Magazine article New Internationalist

Mea Culpa Run Riot. Though Aid May Be a Huge and Complex Industry Its Function Is to Respond to Moral Imperatives. If We Forget the Humanitarian Impulse, We Quickly Lose Sight of the Objective

Magazine article New Internationalist

Mea Culpa Run Riot. Though Aid May Be a Huge and Complex Industry Its Function Is to Respond to Moral Imperatives. If We Forget the Humanitarian Impulse, We Quickly Lose Sight of the Objective

Article excerpt

Mea culpa run riot

ON the terrace of an old tea - planter's bungalow in Kampala, I had one of those conversations about aid which sticks in the mind, and in the gullet, for a long time after. This was a few years ago and I was looking at the impact of AIDS on family life in Africa - at that stage in the epidemic, a phenomenon barely yet noticed.

I had spent a day in the company of a remarkable Irish Sister, Ursula Sharpe, and her team of Ugandan nurses and social workers. We had visited a rural school, where children orphaned by AIDS and their carers had congregated from all over the neighbourhood for a get - together and counselling. We had sung and danced in traditional African style, eaten a meal they had prepared, shared experiences in small groups and given out long bars of soap, blankets and school uniforms to the children. It had been both a gladdening and an intensely moving day, and I recounted it to a representative of a Scandinavian children's aid organization.

I was outraged by her reaction. She didn't approve of handing out bars of soap and blankets to the children. She unfairly latched on to the fact that the head of the programme was an expatriate Irish nun, who had in practice stayed as much in the background as possible. Oh, my friend said in tones of politically - correct superiority, we don't believe in hand - outs or charitable actions by white philanthropists. Outsiders with their old - fashioned ideas and irrelevant responses only succeed in disrupting local coping mechanisms.

In vain did I point out that Christian nuns were long part of the social landscape in Uganda and that not they but AIDS was the intruder. The traditional coping mechanism - the extended African family - was unable to cope with AIDS. That was the whole point.

Where, I asked in tones of fury in this delightful frangipani - scented setting, is the culture in which it is taboo to provide a gift to children who will otherwise shiver in the chill of night, who will otherwise have no clothes to wear to school?

Here, it seemed to me, was an example of the absurd extremes to which aid and development theorists can take the thesis that humanitarian assistance is highly deficient. It is damned every which way, even by those whose programme resources and professional careers depend on fundraising policies which deliberately capitalize on human compassion.

In this exercise, mea culpa runs riot. Humanitarian aid is motivationally suspect, ascribed to paternalism, surrogate power mania or middle - class guilt. Its impact is suspect: it creates a dependency culture and destroys coping mechanisms. Its unsustain - ability is suspect; resources spent this way are poured wastefully into a 'bottomless pit'. It is also attacked for maintaining inequities and postponing the glorious birth of the socialist state - although that song is less frequently sung these days. And in the contagion of conflict which at present characterizes the new world order, it is even fashionable to accuse humanitarian aid of prolonging wars. Soon someone will accuse it of starting one.

Where have such distortions come from and why do intelligent people believe them?

Leaving aside the Marxist critique and the mea culpaists, I put the blame squarely on the developmenteers. It is they, with their desire to be doing something more macho and important with their aid than mere philanthropy, who made the word 'humanitarian' into something soft, suspect and passe. They implied that aid provided under the humanitarian banner was an inferior affair, carried on by naive do - gooders who cannot see past the brims of their solar topees or the cuffs of their sisterly habits.

By the developmenteers, I mean those campaigners who took up the cudgels some decades back on behalf of the ex - colonial world and declared war on its hunger and poverty. Before they came on the scene, overseas charity was directed at refugees, the disaster - stricken and the afflicted and indigent in places where there were no social safety - nets. …

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