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October 28, 2020; New Humanitarian

 In a recent article published in the New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to report on humanitarian crisis and aid, researcher Lydia Poole poses important questions on the impenetrable culture of international NGOs. She questions a system that is unaccountable to those it serves, unapologetically apolitical, and paralyzed by a flood of chronic crisis around the world:

Humanitarians have become very comfortable claiming neutrality. While the numbers of people in crises mounted, we comforted ourselves with fantasies of “ending needs” and building “resilience” at individual and community level, while avoiding politics and the changing face of conflict, and ignoring climate breakdown. We are all, however, trapped in an exploitative and destructive system racing to the bottom and the solutions will not be found in technical fixes.

Poole does not provide specific examples but points out how the humanitarian system has become a vast network of redundant efforts that put out small fires while ignoring the root causes of systemic crisis and risks.

The coronavirus pandemic could push 120 million people into extreme poverty, that is, in addition to the already 650 million people tabulated by the International Monetary Fund. Although recognizing IMF’s assessments have intrinsic flaws, particularly as it measures GDP turnouts and access to economic wealth instead of quality of life with dignity, that poverty number is still sobering. To this, one must add the compounded risks of climate disasters.

Poole recognizes that in the behemoth of international aid organizations, cooperation agencies, and their financing systems, there is “no global-level surveillance and analysis of risk and collective preparedness.” The author then links to a report she published in February 2020 through the Center for Disaster Protection (based in the UK) where she delineates the need for freely accessible global response systems to identify crisis risks and provide financing efficiently and effectively.

Poole says the international crisis financial system is slow to adapt and learn from manifold world crises:

This is rooted in a fundamental accountability deficit in the system. The international crisis response system lacks the stimulus of scrutiny, either by its primary clients—people or governments affected by or at risk of crisis—or by an entity with system-wide oversight. Consequently, change is often incomplete and short-lived.

That was before the pandemic hit globally, unveiling deeper systemic crises of racial and economic inequity. Her newer analysis for New Humanitarian is bolder and more radical, by admitting that the international aid world culture is a “closed system, starved of ideas” with a serious diversity problem and unaccountable to those it serves.

We need to stop self-censoring and rejecting or denying uncomfortable narratives. And we need to create space for—and support—those willing to challenge the status quo within our institutions. Ditch the crowdsourced and consensus-based processes. We don’t need to wait for the traditional leaders of the system. Ad hoc coalitions of motivated disruptors should be encouraged and given space.

She questions a wide disconnected group of “experts” who hold a monopoly on what it means to be humanitarian while staying “outside” political and economic systems that worsen these inequities. Instead of feigning neutrality, service providers and financing systems should work directly with local advocates and civil society actors.

The logic of international development still relies on reproducing the same destructive economic model that drives inequality, environmental destruction, and climate breakdown. Aid is a precious and powerful resource for influencing norms and behavior, providing global public goods, and protecting the most vulnerable. But following the same logic that got us here won’t end needs.

Although lacking in a historical analysis of the colonial/imperial roots of international aid, Poole’s article does allows us to peek into the international debates of these institutions that, though mostly undemocratic, do provide a veneer of essential wealth redistribution in the form of charity.—Sofia Jarrin