Just when I despair that decades of intellectual work on development have fallen on deaf ears, comes stuff like this

Practitioners and academics have learned so much, and yet the governments, publics, and agencies fail to change. Or so my despondent self sometimes feels.

Then I read things like this: two new leaders of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, writing in Foreign Affairs on how the aid system needs to change. IRC is not quite belly of the beast as, say, middle management at USAID. But still.

Here is where I disclose that I’m married to an executive at IRC (who is neither Miliband nor Gurumuthy). Nonetheless, I think their wish list is objectively superb:

  • Focus on more effective aid not more aid
  • Pay less attention to the poor, stable and thus growing places, and more attention to the unstable places that are running in the opposite direction
  • Recognize that panaceas like microfinance did nearly zip for poverty, and we were fooled for 20 years until some finally did the hard research
  • Enough already, just give the poor cash
  • Cash alone is not enough—important goals like rapid disaster relief and the last mile of vaccination need innovations in effective systems and delivery, not more money
  • Donors should not fund interventions without evidence unless they are also investing in building that evidence

It’s kind of amazing that “be more efficient”, “stop doing things that don’t work” and “do the things that do work” are all revolutionary statements in aid. Good for them for finally pushing this.

I will push back at Miliband and Gurumurthy in one place, though. It comes down to what I see as a humanitarian blind spot: the perverse incentives they help create, and the silence on the crimes that result.

Ten years ago I was living in northern Uganda in the waning days of the war. To fight the insurgency, the government forced the entire rural population of the war zone, nearly two million people, into what were essentially concentration camps.

The humanitarian system fed and clothed those people for years. Most of the aid workers  there at the time (and also researchers like me) never stepped back to think about their role in the conflict. With the best of intentions, NGOs like the IRC naively underwrote the Ugandan government’s war crime of mass forced relocation. The government never could have committed it without the UN and NGOs ensuring millions stayed alive. The same could be said of many other refugee camps on the planet today.

The humanitarian system works better than ever before. What I want us to consider is that the growing number of refugees is partly a consequence of that success.

Personally, I doubt this is because oppressed people think fleeing is more attractive than ever. Once they’ve fled, they might say “since I’m not dying of hunger here, maybe I’ll stay”. But this is not what worries me.

What worries me are the merciless and calculating Presidents and warlords who realize that they can clear a countryside, or cleanse their region of people they dislike, and NGOs will give the persecuted cash transfers to stay away. For decades. Without making a big stink.

I don’t think NGOs should withhold humanitarian assistance when they think they’re being used and abused. But I would like to see more self-awareness and deep, existential discussions about what to do.

To go back to northern Uganda, I would have like to see the international community realize how the government was using them, and speak out. Instead humanitarians were docile, donors reward the government with more foreign aid than ever, and the International Criminal Court indicted the government’s enemies while deliberately avoiding investigation of the Ugandan army.

Altogether pretty shameful. And these kinds of shameful cases persist today. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, a virtual prison to hundreds of thousands of Somalis for decades, is one example.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see humanitarian leaders supporting technical advances like research, cost-effectiveness, and cash. Of course I am—issues like this have been the heart of my research agenda for a decade.

So, while it feels weird for me to say this to humanitarian leaders, I’ll say it anyways: Please don’t spend all your time on this stuff.

Humanitarian aid is not just a technical problem to be fixed and made more efficient. It is a political problem. When donors and NGOs frame it as a technical problem (as many, many do) they get used and abused, often unwittingly, by the more merciless and wily leaders of the world—both by the warlords in the jungle, and the warlords in the Pentagon.