As a catastrophe-based project, humanitarian aid in post-conflict settings is a tactful, transnational pursuit. To justify humanitarian impulses, I have heard many invoke racist images of downtrodden shantytowns of the Global South in crisis, reaching at the charitable hands of the White Savior, only to disguise this structural inscription of Orientalism as “philanthropy.”
I, myself, have grappled with the politics of humanitarianism and international aid, and while ostensibly it is a commitment to human development across geopolitics, I wonder how it may reinforce a reliance on Western markets, effectively undercutting local industries through the monetization of American goods. And on a more interpersonal level, how may it encourage a projection of the Western logos, effectively undercutting the potential of local strengths and capacities?
If we expand the dynamics of these oppressive idiosyncrasies to include all places in crisis, how do we determine who is given priority, i.e. who is able to induce a more “urgent” state of emergency?
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs implemented a specialized digital service, ReliefWeb, to serve as a resource to document global crises and disasters. ReliefWeb lists over 3,000 participating organizations (both governmental and nongovernmental), from 305.org to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society.
Some time ago, I would have looked at this figure and invoked Derek Gregory, who calls humanitarian aid the “velvet glove wrapped around the iron fist of colonialism.” If the practice of humanitarianism emerged in a Christian and Western ethos, per Gregory, how would a robust aid network of this magnitude reconcile humanitarian impulses and the legacy of colonialism?
In my efforts to problematize humanitarianism, historicity places a critical role in examining the foreign aid paradox. In regions where colonial etchings are still embedded within local psyches, most notably countries in the African region, humanitarian aid can be envisioned as an extension of the imperial hand, reinforcing the notion that there is one solution to development, one means of relief, one standard to rebuild a fractured state.
I looked at a case study to further understand these implications.
The U.S. African Development Foundation is an independent U.S. federal agency that works with African communities to cultivate community enterprises by providing seed capital and technical support. It targets communities in fragile states, typically post-conflict sites, throughout the Sahel, Horn, and the Great Lakes region.
“By serving communities at the start of the development pyramid, we identify and target Africans who need various levels of support, and use our targeted and patient capital to ensure a complete financial, technical and grassroots approach to their success,” the USADF website reads.
“Targeted and patient capital,” of course, is expressed as monetary grants. The USADF invests in grants of up to $250,000 to underserved community enterprises to sustain job markets, improve income, and alleviate food insecurity.
However, in the teleology out of the armed conflict, post-conflict sites have especially fragile security apparatuses, nascent economic systems, and weak political institutionalism. These vulnerabilities make the state especially susceptible to and dependent upon foreign influence. Assets as innocent as “targeted and patient capital” could have serious repercussions for the longevity and sustainability of state infrastructure.
In her book “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace Or War,” Mary Anderson challenges aid providers in war-torn societies. She mentions the problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the aftermath of the Dayton Peace Agreement. As convoys halted, local drivers delivered imported food and supplies to civilians across the country. While superficially a “peacetime” occupation, this aid system is underpinned by the “wartime” experience.
“Driving the aid convoys during the war was dangerous, but this seems like nothing next to the dangers of peace,” one driver reports, per Anderson. “Not only my immediate family but also my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins depend on my income. I almost dread this peace and wish for war again.”
“War distorts economies,” Anderson opens in her chapter on aid’s impact in resource transfers. This could be by unintentionally reinforcing the conflict at hand by promoting war economy markets and reinforcing local interests to perpetuate it. In the event that aid takes the form of material items and goods, like in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it can inadvertently support militarization efforts because an industry emerges around that product.
Within this industry, profits and wages must be allocated to local peoples, which undermines the emphasis on local peoples to sustain their own facilities and goods when the aid agency leaves. This creates a system of dependency on the aid agency to bolster local economies solely as a war-related enterprise. In essence, state viability and efficacy is understood solely as a function of its “post-war” status.
The USADF provides programming safeguards to ameliorate these unintended consequences. Firstly, it establishes itself as the “first mile of development,” reinforcing the stance that they are not the telos, but just one point in the teleology of state development. Secondly, they are exclusively “demand driven,” operating solely upon request, and “African-led,” providing financial support and setting internal audits for specialized projects.
Foreign aid agencies should adjust their programming efforts to empower local groups to build their own industries. This means that in order to ensure sustainable peace outside of the war context, recipient countries should be able to sustain economic activities in the agency’s absence by relying on local capacities and what resources are directly available to them.
Similarly, a strategic emphasis on technical assistance over material resource aid could also be more sustainable. For example, in the case of the driver in Bosnia and Herzegovina, aid was a disruption, distorting the normative means of local help systems and imposing a “dangerous” alternative to the war-time scenario that makes peacetime unfavorable.
It is important to be critical of humanitarian aid projects, especially when facilitated by foreign actors, to reimagine state membership as global citizens. Peace can be engineered, but a central feature of international aid should be influence building to find consonance between belief and practice — for foreign agencies to be transparent about interests, vigilantly demonstrate their neutrality, and denaturalize their infatuation with global leadership.
However, this is not meant to discredit the contributions governmental and nongovernmnetal organizations have taken to provide in the post-conflict setting — I pose a formalized rejection of professionalized humanitarian practices that discount the public artworks of local communities; I challenge the standardization of relief aid that assume an “apolitical” edge. Ahistoricization of this sort assigns legitimacy to certain narratives and denigrates that of the alterity.