Five totally WRONG ways of thinking about aid

26 Aug

The system is so broken that trying to fix it is futile. Wrong. We have to try to fix it. We have to make aid better. Cynan puts it very well, here. Systemic brokenness is very understandably disheartening and disillusioning to many. Sticking with it and making it work may not be your thing. Maybe you need to find another job. Fair enough. But those of us who stick around have to try to make things better.

We have to fix the broken system first. Wrong. A broken aid system does not, in the vast majority of cases, preclude an individual, team or NGO from doing it right, day to day. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, some days the brokenness will prevent you from doing what you know truly needs to be done. Even so, we need to repair the car while driving it.

Everyone should have the opportunity to help. Wrong. “The poor”, disaster survivors, “beneficiaries”, etc. are not toys for us to sort of play around with. Aid needs to be delivered by people who know what they’re doing. Aid needs to be about the recipients, not about the provider.

Humanitarian workers, by definition, make great sacrifice to do the work that they do. Wrong. Aid is a profession and a vocation. It is a job for which we (should) get paid a fair wage in exchange for doing that job properly. Yes, there are difficult things about humanitarian work. Sometimes it is dangerous in different ways. But humanitarian work should never be seen as sacrificial.

Something is better than nothing. Wrong. I can think of few perspectives more damaging that the one which says, “The poor have nothing, so whatever we give them is better than what they had before.” This perspective more than any other locks us into a mentality of this all somehow being about us. It justifies all manner of professional idiocy and incompetence, it justifies amateurism, it justifies #SWEDOW.

10 Responses to “Five totally WRONG ways of thinking about aid”

  1. Tom Paulson (@tompaulson) 26 August, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Good post! I will re-post as a nice follow up to my latest on the heroic humanitarian narrative.

    Note: The link to Cynan doesn’t appear active.

  2. james 26 August, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Nice post. But try to think in terms of “assisting” instead “helping”. Subtle difference, but a significant one. One should also add this quote: “The success of any humanitarian intervention should be judged on its ability to leave without leaving a void.”

  3. Caroline Kurtz 26 August, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Love your blog and your point of view. I’ve been working in church partnership world, encouraging more thoughtful responses among the good-hearted but (frankly) ignorant, after teaching in Ethiopia and Sudan for ten years.

  4. Emma Redfern (@rememberthegoat) 26 August, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    ‘Aid needs to be delivered by people who know what they’re doing’ and ‘Aid is a profession’ I wonder what qualifies someone to work in this field? what do you, or anyone else, think is the right training for it?

  5. David Week 27 August, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    I agree with all your points, but I don’t understand the critique which you are responding. Who, exactly, says “the aid system is broken?” It’s as “broken” as anything else in the world that is subject to robust critique.

    Aid, basically, works. There are aspects of it that don’t work as well as we would like it to. The fact that we know this, shows that we have a strong critical reflection process in place.

    • J. 30 August, 2011 at 6:52 am #

      Hey David – that part was responding to a generalized vibe that I perceive out there, particularly in some corners of the blogosphere. I’m not aware of any specific person who’s said that aid is broken beyond repair. I agree with your points.

  6. kayti 27 August, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-14677397

    Keep an eye out for this film by Ken Loach to be released 42 years after it was banned by Save the Children Fund…

  7. Elisabeth F 28 August, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    I don’t agree completely with point two: Even if you are convinced that you, your NGO, your project is doing it “right”, you should reuglarly take a break for reflecting, reframing, reparing… and not drive, drive drive.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Five totally WRONG ways of thinking about aid (via Tales From the Hood) « STUPID STORIES - 5 September, 2011

    […] leave a comment » The system is so broken that trying to fix it is futile. Wrong. We have to try to fix it. We have to make aid better. Cynan puts it very well, here. Systemic brokenness is very understandably disheartening and disillusioning to many. Sticking with it and making it work may not be your thing. Maybe you need to find another job. Fair enough. But those of us who stick around have to try to make things better. We have to fix the broken system first. … Read More […]

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