A Closer Examination of the Effects of Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian aid cannot remain entirely impartial despite its best efforts to be. Aid organizations are comprised of people, all of which are flawed in some sense by their own prejudices, personal opinions, and agendas. In “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power” by Antonio Donini, he says that, “Technical knowledge and expertise – the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer – are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship and power.” (Donini)

The notion of providing humanitarian aid is in itself a partial decision to become involved in a conflict or a disaster area by providing relief. As noble as it is to take the side of the victims, that decision also inadvertently entangles the countries providing the aid into the conflict.

children wait in line to receive food from aid workers.

children wait in line to receive food from aid workers.

In one of my favorite books, “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck, there is a scene where he describes having a coyote between the crosshairs of his rifle. Although the coyote is nowhere near his camp, he feels conditioned, even obligated to kill it. “Coyotes are vermin. They steal chickens…they must be killed. They are the enemy.” (Steinbeck) He soon realizes however, “There isn’t a chicken around for miles, and if there are, they aren’t my chickens…why should I interfere?” (Steinbeck) As he lowers his rifle, he, “Remembered something I heard long ago that I hope is true. It was unwritten law in China, so my informant told me, that when one man saved another’s life, he became responsible for that life to the end of its existence. For, having interfered with a course of events, the savior could not escape his responsibility. And that has always made good sense to me.” (Steinbeck)

I have always felt that this scene depicted the conundrum of international affairs in a strange, but very eloquent way. Steinbeck feels the desire to interfere with the Coyote’s fate; he feels that he should lash out at it violently based on his own personal opinion of coyotes, even when it is in no way interfering with his life. He realizes however, that by intervening, he has become inextricably linked to that coyote for as long as it lives. Humanitarian aid operates much the same way.

A modern, industrialized Western nation sees a country that it views as backwards, or underdeveloped, or poor, or violent, and it enters that country to try and solve its problems for it.

By doing so however, that mission cannot end simply when the aid campaign does. When the aid campaign is finished, the duty to that country is not, although far too often it is viewed that way. Humanitarian aid is a temporary solution, a means to an end, but it does not solve problems. Humanitarian aid provides relief, which is an important word to grasp. It provides relief from disaster, or violence, but it does not provide an answer.

The glowing review of a recent Elon University volunteer trip makes this short-term mentality quite evident. The title of the article, “Students visit Malawi for service opportunities” alone should bring with it some concern, implying that the only interest students have in Malawi, is the “opportunity” to work with poor people.

Regardless, the students traveled to Malawi, where they built a garden, taught nursery school children, and assisted with renovations. All of these took place however over the course of just one short month. This means that the students had very little time to learn about the country, or to understand its issues short of, what is described as a tour of Blantyre, “to see the country from a child’s perspective” and visiting the African savannah to experience, “life in rural Malawi.” (Small)

However I’m sure none of these tours changed their preconceived notion that Malawi is a country that must depend on Western nations generosity to survive. This interference also can have negative effects on the children that can be seen receiving aid from these students. They are far more susceptible and easily molded, and may come to see aid not as a crutch, but instead commit wholly to Western ideologies and relief efforts, rather than using them to supplement their own culture.

Humanitarian aid westernizes nations, or at the very least, strips them in some sense of their self-reliance and their cultural identity. Whether that is an intended consequence or not, it is a serious one that must be contemplated before intervening, and it must be something whose impact is viewed in the long-term, not over the course of just a single month.


Works Cited:


Steinbeck, John. “Travels with Charley” Penguin Group. Print. 1961.


Small, Evan.  “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities” June 13, 2013. June 16, 2013. http://www.elon.edu/e-net/Article/72834


Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power”

Abu-Sada, Caroline. “How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid” Doctors Without Borders. Print. 2012.

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