Happy Solstice, everyone. At my house we celebrate this day with the mantra, “May you walk in peace and love.”
I work in non-profit. In short, I translate perspectives from people living in a war-addled country for a western ear. An American ear.
As I watch the media whip into a froth about Iraq, I can’t help but notice that our perceptions about nation building are similar to our more misguided ideas about humanitarian aid. They both start by thinking that “they” are a problem that “we” can solve. Or control.
The 20th century western model for humanitarian aid works well for acute crises that can be mitigated by short term help — but it mostly fails to produce lasting, positive change, or avert any new crisis. And it sometimes causes unintended damage that cripples long term stability and development.
Western humanitarian aid is temporary, by definition. We get funding for a well defined task, and we impose that action. We tell the people on the ground that they need fixing and give them no particular control over the solution. They don’t sit at the negotiating table. We dehumanize everyone involved — everyone that isn’t one of us.
Projects like this cannot build lasting change anywhere. They do not transition to ongoing operations because they aren’t organic to the people living where we’re imposing our solution — people who actually understand their problems better than we do.
Suppose we see a need for medical care somewhere in Africa. We raise money and build a hospital, and we feel pretty good about ourselves. We send doctors and nurses to treat malaria and diarrhea and AIDS, and while we’re at it, we set up feeding stations for malnourished people.
Five years later, we have an economic downturn, and the grants and donor money disappear. What’s left of our hospital is an empty building and a vacuum in the local economy. Farmers went out of business because they couldn’t compete with free food. Doctors were displaced by the medicine we sent. We never asked those doctors and farmers to partner with us. At best, we told them what to do.
Our effort was temporary and prohibited local ownership of a solution. It didn’t build long term support for the affected people — the “help” didn’t last beyond the life of the project.
Remember when there was a push to provide mosquito nets for preventing malaria? A lot of people in Africa don’t use them to keep mosquitoes away. Thankless, aren’t they?
It turns out that, pretty often, the netting isn’t useful when the mosquitoes are out. You can net your child’s bed, but that doesn’t stop the mosquitoes at mealtime or playtime.
As a result, while we see the treated nets as a lifesaving gift, they see them as a discomfort that provides only partial protection against a trivial illness. Is it any wonder that many use their nets to catch fish or as wedding veils or room dividers – all documented uses of insecticide-treated bed nets?
Some countries have made laws against selling donated, western mosquito nets in any form. The aid created an industry of repurposing nets and selling them, thereby putting folks who make and sell fish nets, bridal veils, and room dividers out of business.
We think a lot of ourselves and our ability to fix things. But our good intentions are sometimes crippled by our sense that we know better, even though we are guided by ideas that fit on bumper stickers.
Some of the same lessons can be learned from our history in Iraq. If we ever intended to “help” — we really have to stop making it more about us than the people on the ground. If our intention was to maintain control over the region, it really cannot be about “help”.
Of course, the metaphor between our business in Iraq and humanitarian aid diverges pretty quickly. But the mistakes in both start with the same unique western blindness that makes it all about us. Or all about US.