Tagged ‘Humanitarian Aid‘

(New Book) Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism

Zero Anthropology

October 12, 2015

by Maximilian Forte



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Friends and allies, partners and protégés, extensions and proxies—the vocabulary of US power in the form of multiples of itself has become so entrenched that it rarely attracts attention, and even less so critical commentary. Force multiplication is about “leverage”: using partners and proxies in an expanding network, but where power still remains centralized. Forces are conceptualized in multi-dimensional terms. Anything in the world of cultural systems, social relationships, and material production can become force multipliers for imperialism: food security, oil, electricity, young leaders, aid, social media, NGOs, women’s rights, schoolgirls, democratization, elections, the G8, the European Union, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, AFRICOM, development, policing, borders, and epidemics, among others. This takes us to related conceptualizations of “full-spectrum dominance,” “three-dimensional warfare,” and “interoperability,” in what has become an imperial syndrome. Chapters in this volume present diverse examples of force multiplication, ranging from Plan Colombia to Bulgarian membership in NATO and the US-Israeli relationship, from the New Alliance for Food Security to charitable aid and the control of migration, to the management of secrecy.

This volume is timely on numerous fronts. The time spanning the production of this book, from late 2014 to late 2015, has witnessed several new and renewed US interventions overseas, from Ukraine to Venezuela, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and the non-withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, where a disastrous war stretches into its 14th year. On the academic front, and particularly in North American anthropology where the word “imperialism” is virtually unspeakable and the subject of deliberate or unconscious censorship, seminar participants have taken on a bold and unusual challenge.

Chapters in this volume speak directly to the alliance and coalition aspects of force multiplication, in military and economic terms. The Introduction (“Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice”) is not a mere formality, running 87 pages in length. Instead it is an in-depth exploration, using US and some British government documents, of the “science of control” as expressed in this murky concept, “force multipliers,” a concept that receives its first serious treatment in this volume. Anyone thinking of engaging in false debates of “imperialism vs. agency” or “conspiracy vs. coincidence,” ought to first read this chapter. I shall also be serializing that chapter on this site over the next days and weeks, with summarizing slides presented on Twitter and Facebook.

Chapter 1, “Protégé of an Empire: The Influence and Exchange of US and Israeli Imperialism,” by John Talbot, deals with the question of Israel as a force multiplier of US empire in the Middle East. Talbot’s research sought to uncover how the relationship between the US and Israel impacts the foreign policy and global actions of both. Furthermore, his work seeks to understand what exactly is the “special” relationship between the US and Israel. His chapter explores two prominent answers to these questions and posits his own. One answer is that there is a significant and powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US which has a grappling hold on the US Congress, media, and within universities—suggesting that these are Israel’s own “force multipliers”. The Israel lobby’s actions create ardent support for Israel’s actions and pro-Israel foreign policy even when this goes against US interests. The second position argues that the US is not being manipulated; rather it is acting according to its own imperial interests. The argument assumes Israel was, and is, in a strategic position which works to protect the US’ imperial and economic interests. Both the vast reserves of oil in the Middle East and the spread of cultural imperialism are of interest to the US empire. The chapter ends with a position that the relationship is neither one-sided nor symbiotic. The US is supporting a protégé in the realms of nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, exceptionalism, state violence, heavy militarization, the creation of a state of emergency, and empire. Israel is acting as the US itself does while relying on its support. Understanding this relationship alongside the other standpoints can help make sense of otherwise irrational actions in which each actor may engage on the global stage. Talbot’s work has added significance in that it was produced just as the Concordia Students’ Union (CSU) officially supported the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli occupation, a decision that was the product of a historic vote by a majority of Concordia undergraduate student voters, reinforcing the decisions by graduate students and other campus bodies.

