New Internationalist

Mea Culpa Run Riot

Issue 285

Soap from Sister Ursula: but taboo for 'development'.
photo by Maggie Black
Mea culpa run riot
Maggie Black crosses swords with the ‘developmenteers’.

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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.

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 unsustainability 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 passé. 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. Its motivation was internationalist: an extension of the notion of assisting the helpless and needy to embrace the whole family of humankind.

But then came the era of ‘development’. Resources and technology from the rich countries were to be transferred to the poor via ‘aid’ in a Marshall Plan-type effort to enable them to ‘catch up’. This was not charity: it was something much grander. It was about economic growth, social justice, terms of trade, the welfare state writ large. It was not about helping leprosy sufferers, orphans, the halt, the blind and the lame.

The developmenteers were very keen on a Chinese proverb which encapsulated what they were about: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.’ How simplistic can you get? Why did anyone think he didn’t know how to fish already? It was much more likely that fish stocks were exhausted or the river polluted; that other fishermen with larger boats were stealing the catch; that someone else had claimed the waterways, or the market for cod had collapsed. It might actually have been better to feed the man for a while until the river was cleaned up and re-stocked or alternative jobs in manufacturing or service industries were created. Meanwhile, often as not, he accepted the idiotic fishing instruction and then took off for town.

Oh dear. So many misconceived projects with inconclusive, even negative, outcomes. So what is lambasted? There can’t be anything wrong with development itself other than it needs a bit of re-defining. So it must be the mechanism – aid – which is at fault.

Having had a bad press from the developmenteers for a long time, humanitarian aid has recently enjoyed a renaissance. In 1984-85, the famine in Ethiopia – partly thanks to the television age – produced an outbreak of compassionate fever, stoked by Bob Geldof and Band-Aid. Almost all the major overseas aid charities, and a rash of new little ones, found their income soaring to unprecedented heights. Not for ‘development’, you notice, although this awkwardness was usually glossed over.

And although the emergencies of the late 1980s and 1990s tended to be murky affairs, their causes rooted in human rather than natural agents, their suffering caused by armed conflict rather than the weather, the flow of generosity was not impaired.

And it has been needed. Emergencies have recently multiplied and spread, becoming more brutal and sweeping whole populations into their maw. In Somalia, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda; in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya; among Mexican Indians, Marsh Arabs and Kurds; and now in Burundi.

The new world disorder has placed immense strains on the machinery of international compassion. Because today’s wars are no longer skirmishes within the framework of superpower confrontation, other countries do not expend resources keeping them under control. Often, the only response the Western world is willing to offer is a humanitarian response. Troops go in under a UN flag, not to fight but to deliver aid. Suddenly, humanitarian activity is not soft and do-gooding; it is deeply difficult, fraught with danger and political complexity.

It is also expensive, and it is siphoning away resources for that much more important thing – development. The amount of official development assistance allocated to humanitarian aid by OECD countries rose from less than $500 million in 1980 to more than $3,500 million in 1993.1 Agencies which normally focus on development see increasing proportions of their funds haemorrhaging into ‘the bottomless pit’. UNICEF expenditure on emergencies, for example, has gone up from ten per cent of its programme in the 1980s to more than twenty per cent in the 1990s.2 This can’t be helped, however much the developmenteers and efficiency wizards complain. Such organizations were invented to respond to humanity in distress. To ignore their worst hour of need would be a betrayal, and inexplicable to the donating public.

At the same time, in failed or limping economies of countries burdened by debt and structural adjustment, whatever fragile safety-nets were put in place in the modern era have been abruptly stripped away. Health and social-services budgets are shrinking. Classrooms are falling down. And charges for drugs and treatments are being introduced to avoid that dreadful blight, the dependency culture. Everywhere in the world, caring services are being turned over to the private sector. In many places in all kinds of countries, it is people like Ursula Sharpe and the Ugandan sisters who are trying desperately to plug the gap.

There is nothing wrong with humanitarian aid. And it is certainly not a second-class affair. When so many people in so many countries are enduring emergencies, upheavals, calamities, premature death from aids, and an indigence forced upon them by bad ‘development’, all I can say is the more humanitarian aid the better. If some of it goes for longer-term and rehabilitation purposes, I am sure nobody will object. If it helps to call such purposes ‘developmental’, then that’s fine too.

Hardened development tourist as I am, occasionally something touches me deeply. I recently visited Ho Chi Minh City. On the banks of the Saigon River are families living in excruciating poverty. Their shacks jut out over the mud-banks on stilts, with the poorest and flimsiest far out in the stream, liable to be washed away. At the end of a hair-raising cat-walk I entered a one-room dwelling. The woman who lived there owned nothing except a bundle of rags. She had a daughter who had borne two children, one still a baby, from different men. This daughter had not been able to settle down. So she had gone, leaving her children with her mother, ‘to try her fortune elsewhere’. Where this was, no-one knew.

Would it be OK, I asked the social workers I was with, if I gave the woman something? Yes it would. I turned my back to grope in my bag for a handful of dollars. When I turned round and gave them to her, the woman burst into tears. Upon which I also burst into tears. Across the gulf of culture, language and privilege, through the complexity of our several emotions, there was a momentary bond of complete human solidarity. When I left the community an hour later, she was waiting on the path dry-eyed, with the baby on her hip and a smile of mute farewell.

When I look back and think of that woman, I don’t regret damaging her coping mechanism. What I regret is that I, and the world, didn’t give her a great deal more.

Maggie Black is a writer on social development affairs. Her latest book, Children First, the story of UNICEF past and present, was published in August 1996 by Oxford University Press.

1 Aid under Fire: relief and development in an unstable world, UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, UN, Geneva, 1995.
2 John Richardson, Review of UNICEF’s Emergency Relief Operations, UNICEF, New York, 1995.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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