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Food for a dubious humanitarian thought

Human Rights Reader 358


Foreign aid does not address the frequently adverse effects of powerful global nations using their muscle and force, as well as them too often looking the other way on the violations of human rights.


  1. We cannot be content with the badly needed social changes and human rights (HR) issues remaining unaddressed when foreign aid interventions are made under the ‘humanitarian’ guise, i.e., those that the dominant powers so often offer in place of structural changes, of solidarity and of support of the liberation struggles of people in recipient countries. If we insist on this structural dimension of the struggles being waged, it is because that is the condition without which no convergence is possible between the struggles waged in the North and those waged in the South in our increasingly interdependent world.*

*: The almost absence of a Northern anti-imperialist consciousness has been the main reason for the limited advances that the people in poor countries have hitherto been able to realize –not withstanding their retrogression. (Samir Amin)


  1. Never underestimate the double-standard morals applied by nations (and individuals) that say one thing yet do another; nowhere more patent than in the realm of HR. Take foreign aid: It tends to strengthen the free market concept when what is needed is strengthening the solidarity and complementarity of local markets that are not governed by capitalist cut-throat competition. (Evo Morales)


  1. In foreign aid, there is no such a thing as moral immunity. So it is fitting to ask: Why is it that being in a position of power makes donor countries donating feel very ethical?


  1. Given the prevailing diplomacy of war and of death, of free market excesses and of privatization, of foreign debt**, of the plundering of natural resources by transnationals, we must impose a diplomacy of the peoples of the South so as to strengthen ourselves from within the South. We in the South are not and cannot be an obedient servant pawn of the Northern powers. We in the South are emerging because of the newly acquired power of the people and of the progressive and sovereign governments. We are thus slowly configuring a New South that implements projects of regional integration. There will be no strong South if there is no sovereignty, patriotism, and nationalism in the good sense and, above all, a will of its people and states to break the chains of colonial and neoliberal servitude. (Evo Morales)

**: Who is fooling whom on the foreign debt issue? Donor institutions that give debt relief simply reduce their overall aid envelope by an equivalent amount. If donors want to really help recipient countries they must do what is deemed needed by the recipient country’s people as opposed to making the donor and its constituency feel good; that is charity. (J. Bhagwati)


  1. UN agencies are unfortunately prone to the same collective-action problems that bedevil bilateral donors. They are often tempted to adopt bland, lowest-common-denominator positions or to try to free ride on the contributions of others. (S. Patrick) Edicts rather than ‘guidance’ are needed when dealing with any MDG-related issue, for instance when dealing with modern forms of slavery such as child labor or with gender disparity in wages and in opportunities. Paternalistic pronouncement or acts, or flown-in-‘helicopter-aid’ are simply not enough; we know their shortfalls. (A. Arora)


Aid is often given on an unrequired basis and frequently imposes stiff conditionalities


-“If I want to join a golf club it is to play golf; I should not be required to go to church with other club members”. (J. Bhagwati)

-We have to see foreign aid for what it is and slough off all the hype, as a snake discards old skin. (G. Cannon)


  1. It would actually be a revolutionary step forward if recipient countries would challenge donors when being offered aid that goes against their conscience or violates the HR of their people. (E. Galeano)


  1. Therefore, enforcing foreign aid accountability requires taking steps beyond government monitoring and governments ‘building evidence’. Much of social accountability work in this field focuses on generating evidence through engaging communities in monitoring. But citizens’ strengthened demands and their feedback are oftentimes only a small factor among many other that attempt to influence the foreign and national powerful decision-makers’ related policies and actions. In this sense, more evidence alone does not, by itself, lead to greater accountability! Equally important is bridging the distance created by administrative and political processes between those who seek accountability, in this case people’s representatives, and those from whom it is sought. Against the conventional definitions of accountability used by international development practitioners, there are indeed local understandings of what makes leaders accountable. There are informal, alternative sources of legitimacy…and of power. Service-providers and local state officials are themselves members of the community –and people’s representatives will have to confront them first. But beware, problems that manifest themselves at the local level cannot always be solved or attributed to local government. The national and international political context very often better explains the workings of local accountability. HR practitioners and advocates who seek to promote responsive accountability need to be able to discern and navigate the respective political context. A priority on the policy setting agenda is thus to retain concrete implementation strategies and structures that have a relevant leverage and political clout. Further, governance processes need to be adapted to allow for participation and representation of men, women and children and due consideration must be given to their respective rights issues. Not to forget: Accountability mechanisms need to both involve children and be fully responsive to children’s rights. (L. T. Phuong Nguyen, UNICEF)


  1. The foreign aid worldwide theater has many sobering lessons to teach us. To me, it is a major case study in the debate between interveners and empowerers:

Empowerment means increasing one’s capacity to define, analyze, and act on one’s own problems. An empowering program is one that steadily reduces the claim holders’ need for it. It builds the capacity of individuals and communities to take their own good decisions relating to their rights.

Interveners use programs designed by outside experts to be delivered to ‘needy people’.

In contrast, empowerers call for supporting people in addressing their own concerns on their own terms and with their own resources.

Interveners want to control what will be done while empowerers want to guide people in what they choose.


  1. Currently, foreign aid produces probably little that would directly benefit the supposed recipients ‘on the ground’. It is quite clear that the voices of families that are supposed to benefit from all this activity have not been heard. This is because the constituency for most donors, the people from whom they get their validation, is either scientists, development ‘experts’ or other funding agencies. But there are ways in which local people can participate with a binding character. If they are to benefit, they should be helped to see and assess the proclaimed benefits. Maybe the local people can help the experts see benefits and harms they had not considered. One way to empower local communities thus is to turn some of the aid funds over to them and let them decide what sort of experts and other services they will hire. Done right, this would help to ensure that the communities’ interests are served, and also help to empower the experts by making them more effective in their work. (adapted from G. Kent)


  1. Bottom line, just tinkering with foreign aid will do no more good than a band-aid on gangrene –if we want to make it really HR-compliant. (G. Cannon)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Every 1000 dollars of extra aid reduces taxes collected by recipient governments by an important percentage. (F+D 50:4, December 2013)

-The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

-A country should never ruin its present based on a past that has no future. (Albino Gomez)

-Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) recommended pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

-Believe it or not, human rights work will eventually teach donors to be human. (adapted from A. Gomez)


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