[A Close Point of View] What mistakes to avoid when providing aid?
Several months ago, in the article „“Is our help still needed in Iraq?”I’ve touched upon the topic of the evolution of humanitarian help in the context of ever-changing needs. But it is worth elaborating and discussing several important issues that are not often talked about.
In the above-mentioned article I described the differences between humanitarian and development aid as well as post-conflict reconstruction. They can all be included in the entirety of aid activities, but they usually occur at different times and places. But how do we know that we have reached a stage when the scope of provided aid should be changed? It is impossible without being constantly in touch with aid beneficiaries and without gaining a solid knowledge of the situation they currently find themselves in. Improperly delivered humanitarian aid can cause more harm than good. Today I would like to write about several traps that aid providers can find on the way.
I think everyone would agree that what counts most in a response to crises such as an outbreak of war, a cataclysm or a natural disaster is the speed of action. In a situation when human lives are in danger, providing food, water, clothing, shelter and medicines is the priority. In such situations chaos is commonplace and it requires some time for any aid activities to become coordinated. It does not matter whether a country where a tragedy occurs is wealthy or poor. I think everyone has heard about Polish fighters or rescuers helping to deal with the outcomes of fires, earthquakes or floods in countries such as Sweden, Greece or France. These are well-developed countries that sometimes still need assistance in emergencies. Such activities can also be called humanitarian aid.
But support in providing the most basic means of survival is usually short-term. Of course there are no strictly established timeframes for this and such aid can last for a few days, weeks or months. The turning point is when the situation on the ground becomes stable and there is no direct threat to life or health anymore. That is when humanitarian aid is usually ceased and reconstruction follows. Better-off countries deal with removing the results of cataclysms and require no external help in doing so. But it is different when an affected country is poorer or the scale of a cataclysm is widespread. That is also the case of an outbreak of war or revolt. Usually, such a country needs assistance from abroad, both during the outbreak as well as after the hostilities end.
The most important rule is not to hindrance development
One of the most common mistakes made by humanitarian organizations is making countries and their citizens dependent on aid. After the first wave of assistance, usually coming from abroad, the most important thing is to restart the local economy. Continuing to bring in material assistance is pointless as it involves massive costs and it slows down the production of the affected country. A local farmer, a tailor or a retailer will not be able to compete with free products flooding the market. This way, even the most entrepreneurial people will have no other choice but to become beneficiaries of external help. Of course exceptions do occur, for example when required products do not exist on the local market or are of poor quality.
Another problem is learned helplessness. People who for years receive material and financial support lose their entrepreneurial spirit. They are afraid that if they get employment or open their own business, they will lose the possibility of getting aid. They fear that if they are not successful, they will be left with nothing.
After years of unemployment it is difficult to start climbing up the economic ladder. Self-esteem is undermined. For some the mere thought that help will stop coming one day may cause paralyzing fear. That is why it is so important that people are given a push to become self-reliant and start investing in themselves. They must become aware that they are responsible for their future. The role of non-governmental organizations should be to give a hand in helping people to get back on track and go their way. The less we interfere in their lives, the better for them.
Let’s split it 50/50
Another issue that is very rarely discussed is corruption. Wherever large amounts of money appear, we will often come across some people who will try to get something for themselves. At the beginning of our activities in Iraq we were invited for a meeting with the representatives of a large local organization that described itself as non-governmental. But to us it was clear it was associated with the authorities – something that we had researched in advance. Nevertheless, they offered us cooperation where we would send them money, while they would give us materials, pictures, invoices and full documentation of provided assistance. They even had a catalog from which we could choose whom we wanted to help. That was our first and last talk. After saying we would get back to them, our paths have never crossed again. Our advantage is that we are a small foundation and it was easy for us to dismiss that route. Sometimes the choice of who to work with is related to the choice between a more difficult or an easier way. The latter in this case would have meant making our work smooth. But we have deliberately chosen a bumpier path. We could not risk the money we work so hard to collect falling into the wrong hands.
How to help without causing harm?
Money needs to be spent wisely. Helping is not only a good deed and a feeling of fulfilled obligation. It is also a huge responsibility. Every action brings some kind of result. Providing free medical help but without simultaneous support in educating future doctors leads to a situation where the quality of medical care will be low. Bringing in material assistance and giving it for free will undermine entrepreneurship. To avoid corruption, large projects must be carried out in cooperation with trusted organizations. Their activities need to be constantly monitored. Unfortunately, it is common among humanitarian organizations that effectiveness is measured by the amount of money spent. Gathering in-depth knowledge about the needs and reaching those who truly need assistance is a great effort. Avoiding mistakes is difficult and sometimes impossible. But the fundamental question is: when providing aid, are we mostly motivated by the fact that it makes us feel good about ourselves, or is the well-being of those we help truly our priority?
Author: Dawid Czyż