When Good Intentions Hurt
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai devastated the coastal nations of southeast Africa. Over a million people were displaced while death tolls reached the hundreds, and hundreds more went missing. Humanitarian aid poured in to affected nations from non-governmental organizations and governments alike. Food and medical supplies also poured in, along with emergency personnel. Moved by the scenes of dramatic destruction, private donors rushed to provide funding for these efforts.
For many, humanitarian aid and its promise of relief provide hope when the chance of recovery seems dim. But too often, funds for humanitarian aid are directed toward projects that seem urgent but have less meaningful impacts on overall recovery, leading to long-term effects that can be just as devastating as the original disaster.
Haiti’s experience after it suffered a devastating 2010 earthquake offers a telling example. Moved by scenes of widespread destruction, the international community rushed to send aid. Without a doubt, this saved lives. But poor prioritization of needs and a lack of communication with the Haitian government severely weakened Haiti’s economy in the long run.
Food supplies were shipped to Haiti to prevent starvation. While this aid served its immediate purpose, large amounts of donated rice also made their way to the local market, where it was sold at such low prices that Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. With their main source of income greatly reduced, many farmers sought other forms of employment to support their families. When the aid organizations eventually left Haiti after completing their work, there were no longer enough farmers to grow the crops needed to sustain the nation, leaving the country dependent on expensive foreign imports for basic sustenance.
Meanwhile, the government struggled to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. While some NGOs stepped in to rebuild homes and schools, they usually hired their own workers for the projects. This directed work away from local Haitian construction companies and crews and, in the end, only a small percentage of the total lost infrastructure was rebuilt, leaving an overwhelming amount of work to be completed by the Haitian government without the help of NGOs. Compounding this challenge, the Haitian government received less than 1% of total donations from abroad, severely hampering its reconstructive capacity through limited resources.
Donors gain the most satisfaction, and feel more supportive of those in crisis, when they donate to immediate or emergency needs, rather than critical sustainability projects. Haiti’s Action Plan for National Recovery and Development, for example, included both types of programs. They received five times more aid for emergency transportation projects than requested, but only one-eighth of the amount needed for longer-term general reconstruction efforts. This led to underfunding or even cancellation of many crucial reconstruction projects, further slowing the government’s efforts to provide aid to its own people.
In contrast, Mozambique has tried take a proactive role in its recovery needs. Instead of waiting for donors to decide how to allocate their assistance, the government directly requested medical and search-and-rescue assistance from India. The Indian Navy sent three vessels, rescuing hundreds and providing trained medical relief to thousands impacted by Cyclone Idai, directly supporting the government of Mozambique’s assistance priorities and avoiding a wasteful duplication of efforts. Working together and listening to the needs of those most affected is an essential, though often forgotten, requirement of successful humanitarian aid.
What can be done to reduce the unintended negative consequences of foreign humanitarian aid? One way would be the better integration of best practices by NGOs and other assistance organizations into on-the-ground programs. By connecting with researchers, both at home and abroad, organizations can work within themselves and with the media to disseminate evidence-based practices and encourage the public to learn more about how aid really works. This would also help individual donors and practitioners better recognize the real needs of disaster-stricken populations and more effectively weigh the pros and cons of an organization’s programs when deciding where to donate or volunteer.
Another method would be to honor assistance requests from governments and NGOs that are local to the affected area. These institutions generally have a much better grasp of what is needed and what is not needed than foreign NGOs, and they will be able to direct other organizations to the areas and populations most in need of further aid.
It’s important for individual donors, NGOs, and other institutions to learn from past mistakes. What happened in Haiti didn’t have to happen in Mozambique. By better understanding where and to whom we send our money and donate our time, we can lessen the unintended negative impacts of global humanitarian aid and increase the envisioned benefits. We can harness the power of good intentions to create change that will live far beyond contributions of time and money.
Elizabeth Brandeberry is the 2019 International Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. The views expressed are the author's own.