Humanitarian Aid System Is A Continuation Of The Colonial Project

To fix the flawed humanitarian system, practitioners need to collaborate with affected populations as equal partners.

Haitians wait to get food coupons in downtown Port-au-Prince following the 2010 earthquake that wrecked much of Haiti’s capital and killed as many as 200,000 people [Eliana Aponte/Reuters]
The global humanitarian community is again in confusion. The Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal has made headlines. Policymakers and humanitarian leaders everywhere talk about the need for change. Over the last 30 years or so, there have been many scandals, and much demand for reform. However, business just continues as usual. According to Reuters, during the last year the Save the Children Fund claimed they fired 16 staff members over reports of sexual harassment and Oxfam reported it dismissed 22 of its staff. There are similar reports by various humanitarian agencies. What is terrifying is that the same person who quit his role with Oxfam 2011 after being accused of using sex workers while working in Haiti, was engaging in similar acts in 2006 during his time working for the charity in Chad. Oxfam knew about this but went ahead and sent this person to work in Haiti anyway.

Anyone connected to the humanitarian world knows about the scandals of sexual misconduct, corruption, discrimination, racism and many other issues in the system. In many ways, the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal is just a symptom of the core illnesses that the humanitarian system is suffering from. Of course, the system is complex, and it is not easy to change.

It is one of the very few careers one could enter without any formal qualifications. A colleague from Afghanistan once told me international humanitarian workers comprise three categories: missionaries (those who come to help and change the affected communities), misfits (those who do not fit in their own societies, so they become humanitarian workers) and mercenaries (those who come for the money). Of course, there are honest, committed and genuine humanitarian workers, however, they are a minority and most of the time leave the field in frustration. 

Since 2004, teaching in many higher education programmes in the UK on disaster management, humanitarian affairs, peacebuilding and sustainable development programmes, has brought me into contact with many young North American and European students who want to become humanitarian workers. They want to go to Africa, Asia and the Middle East to help people. Keeping in line with the Croatian Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, I always suggest that they should think about helping the refugees, homeless and poor people in their own countries. Few decide to do so.

Regardless of all the issues, the humanitarian industry is growing. Since 1989, it has grown from some $0.5 bn to some $22bn in 2018. The responses to international crises are organised on a fast-phase, top-down and resource heavy basis. In a model of universal governance, the humanitarian responses are driven by specialised UN agencies and NGOs. In this specialisation, the responses are delivered within a medicalised approach – diagnosis and intervention. At the same time, the humanitarian system is suffering from under capacity and many other problems within.

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It is also common knowledge that contemporary humanitarian structures are shaped by the philosophical and value systems of Europe and North America, which are predominantly Christian. At the same time, a large proportion of humanitarian funding is channelled towards the Muslim world. According to the Global Humanitarian Overview (2018), the 2017 humanitarian response plans are dominated by Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, occupied Palestinian territories, Libya and many other Muslim countries. It is also no secret that the United States uses humanitarian assistance as an extension of their foreign policy while the European Union use it as a substitute for foreign policy. In this, the contemporary humanitarian system is part of the global intervention to change the social, cultural, economic, political and environmental architecture of countries without the consent of the people. In my mind, this is a continuation of the colonial project. Support for regime changes, lack of accountability, and ongoing racism in the humanitarian system has helped destabilise countries in the grip of natural disasters such as Haiti and Nepal while at the same time it is estimated that only about one percent of humanitarian funds reach the affected populations as was the case in West Africa during the Ebola crisis.

Keeping in line with the colonial project, the humanitarian system largely assumes affected populations are vulnerable and need assistance and deliver aid based on this assumption. The reality is most disaster and conflict-affected populations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have been experiencing these dangers for centuries. Most of them have been colonised by the European powers and still continued to be hampered by global economic interests. In this, most populations in disaster and conflict-affected countries in the world have developed sophisticated yet pragmatic approaches to effectively deal with uncertainty and danger. This is the type of wisdom and local knowledge of people which the humanitarian system has over and over failed to recognise.

The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition Report on the 2004 tsunami response by the International humanitarian system (TEC, 2007) heavily criticised the lack of genuine engagement and collaboration with the affected populations. It further recommended the international humanitarian agencies recognise the capabilities of affected populations and their skills and knowledge. The TEC Report strongly recommended the International humanitarian system establish formal performance feedback and begin to measure the improvements undertaken by International actors.

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There was the expectation that the International humanitarian system would learn from their mistakes in their responses to the 2004 tsunami. However, we continue to hear the same narrations from Haiti, Nepal, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and many other countries. The current humanitarian system, which is embroiled in the global market, does not have space for affected populations. There are discussions, projects and interventions to professionalise the humanitarian system, but there is no understanding of care that the system should provide to the affected populations. The system, which is expected to care for affected populations, has forgotten, and in many cases, even harmed them.

While the international humanitarian system is busy dealing with scandals, developing policies such as the Grand Bargain and Charter for Change, hiring inexperienced and unqualified international staff, the affected communities continue to deal with disasters and conflicts. They do not come to New York, London, Geneva or Brussels to complain about the misconduct of the humanitarian agencies or to request funding. There are very few examinations of the power and corruption of the international humanitarian system – Graham Hancock’s 1989 book, Lords of Poverty, is still the most honest account of this. The humanitarian agencies come and go – the long-term impact they make at community-level is never considered or examined. In the humanitarian programme cycle, there is no space for the long term – it is fast-paced, top-down and resource-heavy. As one of the colleagues in Eastern Sri Lanka told an international humanitarian worker, “Dear sir, this may be your project, but this is my life.”

Unless, the humanitarian donors, policymakers and practitioners are ready to change their current attitudes and values, examine the ways to change the system itself and genuinely collaborate with affected populations as equal partners, the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal will be another news item that will fade away into the background. This is the only way to change the colonial nature of the humanitarian system and make it relevant and effective for affected populations. 


This article is written by  & originally appeared in Al-Jazeera.



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