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The parallax view of the humanitarian world

By Willem van de Put
on February 23, 2018

Decent people are outraged about the behavior of aid workers in Haiti some seven years ago. Of course, this is triggered by a deeper sentiment – the unease we all have about the state of affairs in the world. In a western world beleaguered by identity crises, climate change, refugees and new values, a scandal in the humanitarian world helps to show off our capacity for selective morality. It works in two directions: never mind the abuse in the worlds of businessmen and UN peacekeepers, we are outraged because our idealized aid workers are having sex parties not paid for by private or ordinary tax money, but by our donations, our charity!

Is this reaction itself another chapter in the series on ‘poverty porn’ that started almost four decades ago? True, not much has changed in the parallax world of international emergency aid. It is parallax because it has not changed its outlook on a world that changes all the time. The same type of advertisements keep being used, not only Oxfam but also Save the Children joins the ranks of NGOs with apologizing chiefs, while the modus operandi of sending ‘expatriate specialists’ to do what local people apparently are not deemed capable of, keeps throwing up colonial connotations of the white man’s burden.

Whether or not the critique is an example of selective morality, the fact is that the humanitarian world needs to change fast if it wants to remain part of the solution, and not cause more problems. The humanitarian system is broken for many reasons, and repairs are suggested. Prof Spiegel recommends among other things, integrating the people whose lives are affected, in aid delivery and the rebuilding national health systems, (by addressing the humanitarian–development nexus), as well as redesigning leadership and coordination mechanisms. He also advises making interventions efficient, effective, and sustainable. We tried to find evidence for effective interventions, but found it difficult to achieve our goal, and one of the reasons was that we could hardly find the local voice in the extensive literature review we did on coordination and health systems strengthening in fragile settings.

Local voices are the ones who should in the end legitimize the efforts being made by NGOs and all other stakeholders in the relief sector, but they seem to be among those who are ‘expulsed’, as Saskia Sassen formulates it. “Imagine, if you will, those people that reside at the edge of a system (not necessarily a geographical edge). Exclusion would be the prevention of people outside of that system entering it. Expulsion, however, is the act of those already within the system being ejected from it, and finding themselves on the other side of the line.” That is what is going on in these settings of inequality: refugees are not seen as equals, and are denied the right to be in charge. People are expulsed – even from their own agency. Sexual abuse is a symptom: we know that sexual abuse is about power more than it is about sex.

Bottom line for me in this unsavory Oxfam story: NGOs need to stop being on the ‘expulsing’ side of the line. Serving refugees whose identity, dignity and agency is respected should be done by handing over control to them. It is no longer acceptable to put expatriates in positions where they cannot be expected to deal with the obscene inequality in power. Include migrants and refugees in the design, implementation, management and accounting of relief work. Excuses of capability and corruption do not fly anymore – and have probably never done. The ‘humanitarian world’ needs to wake up from its parallel reality, its slumber of neutral, impartial and independent “splendid isolation” – wake up and adapt to the realities of different value systems, political realities, growing remittance flows and real people.

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