Putting out fires with gasoline

Posted on: March 11, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“Humanitarian aid work is more and more like firefighters. We are not the ones in charge of pursuing those causing the fire to stop them, we just jump from one emergency to the other, and that will not change things for good.”

-40yr old female expat aid worker


Putting out fires with gasoline
Just a short rant as I deal with my demented news feed.

The need for a coordinated, well resourced aid sector is, arguably, more acute just now than at any other time in history. The latest news from the UN  reports 20 million people- mostly children- are in danger of famine and starvation right now.

To be clear this is a human made disaster. War and famine ‘feed’ each other in a demented death spiral, continually, not just yet again.

These humanitarian crises are human made but, as the female expat aid worker notes above, those in the sector are just going from house to house trying to put out fires.  Could it be that they are -in part- using gasoline-laced water to out out these fires and that
gasoimagesline is the same that is powering the lifestyles and livelihoods of the neoliberal economy driven global north?

A call to action?
Going back through the data from our survey I came across this:

“Aid work, human rights instruments etc I think are most important for setting normative global cultural imperatives. “  – 40 yr old female, HQ based

I have argued in previous posts that if indeed [sociologist Emile] Durkheim was right in asserting that there is such as thing as a collective consciousness then aid and development workers are the conscience of our collective consciousness.  As such they should not just react to those in need but as well proactively work toward “…setting normative global cultural imperatives.”

Yes, summits are good.  Taking principled stands, such as with MSF’s withdrawal from participation in the WHS, is also good.   Establishing and urging the adherence to a sector-wide core standard is very good, but still surely reactive.

What more can be done to have aid worker voices more demonstratively part of the conversation about how we organize and live our lives?  Focused with the right kind of organizational lens the collective insights of sector workers could move the needle forward.  It may be worth a try, but I suspect there are few if any social engineers visionary or powerfully positioned enough to construct such a lens.

imagesA reason to professionalize the sector
There are many good reasons to continue moving forward in ‘professionalizing’ the sector, and the one I am suggesting here is to have aid worker voices heard at the highest levels.  I know that this is tilting at windmills, but if humanity has hope it lies not with politicians or CEO’s but with those who know the most about our needs individually and as members of this unevenly globalized world.  We need to follow our conscience.

May we all continue the struggle to ensure pathways to dignity for all, including ourselves.

To rant back click here.

Tom Arcaro

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 is currently working on a second book tentatively titled "Hearing Voices: Dispatches from the margins of the humanitarian sector".

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