Anger & Frustration in this Crazy World of Humanitarian Aid

Are we just chipping away at a huge iceberg of suffering with a plastic spoon? Put in another way, does international humanitarian aid and development really make a difference? On a global scale? Sure, we help people sometimes and that’s important but by providing that help do we really relieve other larger institutions who should be responsible for those people (ie governments) of that responsibility? Are we enabling more problems than we are solving? But if we didn’t solve the one’s we did would they ever get solved? And if we’re not making the difference we could or should now, what should we do differently?

I have no idea. And if someone out there has the answers, could they please give them to me? The bit I’ve read and the more I’m reading, it simply seems to ask questions. It seems academic, I’m an operational man.

I was a humanitarian aid worker for the last six years. I was in the countries you might expect given the fact I’m a native English speaker during this time period. South Sudan. The primary countries surrounding the Syrian War: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey (for a brief stint). Along with a brief stop in Libya and a few months in Guatemala (not sure how I pulled that), that was my aid career.

Now it’s done. And I question it. I truly, deeply question the whole point of the whole thing. I didn’t go into it with any great notions of saving the world. I didn’t even go into it with any real great notions of helping “the world”. I went into it for two reasons and two reasons only. First, I wanted to expand myself. As a former US soldier that had served in Kosovo and Afghanistan, I had been exposed to other cultures but I hadn’t been immersed in them. I was in the US Army in Afghanistan not an American in Afghanistan. I wanted immersion. I wanted to understand that deep human truths cut across cultural and country lines. I wanted to experience the world and my country’s place in it from other people’s point of view. Maybe that was a selfish reason. But it was mine.

The second reason, well I figured if I could help out a few people along the way, then cool. That’s what I wanted. And by people I didn’t generally even think in community terms, though that was part of it, no I really meant having positive effect on individuals, I always felt that was more lasting. Whether those individuals were staff, beneficiaries or whomever, well that remained to be seen.

I accomplished my two points to a sufficient manner to my liking. That being said, now I see things more clearly. I feel that more could have been done in a better way, in a smarter way. I feel, like many people are weighed down by crushing bureaucracy and people, politics and systems who don’t necessarily have the best intentions for all the people at heart.  

I have a lot of questions. I have questions around the money and the primary donors in the aid world (first the US and then the Brits and the European union). Is not western aid money tied to western political interests? And if so, is that ok? Do I want to be a part of that? How much is aid being used as a weapon of war inside Syria right now? How much of that aid is fueling the conflict? Why is there not more moral and social pressure on European, Western and other countries to accept Syrian and other refugees into their borders? Is it not our responsibility as a sane and humane society to extend our hands in a smart way to our fellow men and women and help them out in the best possible way in times like these? Are we failing in this?

When it comes to development (which just means more long term programming, it’s not aid which is I’m giving you food because there’s food shortages, it’s I’m teaching you how to grow better food and sell it over the course of time) in particular is the western aid system and way of doing things even appropriate for much of the rest of the world? Shouldn’t local solutions be more in demand? I mean if someone from say…Lebanon came to the US and told us how to do things, like empower our minority communities for instance, wouldn’t we tell them they are crazy? Aren’t there just way too many double standards here?

How do host countries abuse the foreign aid system (in the cases where it happens)? If you take western money out of play how is it funded? How do you combat corruption? Is corruption more likely without outside eyes (people not from the country you are performing the aid)? Is that just bs? Does it even really matter? I mean if someone is getting the job done and they’re getting paid a little on the side to make up for income disparities, well why not?

What about all these ex-pat aid workers (myself included) and their very nice salaries going places and living like kings (or if not kings at least pretty damn well compared to others)? Does this make sense? Do they (the ex-pats) really add any value? How do so many ex-pats (even if they’ve done pretty poorly at a job) end up getting recycled constantly in the system? How do we define ex-pats (to my mind it’s everyone that’s not from the country they are working in, but I’m not sure everyone holds to my thinking)? Why are the majority of Country Directors (the overall head of an agencies country program) I’ve worked for good politicians but lousy leaders?  Why is the development world seemingly dominated by women but the leadership positions in organizations are seemingly dominated by men?

How in the hell do we prioritize projects in a place like South Sudan where needs our rampant? Do we create cultures of subsistence and dependence in some places? How do we fight against that? Does the United Nations bureaucracy really contribute to effectively responding to humanitarian disasters? Why in the hell do I have to get quotes for goddamn laptops (based off of either US government rules or the way your organization has interpreted those rules) and waste a fair bit of time and resources doing so (outweighing the potential benefit) when the US Government can sole source millions and even billions of dollars in military and energy contracts during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

Six years man. So many questions. And so few answers to the whole thing. I was too busy chasing around quotes on goddamn laptops or making sure the form was filled or moving the goddamn paper across the goddamn desk. And then wondering why I had to move it. And what about all the crazy systems anyway? Could somebody simplify that?

I called this blog Aid without a Cause?, because that is what I want to understand. Not only if we have cause but if we’re doing it right or how we could be doing it better and if we could be doing it better how do we make those changes?

I have an itch in my brain and I need to scratch it.

But I’m not a social scientist. I’m not a researcher. I’m just an operations manager who can write and has got a shit ton of stories. That’s the lens that I’m going to work from. Experience and thought. I tell stories and then I think them through to capture what can be gleaned from that. This is a journey that I never fully started. I’ve lived the experience but I haven’t fully understood it. And in one of my dreams of dreams someday I would like to contribute to a better system, a better way of doing this stuff and a better way of being.

But first, we have to figure out what that is. So I’m gonna post one a week, every Monday, think it through, tell a story and try to take my best shot at answering some of these questions. Hope you’ll join. And give feedback.