Confessions of a Foreign Aid Worker
Sure it’s a privilege to help others, but that’s not what I mean. I mean the privilege and power we have by simply being humanitarians. It is much like white privilege, except we don’t necessarily have to be white. Also, like white privilege, we didn’t earn it and we can’t give it up. It’s inherent in the system that holds us all. We can however be aware of it, observe its impacts, and choose to work in a way that either challenges it or reinforces it.
At the heart of this is an imbalance of power between those who provide aid and those who receive it. Humanitarians have more access to resources, greater knowledge of the aid delivery system, and a louder voice in many decision-making groups. I can’t say with certainty that this is a bad thing, but I’ve learned that it does have consequences.
I’ve been working closely with the same community in rural Nepal for seven years. We’ve had successes and failures, but I’m confident enough to say that I’ve really helped. At the moment I’m also feeling bold enough to ask, at what cost? In general, I can see that my years of behaving without consideration of my humanitarian privilege has reinforced these disempowering patterns.
Victimization on the part of the humanitarian
In this setup, it is the duty of humanitarians to use our inherent power to help the less fortunate. However, if we depend on donations to do our work, we have to get the public involved. Some people donate after researching our programs, but most donate when we’ve appealed to their emotions. A mother whose baby died, a girl who can’t attend school, a man whose home has washed away – it’s often called “poverty porn”. Although these stories may be very true, they perpetuate the power imbalance. A friend (a country director for an NGO in Nepal) recently said, “If we actually achieve our goal of alleviating poverty, then we’d all be out of a job. It’ll never happen.” A foreboding illustration of our unchecked humanitarian privilege.
Ingratiation on the part of the beneficiary
If victimization is one side of the coin, ingratiation is the other. Only after sharing the tragedy and emotional turbulence of last year’s earthquake did local leaders finally feel comfortable enough to be brutally honest with me. For the first time I was told of the negative impacts of my past work in their community. It was hard for me to hear, and I’m sure hard for them to say. Imagine, if our beneficiaries report that our projects have negative impacts (e.g. taking jobs from locals, causing conflict amongst neighbors), would we continue to help them? And if they don’t present themselves as poor and needy, would we help them in the first place? This behavior continues in post-earthquake times here, as some locals report more damage and less savings than is true, with hopes of getting more aid.
The institutions of our humanitarian system have demonstrated that if there is a need, there is an NGO to meet it. We can’t be surprised when local people in need look primarily to foreign aid for help, and secondarily to the capacity of their own community. One of the greatest challenges for ParticipAid is deconstructing the subtle ways that foreign aid, which mostly amounts to “me” in our first program, has reinforced this pattern of behavior. For this reason I was not present for the assessment and planning stages of our current Community-Led Rebuilding Program. How could it truly be community-led if I were there? Our co-founder, a local Nepali, leads our work with this community. My days are full in the capital city learning to speak Nepali, researching, writing reports, and networking with others in the humanitarian field. I thought I’d be so bummed to miss out on the action with the community I’m so devoted to. But I’m happy, because it turns out that “missing out on the action” is the best way I can serve them for the long haul.
Just one final thought, a challenge for myself and the humanitarian community:
Let’s be aware of our privilege, the power we hold, and ALL of the impacts of our work. Let’s be open to talk about it with each other and with our beneficiaries. And hey, let’s do something about it.