of the Government, Society, the Community, NGO’s or others to care for children and the ‘disadvantaged’. How about this; if a man fathers a child he needs to take care of that child. If the father of a particular child gets hacked up in sectarian violence others in the family need to take responsibility for that child until he/she is old enough to thrive on their own.

      The ‘industry’ (which it really is not) of Aid or ‘Development’ provides people that can’t make it in Industry an opportunity to stay busy and puff themselves up by claiming to do so much good for ‘those who can’t do for themselves.’

  5. liloubnan 28 June, 2011 at 3:22 am #

    Reading your post, I both understand how you mean it AND would rephrase the title. Wouldn’t “Aid cannot fix EVERYTHING” be a better fit? Aid can fix some things in my view: aid can for instance support fixing the limbs of some of the handicaped from Haiti’s earthquake; it can prevent some women refugees from dying when giving birth; it can provide some women with a safe house where to shelter when beaten; it can provide medical treatment to those tortured. Now, indeed, it cannot ensure that handicaped-friendly facilities be made available all over the country; ensure free maternal and early childhood care for the whole population; neither can it address comprehensively the root causes of SGBV, be they cultural practices, alcohool abuse, unemployment; or ensure that perpetrators of torture be jailed in countries where rule of law is elusive.
    So while I understand your point overall, I would nuance it by quoting Camus or A. Blink (can’t remember which one) who said there are two types of follies, one that has you believe you can change everything and one that has you believe you can change nothing. Aid can fix some things, but it shouldn’t be expected to fix what it is not meant to and is not taylored for.

    • J. 28 June, 2011 at 7:22 am #

      No, actually, I considered the wording of the title to this post quite carefully before publishing. In my opinion aid really cannot fix anything. I certainly cannot think of a single thing that has been fixed by aid. Can you name a problem that once existed but which no longer does because aid took care of if. Again, I can’t think of one.

      That said, aid does help. A lot. It can make things better, no question. I believe this. It is a “good thing” to do – which is why after 20 years, I continue to get up every day and go to work. But aid doesn’t fix things.

  6. Maria 28 June, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    I tend to agree too with Liloubnan. And then I have to, otherwise the picture is too bleak and I could go straight away go and work for repsol or inditex.

    I’ve seen newborn twins of 700 grams live though one more day because of aid. perhaps they died the following month. they probably did. I’ve seen nice rice harvests that aid contributed to make by “educating” peasants on how to wor their land. I’ve seen cholera patients living instead of dying. its quite a relief. And others not contracting it, because of aid. It is important. If it was me I would like to live. I would not like to dye of a stupid, easy to fix reason. I would not like my children to die o dhiarrea. how shoking is that. let’s think for just a second that all that applies to our own lives, now.

    it is not in the scope of “aid” to fix things. The term “relief” might be better. it relieves people from burdens: immediate sickness, immediate death, immediate hunger, immediate pain. what happens next is not humanitarians business. nor should it be.

    In Darfur in kalma camp some ngos would do water trucking. unsustainable, extremely expensive and all. but the alternative was death for many people. I was researching in the camp and one day I forgot my daily bottled purified water. the people living there did not have any bottled water, the government prohibited ngos to dig wells. they relied only on that water trucking. that day I was happy to share that water from one of the cooked earth jars that were used to store it under one of the tents. I though that it was difficult to have that little water only, difficult to be in that situation of complete dependency and absolute helplessness. it was a relief to have that water.

    what happens after immediate-ness is not the humanitarian’s business. Stepping back one analytical step, we see that the current neoliberal global economic model does not allow anyone to regulate it, so that it continues to flourish by creating real poverty and virtual wealth. It’s kind of crumbling down now but still. And the UN system as warrant of peace finds itself quite helpless facing the veto countries in its security council, which shape the way international law ( a limited but precious tool we got ourselves) actually functions. And so Spain can sell weapons to Lybia without it being punishable, becasue the market rules, and war is good business. For humanitarians too. Here is where one can se Im becoming bitter and cynical.

    Aid should never do the job a government should do. Never! this nurtures bad governance, prevents a real icil society to emerge and fakes the whole game. thats why I turned down an unsustainable, nonsense job in mali doing the work government should do on sanitation woth all the funds they receie from the EU, and Im unemployed, thinking how best to go about all this and to make the next move, while obsessively reading Disastrous Passion and thinking to why not going back to Haiti to contribute to some “relief”, not some “aid”….

  7. Brendan 28 June, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    I take it by ‘fix’ you mean ‘permanently resolve’ which in the situations where aid is needed is setting the bar pretty high. Another way of putting it would be to say that aid is only a short term fix despite all the talk of DDR, sustainability, exit strategies, transitioning, etc.

  8. Hans Zomer 28 June, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    You’re right that much aid has been over-hyped, but I would argue that this has been mainly a narrative constructed in the public mind by outsiders – and which NGOs have done nothing to fight a it suited them; On closer look, most NGO inspired messages always carried the small print that Aid alone will not solve poverty. It’s not our fault if the triple message of campaigns such as Make Poverty History has been heard to be a single message about the need for more aid.