In chapter 2, “The New Alliance: Gaining Ground in Africa,” Mandela Coupal Dalgleish focuses on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition which claims that it will bring 50 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. He examines the origins of the New Alliance as well as the narrative that fuels New Alliance strategies. The chapter also considers how the value chains, growth corridors and public-private partnerships are furthering the interests of corporations while causing the further impoverishment of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The relaxation and reduction of regulations and laws related to trade and ownership, which are required for African countries to participate in the New Alliance, are enabling occurrences of land grabbing, contract farming and the loss of diversity and resilience in African farming systems. This chapter is also very much related to discussions of “connected capitalism” (see the Introduction), the existence of the corporate oligarchic state at the centre of imperial power, and of course by invoking “alliance” the chapter’s contents relate to force multiplication. In this instance, force multiplication has to do with gaining productive territory and projecting power by remaking food security into something controlled by Western transnational corporations and subject to Western oversight.

In chapter 3, “Cocaine Blues: The Cost of Democratization under Plan Colombia,” Robert Majewski asks: Is the “war on drugs” in Colombia really about drugs? Majewski finds that the situation is more complex than simply a war on drugs. Instead he shows that rather than limiting actions to controlling and eradicating drug production, the US is on a imperialist quest of forging Colombia into a country able to uphold US ideals of democracy, capitalism and the free market. Through the highly militarized Plan Colombia that came to light in 2000, the US has utilized a number of mechanisms to restructure the country to its own liking. The ways in which US imperial aims are being attained are both through ideological and more direct means. Ideologically, the rule of law acts as a legal basis for the implementation of Americanized democracy. In a more direct manner, the US is training the Colombian army and employing private military security companies to carry out its objectives. As Majewski argues, the final aim is to create a secure environment for foreign capital to flourish, an environment that is even today seen as under threat by insurgent groups such as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (known by their Spanish acronym, FARC). As we see in the Introduction, the US’ cultivation of ties to the Colombian military is an excellent example of what Special Forces and US Army documents describe when speaking of force multipliers and “foreign internal defense,” allowing the US a presence by proxy inside the Colombian polity.

Chapter 4, “Bulgarian Membership in NATO and the Price of Democracy,” by Lea Marinova, examines Bulgaria’s membership in NATO—where Bulgaria now serves as one of the newer force multipliers of a force multiplying alliance that works to project US dominance. Some of the central questions raised by this chapter in examining the nature of Bulagria’s NATO membership are: What are the main arguments on the side of NATO which favour Bulgarian participation in the Alliance, and to what ends? How is Bulgaria advantaged from this allegiance? Through the examination of the Bulgarian government’s “Vision 2020” project and the participation of Bulgaria in NATO missions, it is argued that NATO is an instrumentalization of US imperialism. Through the exposition of specific socio-historical predispositions which led to that association, the link between the interests of the US in having Bulgaria as an ally by its side in the “global war on terrorism” is demonstrated. Marinova argues that it is important to produce critical investigation of organizations such as NATO, which claim to promote “democracy, freedom and equality,” because behind this discourse there is a reality of creating political and economic dependency, while public and political attention is removed from this reality as the country’s internal problems continue to escalate.

Chapter 5, “Forced Migrations: An Echo of the Structural Violence of the New Imperialism,” by Chloë Blaszkewycz, shows how borders too can be used as force multipliers, or feared as force diminishers—either way, Blaszkewycz brings to light the territoriality of the so-called new imperialism which is routinely theorized as being divorced from the territorial concerns of the old colonial form of imperialism. Her chapter explores migratory movement as being influenced by the structures supporting the new imperialism. Harsha Walia’s concept of border imperialism is used as a starting point to understand the different level of oppression and forms of violence coming from the US new imperialism. Even though scholars are less likely to talk about the territorial forms of domination in the new imperialism, when analyzing migratory movement one is confronted with the fortification of borders, both material and psychological ones. Therefore, adding the concept of the border into imperialism is paramount, Blaszkewycz argues. Border imperialism legitimizes structural, psychological, physical and social violence towards migrants through narratives of criminalization and apparati of control such as detention centres that are an extension of the prison system. In brief, in a paternalistic way the US is compelling the migration trajectory of Others and forces people to be in constant movement. Therefore this is also a significant contribution for bridging migration studies with studies of imperialism.

