Humanitarian Aid 101: #1 – Aid cannot and will not fix anything

If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this:

Lesson #1. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

One of the most important lessons that we’ve never really learned is that, in fact, aid does not fix anything. This is most likely a difficult one for you to wrap your head around. It certainly was for me, and I only managed it after of several years in the humanitarian aid world. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

You wouldn’t know this from reading NGO promotional material. Actually, I would say that in general it is probably not a good idea to try to learn about or understand humanitarian work by reading stuff published by NGOs, because NGOs, for a long list of complicated reasons that I won’t go into right now, have very little (basically zero) motivation for telling anyone this particular truth. This particular truth being, specifically, that they cannot fix poverty. NGOs cannot eradicate hunger. NGOs cannot stop human trafficking. NGOs cannot and will not transform communities, empower the marginalized, stop climate change, or educate the global illiterate…

It is important to understand that this is true whether we’re talking about socially conscious grad students starting causes on Facebook (maybe working on an online degree in public administration?), a small new-kid-on-the-aid-block NGO whose marketing shtick is that they “cut through the red tape and get it done”, or a huge global household charity with a gazillion dollars in annual revenue, massive programs and a long list of impressively titled publications. Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

We (inside the industry) have allowed ourselves believe and then sold to our constituents (our donors, those outside the industry…) a fiction about what we can actually do. Although we rarely say it directly in so many words, the implication is clear: To hear us tell it, you would think that we can fix anything. And we’ve sold this fiction so well that now when we fail to fix things, it comes back to bite us. The media gets mad. Ordinary citizens get mad. We get cynical and disillusioned.

We’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid, we believe our own propaganda, and then when the harsh reality sets in and it’s disconcerting. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that our structures and our systems, our warehouses and our team houses, our fleets of white SUVs and our armies of volunteers will “fix” Tsunamiland or post-Katrina Louisiana or Port-au-Prince. We look at our own annual reports and those numbers look really big. Our annual budget number, the numbers of “beneficiaries”, the numbers of NFI kits distributed or MT of food handed out, the number of mothers who give birth with the help of a trained midwife or the number of pairs of shoes sent overseas feel really… well, significant. We begin to feel as if we can do more than we actually can, and we believe that we have done more than we actually have.

But despite the best efforts of an aid industry that grows daily, despite more and more effort by more and more people, and despite the ever better application of even better science – be that social, environmental, political or economic science – poverty, hunger, abuse, disenfranchisement… all the ills of the world also grow at even faster rates.

Aid cannot and will not fix anything.

I don’t mean any of this to sound like I think that aid doesn’t matter. It does.

But over the past two decades I have become convinced that we come to the aid enterprise with too great a sense of self-assurance, with a quantity and quality of confidence not yet rightly earned. Aid cannot and will not fix anything. As humanitarian aid and development workers, we are struggling against forces – economic forces, political forces, social forces – more vast and deep and far reaching than the vast majority of us are aware.

It is hard and uncomfortable, but we have to keep in realistic perspective what we actually can and do bring, and scale our rhetoric – both internal and external – to match. We bring drops of relief in oceans of human suffering. Far too often we simply put band-aids on malignant tumors. And no amount of passion or “getting back to the basics” or being accountable will change that.

And so, while on one hand I understand and even applaud the energetic, entrepreneurial, Obama-innagural-address-esque “Yes we can!” sentiments of both passionate apologetics, and also the strident, scathing critics of the aid industry alike, it is important to have realistic expectations of what aid can actually accomplish.

Aid is a good thing to do. I fervently believe that. Aid matters. Aid makes a difference. But if you have delusions of grandeur or even delusions of something less than grandeur, understand this: Aid will not fix anything. Aid is “a measure of humanity, always insufficient…” Aid makes incremental, fragile progress, often at great expense. This is not a call for self-flagellation or self-deprecation, but rather a call for confident humility.

Aid chips away at the stone.

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