Thursday, March 24, 2011

The case against humanitarian aid

Although aid talk these days is centered on Japan, Ill let Tales from the Hood and La viaid loca lecture you about the issues surrounding those charity efforts. Basically, the short lesson is they don't need your old socks.

Instead, today I would like to convince you that humanitarian aid, as opposed to disaster relief (Japan) or development aid (Kenya), is bad.

Consider this: Humanitarian intervention lowers the cost of war.  Casualties of war require medical attention which requires money and resources. The Red Cross for example, brings in all kids of resources to help those in need.

"Free relief for all of my soldiers and wounded civilians? Sign me up!"

Humanitarian intervention lessens the burden of war on those who wage them; the wounded are cared for, the hungry are fed.

Consider this: The media brings in all kinds of charity.

To quote La vidaid loca link from above, "Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest in giving to an emergency."

Media brings in money.


Imagine for a minute that you are a rebel militant in some forgotten post-war country:

Together with your brothers, you wish to rise to power. You and your comrades will become rulers of the land so that you can live the life of a provider; a king. However, your resources are dwindling, and poverty is rampant. Some seasons are plentiful - when the rains come, and when resource deals are struck - but there is always the risk that activists will block trade deals, government forces will capture all the rents, and rains will fail. The risk you face is high no matter your action. The life you live is most likely short. Money is what you need. Money is power.

Which is the 'path of least resistance'? Choose one, or two that fit together:

a) Farm: Knuckle down, get a real job tilling the fields and pray that the rains are good.

b) Revolt: Go into battle with government forces on the little weaponry you have left from your last resources-for-arms deal and try to take control of the resource rich areas.

c) Look for a job: Go to the city to look for a job. Maybe you could become a taxi driver.

d) Get some education: Learn a new skill to apply to a productive endeavour in the near future.

e) Cut off a few limbs of starving children: Create a big humanitarian crisis so international aid resources come flowing into your country.

Escalate a humanitarian crisis -> media -> humanitarian aid -> free resources -> good chance to syphon off funds -> money AND  healthy soldiers -> more war -> natural resource capture -> money

Humanitarian aid has perverse incentives: it decreases the cost of war, and increases benefits to warlords for going to war.

We should not give humanitarian aid.
(...and we haven't even talked about colonialism yet)


  1. No, not convinced.

    Yes, there are players who want to play the system. Yes, there is potential for diversion and perverse outcomes.

    Your response assumes very strong and consistent information flows between potential rebel groups in different situations and different countries. That if we leave people in one crisis to rot and make examples of them, that the next lot on another continent will therefore not take up arms. I also think you are ascribing too simplistic motivations. That in the absence of humanitarian actors armed struggles and atrocities wouldn't happen anyway? It also assumes that escalation = media, which if you look at Cote D'Ivoire today, is clearly not the case. And is not the case in many parts of the world. No one gives a toss about eastern DRC.

    My response is to not say that we should throw hands in the air and give up. But to do it better.

  2. Thanks for your response c-sez.

    In all honesty, I do not think revoking all humanitarian aid would solve any humanitarian crisis (and you're right in saying there is nothing here to stop another warlord having a go if they were not aware of any previous failure).

    My purpose in writing as a devil's advocate is to highlight the fact that charity efforts can often end up maintaining what they intend to relieve.

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