Chapter 6, “Humanitarian Relief vs. Humanitarian Belief,” by Iléana Gutnick, continues themes that were heavily developed in the fourth of our volumes, Good Intentions. It plays an important role in this volume for highlighting how humanitarian doctrines, NGOs, and development, are forms of foreign intervention that also serve as force multipliers for the interests of powerful states. Moreover, Gutnick argues that humanitarian aid discourse is voluntarily misleading in that it shifts the public’s focus of attention towards seemingly immediate yet irrelevant ways of coping with the world’s problems. The pursuit of development has become the basis of action for foreign intervention in all sectors. This chapter tries to present the actual causes of “poverty” in an attempt to recontextualize it within its political framework to shed light on possible solutions, if there are any.

Chapter 7, “On Secrecy, Power, and the Imperial State: Perspectives from WikiLeaks and Anthropology,” which has been written and redeveloped since 2010, focuses on the demand for secrecy that is occasioned by an imperial state relying heavily on covert operations and whose own forms of governance are increasingly beholden to the operations of a “shadow state”. This chapter is thus related to discussions of “connected capitalism” and the corporate oligarchic state discussed below. I proceed by examining how WikiLeaks understands strategies of secrecy, the dissemination of information, and state power, and how anthropology has treated issues of secret knowledge and the social conventions that govern the dissemination of that knowledge. In part, I highlight a new method of doing research on the imperial state and its force multipliers, which rests heavily on the work of anti-secrecy organizations, of which WikiLeaks is paramount.

This is the fifth volume in the New Imperialism series published by Alert Press, the first open access book publisher in anthropology and sociology. However, for the time being, this volume will be the last. As always it has been my pleasure and honour to serve as the editor for such a collection, despite the fact that this year has been particularly challenging for personal reasons. Given the costly and time-consuming nature of these endeavours, and the fact that the seminar itself is not likely to be offered for the next couple of years at least, it will be a while before readers can hope to see a new volume in this series. Until next time then, I thank the reader for taking the time to study the contents of this volume.


[Maximilian C. Forte has an educational background in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Spanish, International Relations, and Anthropology. He lived and studied for seven years in Trinidad & Tobago, for four years in Australia, and for three years in the U.S. He is a dual Italian-Canadian citizen, and had previously achieved Permanent Resident status in Trinidad & Tobago. His primary website is that of the Zero Anthropology Project.]

Haiti and the Shaming of the Aid Zealots: How Donated Billions Have INCREASED Poverty and Corruption

One car dealer sold more than 250 Toyota Land Cruisers a month at £40,000 each. ‘You see traffic jams at Friday lunchtime of all the white NGO and UN four-wheel drives heading off early to the beaches for the weekend,’ said one Irish aid worker. ‘It makes me sick.’

By Ian Birrell
27 January 2012

The Daily Mail

The first thing that strikes you is the smell: a sweet, sickly stench that sticks to your skin. It is worst in the morning, since women are terrified of risking a nocturnal trip to the handful of lavatories serving the thousands of people in the camp because of an epidemic of rape. Even the youngest girls are in danger.

I stop to chat to a young man in a green polo shirt. Ricardo Jenty says we must take care because three gunmen have just walked by on their way to settle a feud. He fears trouble; already he has seen friends shot dead.

Ricardo, 25, a father of three young children, recounts how the earthquake that hit Haiti two years ago ruined his home and wrecked his life. His makeshift tent is one of thousands crammed onto what was once a football pitch.

Elianette Derilus tucks her prematurely born new baby daughter in the top of her dress in the maternity wing on January 04, 2012 in Port-Au-Prince, HaitiElianette Derilus tucks her prematurely born new baby daughter in the top of her dress in the maternity wing on January 04, 2012 in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

‘Every day there are fights between gangs. There are so many young bloods that don’t care now. You have to avoid them — most of us don’t want any part of these things.’

