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Humanitarian aid

A time of reckoning

by Sabine Balk

In depth

They have good intentions, but are privileged nonetheless: humanitarian workers in Sudan’s Darfur region.

They have good intentions, but are privileged nonetheless: humanitarian workers in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Humanitarian organisations are concerned about racism, inequality and abuse of power structures. They must face persistent post-colonial structures not only in the regions where they work as relevant problems arise within the agencies themselves. Humani­tarian workers are reassessing their practices and demanding systemic change.

Lina Srivastava used to be an international development worker and now advises agencies on how to use narratives for bringing about social change. One of her favourite topics is how privilege and abuse of positions of power mark non-government organisations (NGOs) and their surrounding networks. She says of herself: “I am privileged because I was born in the USA and grew up there, but at the same time, I am disadvantaged as a woman of colour.” In her eyes, systemic racism, sexism and self-righteousness permeate the humanitarian sector, with humanitarian workers typically enjoying privileges. She says these things were ignored for a long time.

Lauren Reese of the DAI Center for Secure and Stable States agrees. She offers this explanation: “We all believe that our work does good, and that has blinded us to blatant and racist inequalities within our own sector.” A brief consideration of history, she adds, suffices to show that many things related to aid are deeply rooted in colonial times.

According to Reese, a long-standing pattern was to think that developing countries were unable to take care of themselves and thus needed technical and financial assistance to industrialise. At the same time, aid allowed countries in the global north to stay in control and to further exploit the markets of developing countries. Reese says that colonial power structures are still evident in the aid business, with leaders being predominantly white and white people deciding matters of funding and control.

Angela Bruce-Raeburn works for Global Health Advocacy Incubator, a consultancy. As a black woman, she is used to experiencing racial discrimination the USA – and that includes humanitarian agencies. That is what she told her audience during the Humanitarian Congress 2020. This is a conference series and it was held digitally in October for the first time, hosted by agencies like Doctors without Borders and the German Red Cross. The intention was not only to discuss issues of privilege, inequality and racism, but also to come up with tangible solutions.

Bruce-Raeburn has observed that aid agencies, when hiring staff, often give preference to white men over black women. All too often, the man is considered to be better qualified. Bruce-Raeburn wishes women would stop accepting such practices and oppose them more assertively.

Inequalities that are prevalent in society are typically prevalent in humanitarian agencies as well, says Rahima Begum, a human-rights activists from Bangladesh and cofounder of the NGO Restless Beings. She has been working with women and children from the Rohingya community in refugee camps, for example. She reports that communities that are particularly marginalised – including refugees or Dalits, for example – are often cut off from aid. In her eyes, humanitarian aid should first and foremost serve the needs of the affected communities and be handled by local workers. She hopes that the sector will develop in a way that will make local ownership in this sense more common.

This year, Covid-19 has made inequalities worse, says Sandra Dworack, who works for Oxfam and specialises in education. The pandemic, according to her, has triggered a massive education crisis, further marginalising children from poor families. Dworack points out that about one third of the world’s children cannot take part and are excluded from remote schooling as they lack access to radio, TV and internet (also see Claudia Isabel Rittel in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/10, Covid-19 diary).

Deepak Xavier also works for Oxfam and warns that, most likely, not all people will benefit from a future Covid-19 vaccine (also see Jörg Schaaber in Tribune section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/11). Given that vaccine research is mostly funded with tax money, he finds that unacceptable. People, he insists, make vaccines for people rather than for corporate profits.

Xavier is adamant: “People do not need aid, they need rights.” In his view, the humanitarian system is not inherently bad, but it is designed in a way that only benefits few people, including international NGOs as well as grassroots organisations. “We must build a world,” he demands, “in which all people get equal treatment and enjoy equal opportunities.” He wants structures that only serve the few to be dis­mantled.

Lina Srivastava’s proposal for bringing about change is “to really listen”. In particular, aid agencies should pay more attention to those who suffer and the local people. Unless the social and political context is understood, she warns, it will be impossible to find solutions and devise better strategies. She recalls how she once asked members of a community-based organisation in Arusha, Tanzania, what conditions they were facing, and being told with great surprise that no western expert had ever raised that question.

Srivastava insists that the humanitarian sector must tackle the impacts of racism, colonialism, inequality, gender prejudice and patriarchy, all of which are deeply entrenched in agencies’ power structures. She considers it a good start that these things are now being debated. More black and indigenous people are needed in positions of leadership, she adds. Systemic change is inevitable, according to her, but it will take time.

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