How Our View of Humanitarianism is Harmful

Julia An, Editor, Foreign Affairs Review

A major feature of contemporary humanitarian aid is the idea that it is an apolitical embodiment of human good and compassion, one which transcends all ideologies and cultures. It is from this delusion that many of the inadequacies of the practice stem.

Because many believe humanitarianism to be an all-encompassing good, there becomes reverence of humanitarian practitioners. In many texts [citation needed], humanitarian workers are compared to heroes, light in a world of dark. While it is certainly undeniable that humanitarian workers make countless sacrifices to work in the field, putting them on such a high pedestal [citation needed] makes things problematic.

It further cements the power imbalances inherently present between humanitarian workers and the target population as well as between aid workers from the global north and domestically hired workers. While the image that a humanitarian worker usually conjures is that of a white person, 90% of aid workers actually are of the same nationality as the target population [citation needed]. With the continued perception of aid workers as altruistic “saviors” coupled with the popular bias (from both global north and south) of a white worker, it is not a far step from the neocolonialism images of white saviors come to enlighten indigenous and developing populations.

On another point, defining humanitarian aid by the purity of workers’ intentions can be harmful. Are anyone’s intentions for working in humanitarian aid truly “pure”? Isn’t even doing aid because it feels good to help others selfish, since it can be argued that feeling good is the true intention, not helping others? Even if one’s intentions were truly good and pure, there have been several instances in the past of aid workers having good intentions but causing more trouble than help [citation]. Would anyone prefer a pure-intentioned aid worker that does no good or even causes unintended harm over a questionably-intentioned worker who does measurable good?

So just how is this perception harmful? Many aid workers blanch at being called “heroes” or “saviors” [citation], believing that many workers with such opinions of the aid field make unwise, short-sighted decisions and burn out more easily. Furthermore, humanitarian aid is far from apolitical. To take a side on the political issues which give rise to the need for aid is to be political. To remain silent and refrain from using their legitimacy and soft powers to witness or pressure a government or political entity is also political.

Furthermore, there have been many cases, in the past, of a humanitarian intervention that, unaware of cultural, political, or economic characters of a region, has caused harm to the target population. If humanitarianism is continued to be seen as compassion-based, a practice of charity, there is less to hold organizations accountable to provide responsible care. In some cases, such as one of a ___ organization intervention in ___ the presence of humanitarian food aid, when ignorant of the local economies, have outcompeted local farmers, causing or worsening economic crises [citation]. In another case, after genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, many aid organizations were deployed to provide mental health support and treatment to the population. The workers, uneducated in the Buddhist cultural view of death as a continuation of ones journey, not an end, attempted to help victims seek closure from their loved ones. This intervention was based on a Western view of death and clashed strongly with the core beliefs of the Cambodian population.

While it was certainly not the aid workers’ intention to harm, a mindset of charity-based aid is not helpful to the situation. It exacerbates the power imbalance between workers and the target population. Those being helped are expected to be grateful for any intervention or aid at all, making it more difficult to critique the aid received. It also lifts the responsibility to quality-control the aid provided as any aid given is seen as better than nothing, even irresponsible aid. We need to place less emphasis on compassion and the purity of intentions as defining quality humanitarian aid.