Ricardo lifts the faded sheet that serves as his front door. His three-week-old baby lies asleep on the single bed that fills the family’s home, while his two-year old son screams at the back entrance.

The heat under the plastic roof is so intense his wife Roseline, 27, drips with sweat as she describes living in such hell. She looks exhausted. If she is lucky, she says, she has one meal a day, but often goes two days without food, putting salt in water to keep her going.

Since giving birth she has passed out a number of times and does not produce enough breast milk to feed her new son. She shows me a small can of condensed milk she gives him; she cannot afford the baby formula he needs.

So had they seen any of the huge sums of aid donated to alleviate such hardship? They shake their heads — just one hygiene kit from the local Red Cross. ‘I have heard about this aid but never seen it,’ says Roseline. ‘I don’t think people like us stood a chance of getting any of it.’

Two years after the Haiti quake, only 4,769 new houses have been built, and 13,578 homes repaired, while 520,000 people remain in squalid camps


Two years after the Haiti quake, only 4,769 new houses have been built, and 13,578 homes repaired, while 520,000 people remain in squalid camps

Ricardo says it makes him angry. ‘If I looked back two years ago I would never have thought I would still be here in this camp. If the aid organisations really cared about our lives, they could have done something. But how can I have hope for my future, living like this?’

The family’s story shames all those international organisations that flocked to Haiti after the earthquake two years ago, which killed an estimated 225,000 people. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters of recent years — and the world responded in sympathy. The international community claimed to have given  £6.5?billion to heal Haiti’s wounds, while donations poured in to charities.

Earlier this month, on the quake’s second anniversary, aid agencies pumped out press releases proclaiming their successes. Add up all the people they claim to have helped and the number exceeds the population of Haiti.

The reality is rather different — and shines a stark light on the assumptions, arrogance and deficiencies of the ever-growing global relief industry. As promises were broken, mistakes were made and money was wasted, prices of food and basic supplies for local people soared, sanitation deteriorated, there was less safe water to drink and well-meaning interventions made matters infinitely worse.

Somalia: Manufacturing a Famine | United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

How the crisis became a fund-raising opportunity

Rasna Warah


cc Internews Network

WFP has conducted an ‘aggressive fundraising campaign to cover the needs of south and central Somalia till the end of the year.’ But what are those needs, and who is assessing them, asks Rasna Warah.

On July 18 this year, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea tabled a report to the UN Security Council.

The report stated that United Nations agencies, international humanitarian aid organisations and local Somali non-governmental organisations had been forced to move their operations or cease them entirely in many parts of Somalia, mainly due to “an alarming void in international humanitarian aid and development assistance,” and also because of “threats from elements of Al Shabaab,” who control much of southern Somalia.

Two days later, the UN’s World Food Programme — the largest distributor of food aid to Somalia — declared that Bakool and Lower Shebelle, two regions in southern Somalia, had been hit by the worst famine in 20 years.

The UN agency further claimed that 3.7 million people across the country — almost half the total Somali population – were in danger of starving, of which 2.8 million were in the south.

This declaration led to a massive multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign by UN and international humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, journalists began referring to the famine as a “biblical event.” By September, Time magazine was reporting that the famine had expanded and that a full 12.4 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda were at risk from hunger.

The magazine also stated that in southern Somalia, 63 per cent of the population was either starving or at risk of it.

These figures did not convince many Somali analysts, including Ahmed Jama, a Nairobi-based agricultural economist and former consultant with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

“I was disturbed by the WFP announcement because Lower Shebelle is Somalia’s breadbasket and had even experienced a bumper harvest last year,” he told this writer.

UN agencies, including WFP, use an Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) scale developed by the FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) to determine levels of food insecurity, which range from “generally food secure” to “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.”

IPC uses a number of indicators to pronounce a famine: Acute malnutrition in more than 30 per cent of children; two deaths per 10,000 people daily; a pandemic illness; access to less than four litres of water and 2,100 kilocalories of food a day; large scale displacement; civil strife; and complete loss of assets and income.

