Finding a Balance between Humanitarianism and Development

The BBC ran and excellent article yesterday regarding the World Food Programme’s recent move toward ending dependency on food aid. The article asks important questions about how we can juggle our search for effective development without dependency, while at the same time protecting the most vulnerable populations.

As with most shock incidents, development aid has recently been injured by widespread drought and famine in the East and Horn of Africa regions. Like most development workers, I often ask myself,

How can we strike a balance between providing sustainable tools for long term development and at the same time provide immediate assistance to those in need?

Those of us in the West have a belief that it is our moral duty to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. Whether this is driven from some spiritual, religious, or historical motivation, it remains a strong part of our political culture. Think about the recent advances to help move money – for example the “text donations” that started with the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. We are constantly finding new and innovative ways to provide aid to those in need.

But there are two distinct types of aid. As Westerners, we also tend to be short-sighted. When disaster strikes, we are always ready to open our checkbooks and to send volunteers to help, whether at the local blood bank or thousands of miles overseas. However, when it comes to development assistance, the kind that can help people build long-term insurance against the type of shocks that require immediate action, philanthropic motivations tend to be limited to monthly donations for child sponsorship and other personally rewarding devices. Few people really care about purchasing seed for farmers in northern Kenya or developing supply chains for vegetable sellers in rural Uganda. These sorts of donations are left to bilateral, government-to-government and government-to-NGO aid.

What happens when a humanitarian emergency strikes? What impact does this have on long-term efforts for development? And once again, how do we balance these two competing yet equally important interventions? Despite decades of simultaneous development and humanitarian assistance, development experts still grapple with these questions.


2 Replies to “Finding a Balance between Humanitarianism and Development”

  1. Dear Author,
    Are you implying that the people involved in government-to-gov’t aid or Gov’t-to-NGO aid do not get some sort of personal placation? I would argue that they do. For instance, Nigerians boast all the time of having the greatest number of peace-keeping troops in ECOMOG. Finance ministers and gov’t administrators are quick to iterate that it was their regime that was responsible for saving jobs and pulling the economy back from the brink. They attribute the end results to themselves just as a monthly child sponsor may overtly boast of making a difference with their donations.
    Okay i just re-read the last paragraph and i see you attributed both types of aid as being equally important. No qualms here.

    You know, i think the monthly donor is like an aid worker in transition, looking for a means to help. The two categories are really the same person at different stages.

    I wish the BBC article had described what was involved in the long-term program because i would have appreciated its value more.

    1. Great thoughts here. I definitely agree that government workers are motivated to push for aid packages whether in the form of financial assistance or peacekeepers (PKs) because of personal motivations (whether philanthropic or political). While writing this post, I thought about going into how this sort of relationship with “government giving” parallels individuals’ choices for “personal giving”. But I was afraid this would over-simplify the complex process that goes into deciding the who, what, when, where, and how of aid allocations. While I think personal motivations of the actors involved are the center piece of government aid, there is a more complex “game” that goes into the political economy of bilateral assistance. Decisions to provide humanitarian assistance at the government level have more similarities with individual donations. I think most of these similarities remain in development aid, but are overshadowed by the intense political game that is development assistance policymaking.

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