Thanks, but No Thanks: The Other Face of International Humanitarian Aid

By Mikolajuk, Christine | Harvard International Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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Thanks, but No Thanks: The Other Face of International Humanitarian Aid


Mikolajuk, Christine, Harvard International Review


Part of every well-intentioned dollar you send to a war-torn, underdeveloped country is funding the sport utility vehicle of a recent college graduate and the rest is perpetuating an ethnic war that is at the source of the famine you want to help fight. Even though this is a blatant exaggeration, it is one that holds an essential truth. Although humanitarian aid brings much needed short-term relief in moments of crisis, it often does more harm than good because of its lack of realistic planning. Unfortunately, the business of aid is rarely criticized for its tragic shortcomings because of the widespread favorable public opinion it enjoys. Under the guise of charity and responsibility, humanitarian aid is often the only type of foreign intervention that public opinion easily endorses. However, the provision of humanitarian aid should not be viewed simply as a success and used to absolve the guilt of the affluent international community that provides it. On the contrary, the necessity for urgent humanitarian assistance indicates the failure to act early and prevent the tragic circumstances that often lead to crises.

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Better Late Than Never?

When it became clear in the 1980s that humanitarian assistance and development programs were not achieving their goals, international humanitarian organizations set out to evaluate the programs' effectiveness. The World Bank's 1988 Twelfth Annual Review of Project Performance Results revealed that 75 percent of all World Trade Organization (WTO) agricultural projects in sub-Saharan Africa were not achieving their objectives. Since then, much progress has been made in the field of development with initiatives that focus on sustainability and recognize the importance of grass-roots involvement, technical knowledge, and culture. However, the ill-planned financial and food assistance that contributes to the continued reliance of communities on humanitarian aid still appeals to well-meaning donors, who in their ignorance, perpetuate a cycle of dependence. Local farmers in the developing world have supplied their communities with food in different ways, such as the traditional underground foodstores used in Somalia to limit the risk of famine. Drastic factors such as extreme climatic anomalies or political upheavals destroy this balance. For example, in central Somalia in 1978, President Siad Barre's retreating troops pillaged food reserves causing widespread famine. At first, the free food provided by donor countries did save many lives, but the influx of free foreign goods soon created an economy of theft and corruption. Even when a good harvest occurred, free food continued to pour in; the unusually large supply of food depressed market prices for the farmers' produce and perpetuated the community's dependence on food aid by making it impossible for the farmers to buy more seeds and develop their lands. Such mistakes have contributed to the steady decline in per capita food production in sub-Saharan Africa and the continent's increasing reliance on imports it cannot afford. Thus, timing is crucial for effective humanitarian assistance; when urgent need is not met and food, medical, and financial assistance arrive once a famine has decimated a population, not only has the aid missed its mark, but it can have further nefarious consequences such as ruining local economies. Unfortunately, the lessons drawn from such disasters have not been applied and sufficient, yet ill-timed, humanitarian aid continues to destroy local markets in places such as Guatemala, Mozambique, and, most recently, Afghanistan.

Anything or Nothing?

Because it is often assumed that any aid is better than no aid, donor countries often waste desperately-needed funds on unnecessary goods and splurge on bureaucracies and staff. Well-intentioned doctors have sent stores of frost-bite medicine to tropical countries as well as laxatives, anti-indigestion remedies, and diet foods to the starving.

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Thanks, but No Thanks: The Other Face of International Humanitarian Aid
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