I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “CHAPTER 2: Refashioning Humane Internationalism in Twenty-First-Century Canada” by Adam Chapnick.
The opening of the chapter talks about the policy divergence between humanitarian assistance and development assistance and is more eloquently presented than my complaints in reviewing Chapter 1 (Critique of Rethinking Canadian Aid – Chapter 1 – Humane internationalism). But this next point could be even further emphasized.
Even the realists, then, embrace the spirit of altruism in times of crisis, although some might still emphasize the anticipated diplomatic benefits arising from so-called humanitarian initiatives.
Without getting into specifics, an emergency crisis in a country not on the recipient list prompted Ambassadors in DFAIT at the time to demand that CIDA hand over millions of dollars in unneeded assistance, with the caveat that the cheques could be handed out by the Ambassador in $15K increments, complete with photo ops. Even some of the hardened found the request a bit unethical, highly unprofessional, and well, downright distasteful.
…They condition the public to believe — incorrectly — that paying for a single child to eat a healthy breakfast and attend school will have a lasting impact on the overall ability of that child’s larger community to grow economically and provide a sustainable, prosperous environment for future generations.
Despite the various explanations offered by Chapnick as to the differences between support for humanitarian vs. development assistance, all of which are possible, I think there are slightly different forces at work that collapse the list to just two in practice.
First and foremost, there is the one above. The “save the children” campaigns, complete with pics of starving children, even better with flys buzzing around them, are effective in addressing the altruist’s support — the strong ethical pull matched with immediate need = support for humanitarian assistance. The quick need, the quick response, the quick result. Unfortunately, the need for gender equality might be acute, but there is no quick response or quick result. It isn’t any less “altruistic”, but the direct “logic chain” from input to result is less clear, and far less immediate. In some ways, it’s no different than the patient who wants a treatment for a health problem rather than advice for long-term health improvements. They believe in both, but the hook is less palpable for the second.
The second element that I find hidden is that not only are the “hooks” different, but the actions are fundamentally different. Health analysts frequently talk about the idea of downstream and upstream activities. Downstream ones are the ones that take place on the ground and save lives. Antibiotics, surgeries, blood transfusions, medicines. Upstream ones are the ones that take place in research labs, curriculum development to train doctors and nurses, networks to collect blood, safety guidelines, and food inspections. Handing out a blanket and some food is far different in action, expertise and function than having a governance discussion with the central government about the role of women in government or even society. Having expertise in one does not lend itself to expertise in the other, the practical realities of one don’t lend itself to supporting the other easily, even with Red Cross guidelines.
1. Rather than criticizing the international realists’ thought process, emphasize a shared desire for common outcomes.
2. Avoid reinforcing the common perception that development assistance is no different than common charity.
3. Build public support from the top down.
As three solutions go, these aren’t bad. The first seems to me to be a natural outcome of #2 and #3 however, but #2 and #3 continue to be a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do you build awareness of the complexity of development to get leadership support from the top down or do you get support from the top down to build awareness?
Personally, I think awareness has to come first, and if the NGOs are all-fired sure of their altruistic pursuits, I’d suggest somewhat sarcastically and hopefully that they put their money where their mouth seems to be. I’ll give you two examples from the United Nations.
There’s a dam built in Africa, the location unimportant to the story. Generates power, drives industry, and while it’s being built, all the locals’ lives improve dramatically with the wages from working as labourers. Great. Case closed, definitely development progress. Yet, the dam is finished, the work disappears, and the area suffers economically. The men go off to the cities and find work, send home money, another mini-boom. Six to eighteen months later, the men stop sending money home as they become disconnected from their families, and the area suffers. Next, the women go off to the cities, sending money home, another mini-boom. But most of the women are working as prostitutes, many contract AIDS, and come back home to die.
A second story — building a road through the wilderness, aiming to connect two distant cities, including building a bridge across a hard-to-cross river. Wages pay for labourers, economic boom, more trade between cities, increased prosperity. Except for a small problem. While the men were working on the road, the prostitutes followed them, setting up shop in little shanty towns along the road. And spreading many diseases, including AIDS, all along the road route. Once the road is complete, the city that was remote on the other side sees its infection rates for all diseases rise dramatically to match the rest of the country.
Both the dam and the road are examples of infrastructure projects, and every development expert on the planet knows that a country cannot grow without infrastructure. And while there are ways to address some of the problems in the above models, it would be a rare NGO who could communicate any part of that complex story well to anyone in a soundbite, which is about all they get to say. Both of the stories above came from publications of the United Nations, and are buried deep within reports of the FAO and UNAIDS. Communicating any of it tends to have the opposite effect on people — once they see how large, complex and near-intractable development projects are, the less they support them and the more they want to do humanitarian aid only.
I agree that “education” and awareness is a key to better support, but to draw upon Chapnick’s concern — will an NGO risk going out of business and be unable to help anyone in order to tell a more ethically accurate story?