    I know of no-one in the aid sector that thinks or says aid will fix things. But I would point at millions of tiny successes – essentially to do with aid’s ability to reduce the cost of access to social services – and to a few giant ones, such as the eradication of small pox and the reduction of needless suffering from polio. All aid-financed.

    That much of this is only trying to stem a flow is more an argument that aid alone is not enough. A NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT condition for Development.

    The challenge, still, is to mobilise resources for Development, not just Aid. Which by no means is saying that aid does not fix anything.

    So I would have to agree that your title does not reflect your sentiments.

  9. Ian Thorpe 28 June, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Hmmm – not sure if I fully agree with you. Perhaps I’d put it differently. Aid can’t fix a problem by itself. For a problem to be addressed in a lasting way the solution needs to lie within the society where it takes place both in terms of commitment, action and resources. BUT aid often provides a necessary push to get this going by bringing in incentives, resources and knowledge that make it happen in situations that might be too hard to fix without outside help, or it helps make it happen faster.

  10. MC 28 June, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    One question: Why aid should fix anything(everything)?? Relieving or soothing those problems we are witnessing right now could not be more than enough?

  11. Tom Paulson 28 June, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Interesting, provocative post. And I think I understand, and appreciate your argument. But after reading it, I wondered:

    Didn’t the eradication of smallpox fix a problem? Wasn’t that an aid program?

    Unless I’m missing a nuance, I think it’s fair to say the global smallpox eradication program (and its recent heir apparent, today’s announcement re rinderpest) was an aid program. And I think it’s fair to say it fixed smallpox.

    Do we still have other diseases, other problems? Sure. But it seems to me some things do get fixed, sometimes even thanks to aid programs.


  12. terence 28 June, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    hhhhhmmmm…I think I’d put it more like this:

    occasionally aid makes things worse
    quite often aid achieves nothing
    more often aid achieves something but typically the achievement is only a small incremental improvement and quite often it is reversed when the aid ends
    occasionally aid achieves a lot
    very rarely (i.e. 3 times in history) aid does something remarkable like eradicating smallpox.

  13. MJ 29 June, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    I’m inclined to agree with other commenters, and indeed the implications of your later paragraphs about lowering our expectations. Aid can fix some small things for individual people or communities but rarely systems (or at least not on its own).

    However, another point that can and should be made here is that I believe the emergency humanitarian aid sub-sector – where you work – is always going to be the least sustainable. Donors have very poor sticking power, but good NGOs that are dedicated to the projects and communities they support should be capable of rotating funding to ensure more moderately ambitious schemes can continue and be sustained to the point where they can actually stand on their own two feet. This still happens too rarely, but I think Aid can indeed fix some small things for good.

  14. Tom Paulson 29 June, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Okay, what the heck. I’ll uncharacteristically take on the role of optimist/pollyanna.

    Terence says only 3 aid programs have made much difference and that in most cases progress gets reversed later. Huh? Which three? And is this due to a failure of aid or a failure to follow through with aid? The latter is not evidence that aid doesn’t work.

    In the case of AIDS, I would posit that the massive aid response to Africa (Global Fund, Pepfar), however imperfect, has made a huge difference. We may start to see reversals — increase in deaths, etc — but that would be due to shortfalls in funding and the failure to expand access to the millions of people who still need treatment.

    I am not an aid/development worker or even an expert. But as a journalist trying to convey to the public the value of what you all do, I have to say it sometimes seems like you all tend to cut of your own noses to spite your collective face.


  15. Stacy Furlow 29 June, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    “We bring drops of relief in oceans of human suffering.”

    I absolutely get what you are saying. A realistic assessment of what can and should be expected would be transformative on all sides of this equation.

    Having said that, those drops are still significant and I hope you keep chipping away at the stone.

    I am thankful for your honesty and enjoy both this blog and Disastrous Passion. Can we get another chapter soon?

  16. John Palmkvistt 30 June, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    I agree with the post, including the conclusion that aid matters.

    Aid matters to some donor nations and multinational corporations who use aid to ingratiate themselves to poor nations in order to promote their own national and business interests.

    Aid matters to some donor nations and multinational corporations who use aid to destabilize poor nations to improve their own bargaining positions.

    Aid matters to the economies of some donor nations when a large portion of the aid boomerangs back into on-shore bank accounts in the form of salaries to expatriate aid workers.

    Aid matters to some individual donors from wealthy nations because it makes them feel good.

    Aid matters to some local government officials who get the first cut.

    Aid matters to some major global agencies, which work to ever expand their influence in the world.

    Aid matters to some expatriate and local aid workers who benefit from corruption and steady pay checks.

    Aid matters to some journalists and bloggers who are paid to shill for donors and NGOs.

