Humanitarianism is a Syndrome

It was intriguing and also a bit disconcerting to read two of Paul Currion’s recent posts over at Humanitarian.Info (Humanitarianism is a Disease, The Two Crises of Humanitarianism). Most of it rings true in a sort of ominous death knell sense. He touches on a number of my own pet themes (the aid world is not really like the for-profit world, even if Bill Gates pronounces otherwise; networks are probably more important than individual NGO brands, etc.). The notion of humanitarianism being like a disease, in particular, is intriguing. It reminds me of an older, more experienced aid worker who during my newbie years used to warn me that aid work is like its own mental illness.

At any rate, rather than bore you with my own self-absorbed re-write or nit-picky takedown, I’ll just share that these two posts prompted the following responses in my head:

How we think and talk about aid matters. If you accept the general premise that what the aid industry has to offer the world is actually humanitarianism (humanitarian principles, if you will), rather than NFI distributions or food aid or MCH programs, then you’re not far from the realization that how we think internally and talk externally about aid does, in fact, matter. It matters a lot.

To put Paul Currion’s premise in other parlance, our job is or will become more about evangelizing good aid. Talking, communicating about aid in ways that are both truthful and also engaging. If that’s true, then we’d better get a better grip on how we talk about it than we currently have. More to the point, if our core purpose is increasingly around talking about what we do and how and why to those who don’t know, whether they’re our donors, those who ‘like’ agency Facebook pages, or the self-proclaimed critics, then more of that talking will need to be done by professional practitioners, with less emphasis on branded filtration. In short, it’s time for more full, honest dialogue about aid effectiveness in the public space.

Motivations matter; principles, not so sure. After I tweeted the link to Humanitarianism is a Disease there was a very interesting twitter discussion between myself, @reincongo, and @paulharvey72 about the extent to which principles really matter to beneficiaries, and what evidence there might be one way or the other. Basically, there is little evidence one way or the other (if I’ve somehow missed some major foundation-funded interagency longitudinal study documenting the evidence base for the effect of humanitarian principles on beneficiary acceptance, I’m sure someone will set me straight in the comments thread).

It seems to me, though, that The Humanitarian Principles are simply a proxy for something else. An attempt to make practical sense of a myriad of motivations ranging from tugs on the heartstrings of emotion, to CSR which truly struggles to be meaningfully more than benevolent appearing market penetration.

I think the more important conversation is one around motivations: why get involved in the humanitarian enterprise, whether as a practitioner or as a donor, or both, at all? And an acknowledgement that those motivations do have an effect, even if that effect is easily buried under pages of UN and IASC and aid agency technobabble, on the quality and impact of what ultimately makes it through to beneficiaries.

(an amusing video about the humanitarian impulse, HT @humanosphere)

We have to think past NGO brands. Whatever the future looks like, it will have to be an industry-wide, profession-wide discussion. And that discussion will not benefit from NGO or donor branding. I don’t seen NGOs/INGOs/BINGOs going away any time soon, but I’d see the currency of value, at least within the aid industry, being increasingly about networks among individual practitioners. I’m repeating myself.


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  1. Humanitarianism is a Syndrome | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator
  2. Philanthropy: Killing itself with Kindness and Happiness? | Humanosphere

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