Jama says that the IPC scale is too broad to be useful because it could apply to virtually every African country, where malnutrition and poverty levels are generally high.

“In the case of Somalia, the timing of the UN’s famine appeal appeared suspect, as it coincided with the beginning of the peak harvest season in July and the start of the short rains, known as Deyr, in September,” he adds. “And this is not the first time that a famine has been declared. It seems that in the past 20 years, Somalia has been in a permanent state of crisis, instead of moving towards development despite the myriad development agencies operating in the country.”


“Historically, people from Bay and Bakool move to Lower Shebelle during a drought and go back during the short rainy season between August and September,” says Jama. “So, even if there are people who face starvation in food insecure areas, their migration to Lower Shebelle is usually temporary, and does not warrant a declaration of famine.”

Luca Alivoni, the head of FAO-Somalia insists, however, that the food crisis in southern Somalia affected farmers more than pastoralists in the north because farmers tend to stay on their farms “to protect their crops”, whereas pastoralists migrate with their animals to areas where there is pasture.

“Farmers cannot move with their land, so when there is a famine, they face starvation,” he says. “And that is why Lower Shebelle was so affected.”

But was there really widespread famine, or were the famine figures exaggerated or misinterpreted? FSNAU’s estimates for Somali populations “in crisis” in the period August-September 2011 were highest in the most fertile southern parts of Somalia, and were highest in those areas controlled by Al Shabaab.

Significantly, there were only 490,000 people (less than one-eighth of Nairobi’s population) in Somalia who were experiencing what the IPC classifies as “famine” or a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

In fact, about half of the nearly four million people that the WFP claims are starving are actually experiencing what is known as a “humanitarian emergency”; the rest are in an “acute food and livelihood crisis.”

Therefore, I think the widely reported “famine” in Somalia is highly exaggerated. What Somalia is experiencing is generalised food insecurity, not widespread famine. Unfortunately, most media organisations have failed to mention or comprehend this fact.

Is it possible that the “famine” in Somalia was “manufactured” to raise funds? The sequence of events leading to the famine appeal certainly raises suspicions. According to Jama, the timing of the famine declaration in July was probably a response to the shortfall of funds that WFP has recently been experiencing and also to divert attention from the criticism that the UN agency was subjected to after the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia released its 2010 report in March last year.

Then, WFP was castigated by the UN Monitoring Group for colluding with corrupt Somali contractors who are known to sell or divert food aid. Sources interviewed by the Monitoring Group — an entity mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor arms embargo violations in Somalia — estimated that up to half of the food aid reaching Somalia was regularly diverted, not just by Somali transport contractors, but by WFP personnel and NGOs operating in Somalia. That 2010 report led some donors, notably the US, to withdraw funding to WFP’s operations in Somalia.

However, the European Commission is one of the major donors that has continued to support the UN’s efforts in Somalia since 1995.

The EC has been providing core funding to various projects to enhance food security in Somalia, which are implemented by various UN agencies and international NGOs, including FAO. Currently, the EC has committed a total of 175 million euros to various programmes and projects throughout Somalia that deal with governance, security, health and education. In Lower Shebelle, the bulk of the EC’s assistance goes towards rural development and food security projects, mainly for irrigation rehabilitation and crop diversification. The share of rural development and food security projects receiving EC funding is also high in the Middle Shabelle region, where almost half the EC funding goes towards these projects.

Given the high level of EC investment towards rural development and food security in the past 15 years, it is paradoxical that southern Somalia should continuously suffer from acute food insecurity. Georges-Marc André, the European Union representative to Somalia, told this writer that this could be due to the fact that the full impact of EC investments have not yet been realised in Somalia. Besides, he adds, much of the agriculture in Somalia is rain-fed and poor rains last year could have contributed to the famine this year.

Alivoni, on the other hand, blames lack of sufficient investments in Somalia’s agricultural sector. He says that while the EC funding is welcome, it is just a drop in the ocean, and a lot more funds need to be devoted to agriculture to prevent another famine.

