Humanitarian Aid – quo vadis?

I recently went to the First Austrian Humanitarian Congress in Vienna. The topic of the congress was “Humanitarian Aid – Quo Vadis?”. There I had the chance to listen to four (out of eight) very interesting speeches/lectures and (unfortunately little) discussion about the following topics:

–       Humanitarian Challenges – 10 Years after 9/11

–       The Hunger Crisis at the Horn of Africa – Natural disaster or complex emergency?

–       Civil Military Cooperation – is humanitarian aid becoming more and more a tool for foreign policies?

–       Gender in Emergencies: Why Gender Matters – Empowering Women and Girls as a key strategy towards ending poverty and conflict

I am not going into all the four topics. You can listen to the presentations and download some material under the following link and make your own picture about the topic:

http://www.humanitaerer-kongress.at/humanitarian-congress-2011/

In the first presentation, Antonio Donini, gave an interesting presentation on how aid developed over the last ten years and he presented three mega trends that he noticed in the field, and on which I will share my thoughts on today:

–       Humanitarian assistance is up, humanitarianism is down

–       Universalism is down, sovereignty/nationalism is up

–       Conflict is down, so-called “natural” disasters are up

The first trend is, if you take a look into the statistics, true (depending on the statistics you’re looking into of course). Regarding my home country, our financial aid is down because we have to deal with other problems and we are rather self concerned than concerned about the life’s of others (who are by far worse off than 99% of my fellow citizens can even think of). Sometimes when I listen to what people think and say about things like the Crisis at the Horn of Africa or even if it’s just general statements about other countries or so, I am a little bit sad of where I am from. But that’s a whole other story (but this actually underpins the second trend if you think about it: “nationalism” is up).

One sub-trend of this development is that foreign aid is focused on conflict regions. If you think about it, and as heard at the Congress, you can interpret this trend and say that foreign aid is used as a foreign policy tool. Now that’s some big news, right!? Of course not. Aid has been used as foreign policy tool and it will be. Hardly any country gives money with “no strings attached”. If you are interested into the attachments of aid and especially in conflict regions, I suggest reading Linda Polman’s book “War Games – The Story of aid and war in modern times”. Great book with many interesting aspects of giving aid (from large to small scale donations and how these fund warlords/regimes, etc.)

Concerning the second trend, the EU came to my mind. I know this is not about humanitarian aid but still, its kind of the same principle. Greece is in dire need of assistance in order to overcome bankruptcy. If Greece goes bankrupt, the EU will have a bigger mess to deal with. But still, member countries were hardly willing to bail out Greece (as it looks now, the leading politicians of the EU “Merkozy”, agreed on a strategy on how to deal with the problem). The sentiment towards Greece is still kind of hostile and most of the attitude you hear is: “Why would I care about Greece?” If the EU citizens are not willing to accept that the Union is a big economic project that comes with many benefits and also liabilities, it might be doomed to fail at some point anyway. Where this point is? We will see in the future; could be tomorrow but I don’t think so (I miss optimism in the world these days…)!

Conflict is down? Some of you might ask yourself now if this is a joke, but no it is not. Armed conflicts are down. If you take a look on the numbers of hot wars raging somewhere on the planet, the numbers are declining. There are hardly any international wars occurring; most armed conflicts are fought within national boundaries and many are fought against separatist groups that fight for their independency. The fact though that there is still warfare in this world is of course disturbing and those conflicts have to be solved (sounds easy, but as you know, hundred year old conflicts are not easily solved over night).

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and this trend will continue. Take a look into a newspaper and you will find, no matter where you live, at least one article in it on a disaster where nature is striking back. There are parts in the world where there is simply too much water to handle (Thailand, Cambodia, Italy, Philippines, Myanmar, Colombia, etc.) and there are parts, where people are dying because of dehydration or lack of food due to the lack of water (Horn of Africa). Then we have earthquakes (Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, China, Turkey, etc.), erupting volcanoes, rising sea levels, air pollution, etc. So, there is a lot to deal with.

These are the trends regarding humanitarian aid. There is hardly anything to add regarding the congress itself except some feelings I had when I left the event. Well, listening to all those people who have worked or researched for decades in the field I was surprised of the desperation that could be heard and felt during the discourse. Some of them sounded so helpless and without hope. Somehow I did not get an optimistic impression on the topic and hence I was a little bit confused, since I thought that the people working in the field should be the one’s who still have the energy dealing with such issues. But I might just got a wrong impression…?! And dealing with such issues for decades and looking back on improvements and changes… well, changes haven’t been that dramatic nor great.

There was one statement by Alistair Dutton, who pretty much hit the nail on the head. He said that in order to make humanitarian aid more effective and a more successful story, we have to “take the testosterone out of humanitarian aid”. Western organizations still try to force their agenda on the people in need – this approach has not worked and it will not. Integrating and involving the people affected is a necessity in the process of a more successful development and cannot be cold-shouldered anymore. This was his ending statement and it will also be mine for today’s blog.

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