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?The Trouble With Aid" shows the trouble with documentaries

Tue, 11 Dec 2012 17:30 GMT
Author: Hugo Slim
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Hugo Slim is a scholar in humanitarian studies with particular expertise in humanitarian ethics, the protection of civilians, conflict resolution and international business ethics, and has worked extensively in Africa. He is a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at Oxford University. Slim also worked as an aid worker for Save the Children UK and the United Nations in Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories and Bangladesh for more than a decade.

It was good news that BBC 4 dedicated three hours of prime time television on Sunday to screening “The Trouble With Aid”, an analysis of humanitarian aid in war and disasters, followed by a studio debate, but the film by Ricardo Pollack was skewed and incomplete.

The trouble with documentaries in a world of sub-contracted programme-making is that they do not have the luxury to tell the whole story. They have to find a strong, preferably scandalous, angle and then deliver on it with a small cost-saving team and a business model that prioritizes studio work over fieldwork.

These commissioning pressures mean that documentaries are biased by the tastes of oligopolistic media channels and compromised in their ability to tell the whole story. Guess what? Documentaries are politicised, bunkerised and donor driven. 

Pollack’s two-hour film is historical, starting in Biafra and ending in Afghanistan. It covers seven emergencies over the last 40 years and is a treasure trove of archive footage.

It is also a serious analysis of some of the ethical problems of delivering aid into highly politicized wars – an exploration of the unintended consequences of aid.

Pollack is a very good film-maker. His imaging, pacing, interviewing and music are superb but his story is partial and damagingly incomplete.

In well-worn clichés “The Trouble With Aid” sets out to show how aid can do “more harm than good”. It concludes in Faustian terms with a sense that the modern humanitarian project has sold its soul and lies dead amidst NATO refugee camps in Kosovo and bunkered one-sidedness in Afghanistan.

This is what you get if you choose a sample of large geopolitical emergencies and never ask displaced people, refugees and civilians in these emergencies what they think of aid.

It is also what you get if you say you will examine how aid may do more harm than good but then only look at the harm, misinterpret it, and never get round to looking at the good.


So, how shall we complete the picture? Humanitarian action is seldom morally scandalous. As this film shows, humanitarian workers have always been ethically conscious and still are. The truth is that the choices are hard, the dilemmas are not humanitarian-made and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is not always right.

NGOs are never the real powers in a war. In the account of the Goma dilemmas in 1994, other much more significant political actors – like the Zairean government, the Kabila insurgency and the UN - are completely missing from the film.

Bizarrely, for a political documentary, this film tells a very apolitical story and pretends that humanitarian agencies are politically central. Humanitarian responsibility is made out to be everything when, in reality, it is really very limited in political aim and effect.

Genuine problems of knowing in emergencies are also discounted in the film. Prudence always dictates a precautionary principle in emergency planning. So it is in no way scandalous that Oxfam and others prepared and appealed for a worse case scenario in Cambodia and still held to this after a preliminary nutritional survey indicated that there was no famine.

The film implies that MSF is always right when they stomp off into the sunset and that those who “stay on” are immoral opportunists or political ingénues. This is not true. Stomping off and shouting loud is one humanitarian strategy but so is staying on and saving lives.

Philip’s Gourevitch’s grandstanding comment that “African people don’t need white people to stay alive” is gallant rhetoric but not precisely true. A lot of African people have been kept alive by European and North American aid, when they might otherwise have died from the action and inaction of military parties in the continent’s many decades of post-colonial war.

What is so powerful in the film are the images of extreme suffering and need. These are real and so too is the positive humanitarian impact on these needs that reduces and prevents them. So these humanitarian “goods” need to be properly described and weighed in any ethical judgment on humanitarian action. In this film, they were not.

If you are in the business of saving lives, then it is usually better to stay and save rather than leave and shout. The only exception would be if the community in question genuinely consented in your decision to leave. The question of community experience and preference was never examined in the film but it is usually examined by humanitarian agencies.  

One reason why MSF can often leave an emergency is because their healthcare job is mostly needed early in a crisis. After this, MSF teams are getting a little restless anyway. Curative health needs tend to settle down to become routine, and emergency primary health interventions like vaccination programmes are best front-loaded in a crisis.

This is not true for food, shelter, WASH, education and wider protection programming which continues intensely over time. So, MSF ethics probably weigh a little differently anyway. Leaving is not such a big deal for them.

The film would have been wiser to tell a tale of a nascent global welfare system that has a curious post-colonial western genealogy, saves lives everyday and is now maturing to face the classic provider dilemmas of any welfare system. Working in war (and in the wars of its own donor governments) is just one of these dilemmas.

The film would also have been wiser to consider if we need this global system and, if so, how it should diversify and improve. But, you know what donors are like, that film would never have been funded. Ricardo would have had to find un-earmarked money for that, and we know how hard that is.

Luckily, most people will watch this film with an element of humanitarian common sense. I watched with three people who were not humanitarian professionals. Their conclusion was quite simple: “Yeah, well obviously it’s difficult, but you’ve got to keep trying.”






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