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The Market of Pain: Corruption & Fetishized Altruism in International Aid

Critical investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa

December 4, 2017

By: Emeizmi Mandagi, University of California – Irvine

 

United Nations website: “In Malawi, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson spotlights efforts to end child marriage.” [Source]

The University of California’s Global Peace and Conflict Studies Colloquium Series recently hosted UC Irvine’s Visiting Researcher Dr. Maria D. Bermudez on November 9, 2017 for a lunch colloquium. Drawing on over 16 years of experience working with international organizations including the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dr. Bermudez  argued that within international and non-governmental aid organization, there is a fundamental form of corruption due to the culture of impunity in these organizations and in the market of “fetishized altruism.” While corruption in international aid is classically focused on corrupt acts by international workers for private or personal gain, Dr. Bermudez asserted that in fact there is a more fundamental form of corruption in international aid that involves inaccurate descriptions of realities and results for the purpose of demonstrating efficiency, effectiveness, and ultimately gaining leverage in the competitive market of donors and funds.

“The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)” Judge, 1 Nisan 1899, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Dr. Bermudez opened her talk stating that the United Nation’s budget for international aid in conflict areas is 40 times higher today than it was in 1950. However, the issue is not necessarily the quantity of money but rather the type of money that is coming in today. Dr. Bermudez emphasized that there is a stark difference between approved core funding, and the real expenditure provided by voluntary contributions from private and corporate donors, foundations, and member states. The allocation of this budget is therefore based on what the members of the donor organization desires. This is in line with a critique covered earlier this year by the CIHA blog on “Culture in Aidland,” a talk by Mark Schuller who highlighted that the current reward system is not designed to hold agencies accountable to the recipients of aid, but rather to the donors. Similarly, Dr. Bermudez mentioned that in 2014 alone, 151 countries received more than $127 billion USD of Official Development Assistance (ODA), but such exorbitant amounts of money are difficult to track and understand how the money is achieving desired results (and who is deciding what are the desired results!).

Dr. Bermudez offered the UN as a case study, which she argued is an organization that supports a culture of impunity. As a committee that reports to itself, the structure of the UN is problematic because, despite its best intentions, the organization and its members can easily engage in abuse, corruption, and secrecy as they are usually shielded by diplomatic immunity. There is little to no accountability of members, nor is there proper follow-up on investigations despite the implementation of the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) Reports. Instead, the status quo established at inception in 1946 continues to be upheld.

Dr. Bermudez further explained that in the field of international aid, there is a market of “fetishized altruism.” She explained that individuals are drawn to the altruistic and heavily idealized concept of “helping” – for example, helping Africans to get access to clean water by building wells, or advocating for the end of female genital mutilation. International aid agencies adopt particular programmatic goals and approaches informed by such moral justification to “help”. However, this results in an unlimited proliferation of international aid actors. This raises the question of who provides oversight on these aid actors and ensures they do not cause more damage than good. Additionally, who ensures that these aid actors are properly trained and prepared? With such a high number of available aid actors, there is an increasing need for training that informs aid actors of the local cultural customs, social norms, current political environment, and the necessary historical context and background. Such training usually requires a deep commitment to a particular location which is often not the scope and structure of international humanitarian work where scale and global reach are valued. At CIHA Blog, we seek to provide humanitarian actors, scholars and students who work on the African continent with a source of information and resources that can help ground their work and efforts in local contexts and histories.

Dr. Bermudez argued that the inherent structure of international aid organizations itself creates a “market of pain” in its attempts to aid communities. For instance, organizations face the double client dilemma when they compete for aid, because organizations have to meet the demands and expectations of donors rather than the needs of those they supposedly serve. Dr. Bermudez concluded by stating that there is a strong need for monitoring the results of international aid projects rather than focusing on manufacturing data and reports to stay relevant in the international aid sector. She held that there needs to be a shift in what is expected of international aid organizations regarding accountability for corruption, adequate training of international aid actors, a focus on the respective communities receiving aid as opposed to a focus on donors, and the types of solutions and projects implemented.

 

[Maria D. Bermudez is a visiting researcher at UCI. She holds a PhD in International Relations by SciencesPo, Paris, France and brings 16 years of experience working with international cooperation in the field of Human Movements, Forced Migration and Refugees, Human Rights, Post-conflict Institution Building and Rule of Law, in more than 20 conflict or post-conflict countries, for different organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), or the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).]

[Emeizmi Mandagi is an Irvine Intern at the University of California.]