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Humanitarian language betrays lack of understanding of world today

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 18 Dec 2012 14:16 GMT
Author: Randolph Kent, Humanitarian Futures Programme
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Dr. Randolph Kent is the director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College, London

“Transformational agendas,” “the end of Western hegemony,” “resilience and sustainability” – are all phrases that suggest a determined effort to change the ways the international community provides support to the vulnerable and disaster-affected. And, yet in a question that was recently posed at a Board meeting of a major NGO in London, language again revealed the difficulties that the so-called “aid community” continues to have in grasping the real implications of change.

The question was simple: “Is disaster risk reduction a humanitarian or a development activity?” The answer, however, was less so: in the context of major transformations throughout the global community, suggested the responder, “Not only was the question wrong, but, so, too was the language which framed it. Terms such as ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian assistance’ are of a different era, all too often reflecting a sense of paternalism in a world perceived to be divided between a robust North and a hapless South.”

That world, had it ever existed, is no longer. Geo-political and economic adjustments around the globe are shifting the centres of economic power and influence. Political weight is increasingly diffuse and alignments ever more fluid. In this same world, assumptions about crisis drivers that result in disasters and emergencies are also being radically transformed. The types of crisis drivers, their dimensions and dynamics are increasing, in some instances exponentially, and their impacts are global, cross-regional and increasingly expose vulnerability in even those nations with the highest GDPs.

That said, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy off the western Atlantic, or following Hurricane Katrina or the Fukushima multi-dimensional disaster, no mention was made about the humanitarian needs of the affected populations, nor for that matter did the term, “development,” replace calls for recovery plans and a return to economic and social growth. In that same sense, those people vulnerable to the potential and actual consequences of hazards elsewhere in the world should also be seen as having opportunities to benefit from sustainable economic and social growth. The sad results of the so-called “development record,” symbolised by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), suggest that the imposition of objectives and standards that do not reflect the inherent dynamics and aspirations of societies inevitably will lead to disappointments.

Billions of dollars over the past five decades have been spent around the world to relieve the burdens of poverty, to build institutional capacity and to address the needs of the poorest of the poor. Yet, as one begins to look towards a new Hyogo Framework for Action and new development goals for a new millennium, there are critical lessons that need to be borne in mind. To be effective, the process has to relate to norms, values and interests of the society being assisted; and, in that sense, planning is about extensive dialogue between those in need and those seeking to assist. That dialogue rarely takes place.

Furthermore, greater attention has to be given to understanding the aspirations that in one way or another are being transformed by increasingly accessible information, social networking and interaction with diasporas. It is interesting to note that Equity Bank in Kenya treats people with whom it engages as “clients,” as people whose interests have to be accommodated as one would in any positive transactional relationship. This is a lesson that the creative Bangladeshi NGO, BRAC, has clearly understood: the most enduring assistance is that which engages the poor in ways that approaches aid through the spectre of mutually beneficial self-interest.

The “multi-billion dollar question” that must be asked goes back to that Board of Trustees’ concern about the appropriate box in which to place disaster risk reduction – either development or humanitarian. The answer once again is that neither box suits. The billions of dollars that have been spent providing well-intentioned development and humanitarian aid might have had more enduring impact if the language and, hence, the framework for engagement, had been ultimately about pursuing mutually advantageous socio-economic growth. 

In light of the deeply engrained attitudes of so many in the traditional Western-oriented aid community, the effectiveness of those future “billions of dollars” will depend upon a fundamental change in language which, in turn, will reflect an understanding about the nature of relationships and engagement in the future. In so many ways good intentions have all too often failed to relate to the aspirations and the dynamics of others. New language, new means for engaging, greater awareness of human dignity and aspirations must frame the answer to that billion dollar question in the future.

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