    Aid matters to some of the recipients of aid, at least when being reported by those providing aid.

    It is a true statement: “Aid matters.” Especially if you are on the supply side.

  17. J. 30 June, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    To all of you, thank you very much for reading and for taking the time to comment. The #aid101 series, of which this is the inaugural post, is specifically meant to stimulate discussion, and so I’m pleased to see some discussion happening. Even where some of you may disagree with me🙂

    For the sake of clarity, while attempting to not simply re-write the original post, let me say (again) that I did consider very carefully the words used in both the title and the post itself. I really, really do mean to say that in my opinion, Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

    Now, of course that statement, even when uttered with great conviction, as-is still leaves a great deal open to interpretation and what I sometimes call semantic hair-splitting. What, for example, is “aid”? And what do I mean by “fix”? And what do I mean by “anything”?

    While I write primarily about “humanitarian aid” – international response to disasters of different kinds – on Tales From the Hood, in this post I mean “Aid” in the Bill Easterly AidWatch sense. When he “just asks that Aid benefit the poor”, he’s not contorting his arguments to service that already somewhat artificial distinction between relief and development. And neither am I. In this post I am talking about that complex, widely inclusive and vaguely-defined-at-its-outer-edges whole that includes the entire continuum from relief to development, and from governments to institutional donors to international organizations to CSR to pop-singer/film star-led causes to NGOs of all sizes and shapes, and pretty much everything in between. This is what I mean by “Aid.”

    When I say “fix”, I mean to solve, resolve or eradicate in the “Make Poverty History” sense. I mean primarily that there is some issue “Aid” been able to successfully deal with globally, permanently. I suppose I also mean secondarily (?) that there is some issue “Aid” has been able to successfully deal with in the context of a region or nation. Stabilize and bring peace to Somalia, for example. Or “get Haiti back on its feet.” This is what I’m talking about when I say “fix.”

    By “anything” I mean what I call “the big problems.” Global problems. Like poverty, human trafficking, poor health, environmental degradation…

    And so, while I take many of your points above – Aid has accomplished a great many good things, made real gains, scored some important victories, had what I would call clear “wins” – I still maintain my original position: that aid has not and cannot and will not really fix anything. I would argue that eradicating smallpox is one of those “wins”, but not claim it as a “big problem” that aid has “fixed.” The “big problems” of the world continue. Aid is not going to make poverty history or guarantee health for all. Aid can and should be part of a solution, but these are deep, complex, multi-dimensional problems. They are the large stones at which aid continues to chip away.

    Similarly, while I continue to believe in aid (generally) and the humanitarian enterprise (more specifically), it is important to keep in perspective this reality. We can be part of a solution, but we are not the solution. As practitioners of aid, we chip away at the stone.

  18. Prentice Zinn 1 July, 2011 at 4:14 am #

    I love the title of this post. It makes us squirm.

    As a foundation staffer privy to all sorts of justifications for funding along the muddy aid/development contiuum, I’ve never taken seriously the idea that aid did more than alleviate suffering.

    C’mon, isn’t this point made in a chapter of the free humanitarian aid handbook you get with every Totota Landcruiser?

    The argument that aid can fix things seems to be more a rhetorical flourish that is part of the fundraising dance.

    The interesting thing is that when I challenge organizations: e.g. : “But that’s just good ol humanitarian aid!” they tend to agree and rarely regress into one of those convoluted arguments in aid-speak.

    We all are as grandiose in our claims of charity as we are in our claims of change.

    And, the dance continues.

  19. Winston C 5 July, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Aid affixed a bumper sticker to my car.

    it also made a whole bunch of kenyan politicians able to buy a
    the wonderfull S 500 mecedes benz which in turn helped ze germans
    to continue paying back the marshall plan….
    remeber what happens when we turn a blind eye on the plight of ze germans.

  20. Tom Paulson 8 July, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Okay, I decided to post my thoughts on you self-deprecating aid workers:

  21. Adam 10 July, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Can any system or institution in the history of the world claim to be able to permanently eliminate poverty, hunger, and disease? Aid is no different. This seems like a fairly obvious point, maybe I’m missing a nuance to the argument or something.

  22. Jim 22 July, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    I haven’t been ‘inside the industry’ for very long but I don’t blame those of you who are leaving it after struggling for too many years. As a business guy I am amazed at how dependent the typical do-gooder is. It is not the responsibility of the Government, Society, the Community, NGO’s or others to care for children and the ‘disadvantaged’. How about this; if a man fathers a child he needs to take care of that child. If the father of a particular child gets hacked up in sectarian violence others in the family need to take responsibility for that child until he/she is old enough to thrive on their own.

    The ‘industry’ (which it really is not) of Aid or ‘Development’ provides people that can’t make it in Industry an opportunity to stay busy and puff themselves up by claiming to do so much good for ‘those who can’t do for themselves.’

    Biblical principles & Capitalism. How much easier could it be?



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