When not to feed a starving child

A while ago I blogged about how I conceived of a certain Logic of Compassion which linked immediate humanitarian assistance, to which – I implied – no-one could object, and the much longer term focused work in which I am involved. But now Linda Polman, in her polemic War Games (The Crisis Caravan in North America), which I’ve just finished reading, is suggesting that it might not always be a good idea to feed a starving child or help that victim-of-war amputee.

The basic argument goes roughly like this: as Amartya Sen pointed out, there has never been a famine in a democracy, and in most famines there is enough food, it’s just in the wrong place and/or too expensive for most local people. Ethiopia has received large amounts of food aid in recent years, but it has also fought one of the most pointless wars of all time with Eritrea over the town of Badme. All aid is, in one way or another, fungible; feeding the starving Ethiopian children absolves the Ethiopian government of its responsibilities in this direction, allowing them to spend more money on arms instead.

Polman goes much further, suggesting that humanitarian aid is frequently manipulated by autocratic regimes and rebel forces. This makes it next to impossible to maintain strict neutrality, and it is extremely naïve to attempt to do so. The poor themselves have also deciphered the perverse incentives at work: amputees will discard their local prosthetic limbs in the hope of getting a better one from the US, then discard that one since now no-one will feed them for free.

Like Matt at Aid Thoughts, I am a little bit wary of Polman’s reliance on anecdotal evidence, but find her basic argument quite compelling. However, that kind of work is at the extreme end of the aid/development spectrum (albeit a pretty huge wedge), and the complete opposite of the long-term capacity building and community support work that I do, so I don’t feel very well positioned to comment.

If my foundation is so poor does that make the Logic of Compassion just a house of cards? Not really, but I think it does highlight a critical concern that is often missing from development and conservation planning: it is all very well to identify a problem, but you need to identify a solution and be confident of being able to achieve it before charging in. Governance standards in the target area will be a key constraint on the viability of any proposed solutions. This is something that could easily be forgotten when calls are made for urgent humanitarian assistance.

Furthermore, in responding to a humanitarian emergency, finding out exactly what help is needed is always going to be a top priority; unfortunately this too easily translates into establish a country/field office first then work out what to do. The overheads are incurred first, and then the programmatic expenditure follows afterwards, which means there had better be some programmatic expenditure to justify all those up-front overheads, and hence the clamour for everyone to get funded.

All of this presents us with a real moral maze. Starving children, if  left unfed, will die. Do we want this on our consciences? Who is to decide which starving children to feed, and which do not deserve feeding? In so far as I can draw any conclusions, it seems to me that these essential moral dilemmas will never go away while there exist unprincipled dictators and warlords prepared to take advantage of this situation, but the humanitarian assistance community could do a helluva lot better in banding together to combat the worst manipulations *, and I pity them in dealing with the hordes of happy-clapping DIY aid enthusiasts who really would be better off just staying at home and donating some money.

* Maybe / hopefully things have improved since the examples that Polman cites. Like I said: I wouldn’t know since I work at the opposite end of the aid spectrum, but stories from Haiti, e.g. this, don’t fill me with much confidence despite there being people who really do want to do better.


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