Humanitarian Aid Distortions and Contortions

There has been a lot of media commentary on the ‘propaganda war’ and attempts by the UK and US governments to control media exposure. However, less attention has been given to the broader policy consequences of economic, political and military intervention strategies which are led by PR concerns rather than needs on the ground. One area where some disquiet has been raised over false priorities is that of post-war international involvement. In many cases, there has been harsh criticism that the allocation of human rights spending seems to be unrelated to the requirements of those on the ground. This is demonstrated by the skewering of international assistance to states which are the focus of media attention. The first year of the United Nations mission in Kosovo cost an estimated $456 million, yet little of this went to meet humanitarian needs. As Iain Guest noted, ‘the massive concentration of international aid in such a tiny country has had a devastating impact’. The takeover of Kosovo by aid agencies and UN administrative officials has resulted in the collapse of ethnic-Albanian social organisations and actually undermined ‘capacity-building’. Recovery has been set back by inflation caused by high-spending international officials pushing house prices beyond reach, while the distortion of salaries means that professionals like teachers or doctors can earn ten times more as drivers and interpreters. Huge sums, like a $10 million grant made available for the Kosovo Women’s Initiative, have led to people establishing NGOs just to obtain donor money as social and economic life is reshaped around the funding requirements of external institutions.

As Thomas Carothers observes, it seems that ‘the case for foreign assistance generally, may at times depend less on the specific impact of the assistance on others than on what the assistance says and means about ourselves’. Michael Ignatieff draws out the dangers of this self-serving approach:

[W]hen policy was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West ‘meant’ something.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 79-80 [reference citations removed]

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