Jama, who has studied EC-funded rural development projects in Somalia, finds these arguments weak, considering that much of the EC funding is ostensibly used to rehabilitate irrigation infrastructure and to improve the capacity of farming communities. “Clearly, there is a mismatch between the resources made available by the EC to UN agencies such as FAO and the dismal picture emerging from what are generally considered the most agriculturally productive regions of southern Somalia,” he says.

“How is it possible that millions of euros of investment could not avert a famine in those regions?”

Assessment and monitoring of project success or failure is further complicated by the fact that the EC is not in a position to evaluate projects it funds in Somalia; that job falls on the implementing agencies. According to André, “The EC is not entitled to do external audits of the UN agencies that it funds,” thanks to a 2003 Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FIFA) that permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”.

In essence, this means that the UN agencies that the EC funds monitor and evaluate their own projects, without recourse to an external auditor or evaluator. And because the EC is a donor, and not the implementer of projects, it largely relies on the UN to provide it with the data and performance reports on projects that it funds. This is problematic, because it means that the UN agencies can easily manipulate the data and the reports to suit their own agendas, needs and funding requirements.


The EU representative to Somalia, however, cautiously admits that the EC is concerned that its efforts in Somalia are being hampered by UN agencies that are flooding Mogadishu with food aid. In an environment where free food is readily available, he explains, farmers do not get value for their produce, which suppresses food production.

Agencies also often work at cross-purposes, with the lack of co-ordination meaning the work of one agency could in effect cancel out the work of another. André says that UN agencies such as WFP and UNDP could actually have “slowed down” Somalia’s recovery by focusing exclusively on food aid, instead of supporting local farmers and markets.

Phillippe Royan, a technical adviser to the EC’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), says that a number of donor agencies are also beginning to question WFP’s ability to deliver food aid in all regions of Somalia. “It seems that most of the food aid is concentrated in Mogadishu and does not extend beyond Gaalkacyo (in central Somalia),” he notes.

“This means that affected populations have to walk long distances to reach the food, which carries other hazards. For instance, they could die on the way or be raped. ”

WFP has conducted a very aggressive fundraising campaign to cover the needs of south and central Somalia till the end of the year, says Royan. But what are those needs, and who is assessing them?

According to Royan, FSNAU — which is funded by the EC, and partly by USAid, the Italian government and WFP — is the only setup that provides data on food insecurity in Somalia. Almost every humanitarian organisation relies on its data to assess malnutrition and famine levels in the country. However, given the fact that almost a third of Somalia is “governed” by Al Shabaab, which has banned most UN agencies from operating in areas that it controls, the question arises how FSNAU managed to get so much detailed information on regions such as Bakool and Lower Shebelle, which are Al Shabaab strongholds.

Grainne Moloney, FSNAU’s chief technical advisor, says that her unit’s nutrition surveillance project has 32 full-time Somali field staff and a part-time enumerator network of some 120 people all over Somalia who gather data and do surveys on food security and nutrition.

“There is a common perception that (aid) agencies don’t operate in the Al Shabaab-controlled areas,” she says, “but many agencies work well and quietly in those areas. However, most agencies do not publicise their presence for security reasons.”

What is surprising in the case of Somalia is that the FAO does not see the contradiction between implementing multimillion-euro rural development and food security projects in southern Somalia and at the same time declaring those regions as food insecure. If the projects had been successful, there might not have been a food crisis in the country — with or without Al Shabaab. And if they were not successful, then are the EC funds not wasted in Somalia?

The FAO-managed FSNAU says that the latest crisis in Somalia is due to the failure of the Deyr rainy season last year and poor performance of the long Gu rainy season from April to June this year, which resulted in the worst crop production in 17 years.

The question we might ask is: Why are Somali farmers still relying on the rains when EC and other donors have contributed millions towards irrigation rehabilitation projects?

It is possible these projects were not successful – that most of the funds went to administrative overheads or were mismanaged by project implementation agencies.

Whatever the case, the crisis in Somalia should prompt a rethink at every level of the aid effort.


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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