Humanitarian aid is a grey area I will always see in black and white

Where does humanitarian aid begin and end?
Where does humanitarian aid begin and end?

Humanitarian aid is ‘any project undertaken to relieve a humanitarian crisis’. The circularity of its definition hints at its complexity. The aim may always seem noble; helping those in need, but the reality is often more problematic.

The affluent west strides in on a white horse to save poor, destitute, non-white people in some ‘god-forsaken’ place. Again the west plays hero to a country grieving, a country wounded, a country in pain. We like to think humanitarian efforts are just about feeding hungry desperate people. That we can get in, give food and get out. But all too often the areas in need of help are caught up in war, natural disasters or just the intricacies of culture. With every unfolding moment of a crisis the situation gets more complex.

Humanitarian programs go into areas that are dangerous, where the goodies and the badies aren’t quite easily distinguishable. As a result they are confronted on a daily basis with complex decisions. They deal with the life and death of the people, whilst trying (and often failing) to protect the safety of their own workers. And their actions may not always have the intended consequences. To protect their workers and ensure they are able to distribute aid they may have to pay a local warlord for their protection, perhaps funding the violence. The food parcels they deliver could be taken by soldiers who thus live to fight another day. Days can be spent doing nothing, waiting for the next bit of equipment to arrive, or a truce to be declared between warring factions that control the route to the refugee camps. Often help is given with arbitrary preference; one village or camp may receive support because they happen to be near a base, or because the organisation has heard of them. The traps are many.

More than this, who said they wanted help? Of course when people are starving with no recourse to food, help is likely to be gratefully received, but when must those organisations leave? What counts as humanitarian work? Once you’ve feed them, do you clothe them? Do you educate them? Do you re-house them? Do you help them find a job? How far must charities crawl into the web of a foreign society before they have fulfilled their original role and can leave? And will they be able to leave without tearing a hole in the delicate fabric.

Of course, there are positive tangible benefits to humanitarian work. The simple sustenance the population receives means that country still has a future. The act of strangers coming in to help gives the people hope that someone out there cares for them, that someone out there wants them to live. Humanitarian aid can help the people caught in conflict to ride out the worst so that they can rebuild the country in the future.

But this is just the edge of humanitarian work; the basic understanding gleaned by a student of the subject. To know the truth of it, you must ask those who have been there. Read stories of humanitarian work, read the accounts of bloggers, the dangers, the frustrations, the joys and the tribulations of those out there in the field. When we sit in our western world we cannot know what it means to live in a humanitarian crisis, nor to go into one to help. We can only know the theory and the philosophy behind it. And strangely, this limited view is enough to give us good cause to support it.

We send humanitarians because we could not, and should not stand by. Yes, humanitarian projects raise difficult moral questions. Often they leave behind new problems; dependency on hand outs, vacuums of support systems, governments estranged to the responsibility of supporting their own people.  But how could we live with ourselves if we didn’t go in? If we let those people die because the alternative was too complicated, or might implicate us to a commitment we cannot currently for see or calculate. What would that make us?

We do not take part in humanitarian work because it makes sense. We do not do it because every outcome will be positive. We do it because there are people in crisis. We do it because in reality the world is far smaller than we think. When you see a neighbour in pain, when you see them dying and you can help, don’t you have a responsibility to do so?

Aid is complex, it deserves our attention, and it deserves our scrutiny. But we must never lose that childlike indignation that says we should not stand by. The voice that says not in my name shall these atrocities continue unabated, these people suffer unheard. The debate around how and where and when we help, will rage on. But the question of why should remain answered.

Written by Claire Smith