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.

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

  1. “Donors should not fund interventions without evidence only if they are also investing in building that evidence.”

    There’s an extra negative in this sentence.

  2. You’re right that aid agencies sometimes fail to speak out sufficiently about war crimes. Uganda is one case in point and Sri Lanka is a more recent example ( http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-sri-lanka#panel_report ). But the best humanitarian agencies certainly do have difficult discussions about when to speak out, when to leave and whether speaking out will get you thrown out. Indeed these are the fundamental dilemmas of humanitarian action. They explain the split between MSF and ICRC, debates about whether or not to be in DPRK, and how to work in Darfur. There’s no shortage of existential soul searching about these dilemmas. Fiona Terry’s ‘condemned to repeat’ is a good place to start – http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100587950

  3. Putting Politics Back into Development (SSIR): “Understanding that systemic change flows from political change means accepting that we must be, at times, peripheral players. It also means accepting that technical expertise is necessary but never sufficient; it only truly succeeds when the political stars align. Long-lasting change happens only with the support of those in power, and no amount of technical advice will change their basic political calculations.”


  4. No good options it seems. Can humanitarian organizations really say ‘no, we won’t provide aid if you displace a population taking us for granted’? It goes against the fundamental philosophy of humanitarianism to not want to help a victimized population. Even if the strongmen exploit this, is the threat of no aid enough to make them not launch their intervention? Could a possible solution be that aid agencies build giving the displaced a political voice into their programming? Given that anything ‘politics’ is anathema to most international donors, is that too idealistic, or can be achieved in more subtle ways?

  5. The examples provided is the kind of soul searching that needs to be happening at the moment with regards to the Rohingya population in Myanmar. Not so easy when even the icon of Myanmar’s peace movement–Aung San Suu Kyi–is not willing to engage. For NGOs there is, of course, the humanitarian imperative debate, but what is quite often on the minds of INGOs is having their MOUs with the government revoked and, hence, being unable operate in the country at all. Research organisations will speak out (witness the signatories to open letters published in the wake of the Andaman Sea Crisis–but you would be hard pressed to find an implmenting organisation on that list… Is there a common stance that all INGOs could take in the face of this? In this newly opening country–would corporates?

  6. You wrote: “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.”

    A few days ago, I wrote a blog post comparing the upward trend in forcibly displaced persons to trends in battle-related deaths and one-sided violence and wrote this speculative explanation:

    “Improvements in medical care in conflict zones are probably part of the story, but I wonder if changes in norms and values, and in the international institutions and practices instantiating them, aren’t also shaping these trends. Governments that in the past might have wantonly killed populations they regarded as threats now seem more inclined to press those populations by other means—not always, but more often. Meanwhile, international organizations are readier than ever to assist those groups under pressure by feeding and sheltering them, drawing attention to their miseries, and sometimes even protecting them.”

    If you’re interested, you can see the whole post here:


  7. Do you have an example of humanitarians getting the politics right and working? Not sure if they can do it without losing their essence. In fact, as it seems it is happening in the realm of natural disasters, they may start transforming themselves in either quasi-developmental or quasi-human rights organizations.