Clash in Egypt: A Lesson on Sanctimony?

This past Sunday I put on The Clash. Hadn’t heard them in a while. This morning, “Should I stay or should I go” echoing in my head, I’m listening to the al-Jazeera live feed on the situation in Egypt and it clicks. Makes you wonder if that song lingered for random reasons or not. So Mr. Mubarak, you may have convinced yourself that if you go there will be trouble, but take some advice from Joe Strummer and pals: If you stay there will be double.

There is something wonderful and terrifying in watching a people – a community, a population, a country – rise up against tyranny, oppression, corruption, or plain old mismanagement. My younger days included eyes glued to the TV as “People Power” drove Ferdinand Marcos from office and as the Solidarity trade union shook off the iron embrace of Soviet power in Poland. One lesson from those movements is that they are most frightening to those in power in the early stages, before they are organized, when the raw and often chaotic energy means that, literally, anything can happen. After that: bureaucratization, cooptation, and the long march to becoming part of the establishment (and often to assume the same authoritarian policies and practices that had been so vigorously opposed all those years before). A lesson for MSF as well? That is a separate question.

A second lesson from the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, one perhaps more pertinent to humanitarian action, is the sheer power of the people to take control of their destiny, of their lives. A desperate and rather unimportant Tunisian self-immolates and the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak teeters on the precipice. Amazing! That power didn’t come from the guns or bombs or billions of US (military) aid. It didn’t depend on charismatic leadership à la Benigno Aquino or Lech Walesa. These moments of emancipation didn’t spontaneously combust out of the sort of everyday insurrections we see being carried out by thug-led rebel groups across our work. And these transformations certainly didn’t come from us in the West (unless you calculate in the negative sense, of how Western political and economic policies propped up dictators, impoverished the masses …). They came from the people themselves.

 To be more specific, they came from power which the people have always possessed yet failed to exercise. To the humanitarian, the question should come to mind: Where are the victims? Where are the populations whose suffering compels the presence of us Western saviours? Is it time we question the way our advocacy activities (“humanitarian protection”!) require a blameless, passive school of jellyfish-humans, swept up in the tide of bad guy behaviour? What happened to those millions of people in Darfur who we loudly declared to have been delivered to the brink of catastrophe when 13 international NGOs were shut down and expelled in March 2009? Where are those helpless masses of humanity upon whom our funding, our activities, and our identity are dependent? Turns out they aren’t as helpless as we thought.

Opening Salvo: Ask the poorest for funding

How does one inaugurate a blog?  If I wait for that deep inspiration, some 3 paragraph reflection that cuts to the bone of the humanitarian aid industry … Well, now you understand why I didn’t get this going last year.  The other strategy is to opt for a more simple debut by just starting.  

Forget DFID (oops: UKaid).  Forget USAID.  Forget even CIDA and SIDA.  Humanitarian aid agencies should start seeking funds from the foreign offices in the countries where they work.  Need money for a cholera treatment centre in Zimbabwe?  Why not ask Botswana, Congo and Ivory Coast for funding?  Need to mount a measles vaccination campaign in Nigeria?  Why not ask the government in Sudan for funding. 

Well, one rather obvious answer would be the unlikelihood of actually getting any money.  And we all know it’s all about the money.   One can only imagine the confused faces of Zambian bureaucrats when a billion per year INGO rep asks for money to run its projects in Bangladesh.   But one other answer, and the answer you’ll likely receive from these governments and INGO HQs themselves, is fundamentally wrong.   The poorest in the world will have turned an important corner when we all get rid of the answer:  “Because we are poor.”

Did anyone notice the news last week that South Africa will launch its own development aid agency?  (See the IRIN article here:  South Africa joins emerging powerhouses such as India, China and Brazil as recipients of aid who are now entering the hallowed ranks of the aid business.  Whether a ploy to boost the standing of the country, part of a strategic investment in foreign relations, or, contrary to that rash of cynicism, the governmental embodiment of compassion for those in need, I think it deserves a couple of thumbs up.

In other blogs, I’d like to examine this as part of salutary trend towards ending the Western hegemony of what we refer to as aid.  The Western donor-INGO duet could use a little competition.  But I’d like to focus on something else.  The act of standing up.  In the IRIN article, Ivor Jenkins, of the non-profit Democracy for Africa (IDASA), has this to say about the SA announcement:  “I do think it’s important for us as a country to start to have a sense of responsibility, and giving and not only receiving as we have for many years.’”  

Sense of responsibility.  That just about nails it on the head.  Western aid agencies have been taking increasingly damaging and certainly well-earned straight rights to the chin on their neo-colonial and/or neo-imperial attitude.  {I’ll be writing about that in future blogs).  We swagger through other people’s homelands, delivering the aid to the victims of the state’s own failure towards its people.  States don’t mind the aid, but aren’t quite as keen on the swagger.  Imagine that.  But some governments have had an easy time of playing it both ways, finger-pointing at neo-colonialism while hiding too easily behind neo-colonyism, the international relations equivalent of a Stepin Fetchit routine.  Poor countries as beggars who must shuffle through the corridors of the rich nations, whose economic and historic superiority impose an expectation of  moral duty to ship their money South.

The stereotype creates an existential split.  Not between wealthy countries and poor countries, as if those categories determined who should and should not give aid.  Certainly not between nations actually capable of sending aid to other nations and those incapable (Should Ireland be sending its cash anywhere?).  No, this is a split between those nations assuming the role of beggars or victims and those who assume the position of lord and savior.  More than acknowledging a sense of responsibility, SA’s move is a declaration that poverty is no excuse for the incapacity to help nations, just as wealth is hardly a guarantee for either compassion or generosity.

So future kudos to the first aid agencies that stop reinforcing the existential victimhood of governments in the developing world.  Let’s treat every government as sharing in the responsibility to come to the aid of people in crisis, both within and without their territory.  Let’s stop acting neo-colonial and ask governments to stop acting like neo-colonies. 

And kudos to the government of South Africa for embracing a lesson already being taught by poor people the world over.  If you look closely in places like Haiti, Darfur and Eastern DRC, you’ll find not places where the Western aid enterprise has saved helpless masses of people, but where the WFP convoy-sized gap in aid (2200 kcals per day!) is filled by the countless invisible acts of kindness between families, neighbours and strangers, all part of the same community of the abject poor.


Please excuse our appearances.  We’re still in development and I am mostly computer illiterate.  Hopefully, some great stuff to come, including photos of me with bad haircuts from the field.  So visit again.

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