Yes, a snapshot can be useful…

Posted on: April 3, 2014 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

…but there is so much more being offered by many respondents.

As I read though the many responses to the various open ended questions on the survey many patterns emerge.  One pattern is that many people will qualify their statements and add critical context.  Here are just three examples that came in response to the question about corruption [“Please use the space below to elaborate on the questions above related to corruption.”]:

  • In the organisation, it is bloated with money and many people simply gorge at the trough of development aid. I am thankfully removed from this in my field, I have little reason to interact with others in my organisation. I do see the old boys network everywhere, the British upper middle classes in particular seem to have taken over other organisations, such as parts of the UN for example. Corruption is endemic to the human condition however. Regarding the region (mostly Africa) – there is a fine line between helping ones friends and families and corruption, in some cultural contexts this line is not where we expect. It is imperialism to impose our values on others like this when we have so much ‘acceptable’ corruption in our own private and public sector. We should get our own house in order (for me, the UK) before we judge others.
  • Where do I begin? Once of the problems of BIG AID is the endemic corruption it carries with it. In poor countries, lots of money connected to faceless donors creates a magnetic field around it which distorts markets, expectations and integrity. Battling this is a full time job and demands a canny understanding of the context. This demands battle hardened veterans who stay around and can manage the corruption issues. However, the nature of humanitarian work is one of constant turn over, so this is an issue. When it comes to “development work”, then they have no excuse for the rampant corruption, which I have witnessed. I really feel that development aid of the big dollar variety has in many places really created corruption, dependency and undercut local efforts at self-development. It’s almost as if this industry was in the business of keeping itself busy under the myth of lifting people out of poverty.
  • I did not like your choices. A key challenge for humanitarian actors is a very narrow donor base (US+N/W Europe) which is vulnerable to budget cuts. We are also entering a new time where most people live in middle income countries, and their governments have greater capacity. In many cases our business model is no longer so relevant. ‘Humanitarian’ work has really ballooned in scope and volume during the last 15 years, in part to get around Paris Declaration-type principles and circumvent host country governments. I think this will have to be scaled back. We are also all very confused what ‘humanitarian’ is – is it defined by the funding source (donor country emergency funding) or is it the type of work (temporary and unplanned)? Much if not most work funded by donors through emergency envelopes is really quite routine and planned, but this modality allows less recipient government scrutiny and coordination – for better or worse.

The issues raised in these two thoughtful responses are many, timely, and critical to the future of humanitarian aid work.snapshot data

The third example above sums it well:  “I do not like your choices.”  Indeed, I agree most closed ended choices are boxes that beg to be questioned.

The nature of the beast with any survey is that you are taking a snapshot:  this is how people responded when they took the survey.  Happily -though with no surprise- many who gave us the gift of their time and thoughts in the survey have nodded at the inherent limitations of trying to put into boxes and short answers their insights and have offered up some narrative haikus that offer good points of departure for more discussion.  As I have pointed out before, that is indeed the main point of this exercise, this survey.

To rephrase, the inexorable trap of inferring a monolithic and oversimplified answer to any question, particularly the sometimes nuanced and complex ones in this survey, can be minimized -or at least addressed- by openly recognizing that taking a snapshot of a process is impossible:  the transform from many dimensions (certainly temporal being the main one) to just a flat two-dimensional view is a trick no one has mastered completely.

As we continue to move forward with collecting responses I must offer a heartily ‘thank you’ to all who have so thoughtfully joined the conversation thus far.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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