Humanitarian Aid - A Necessary Evil

I just know I’ll get flack for what I’m about to say, but hey! I wouldn’t be me otherwise: I really question the virtue of humanitarian and developmental groups which seek to help other cultures attain a 'certain way of life.' Now, before you send me an angry comment, you need to understand that I say this whilst focusing on ‘the bigger picture’; a picture that excludes the individual and the immediate grief and need of each living in such conditions wherein help is required.

And don’t think you’ve got me pegged as an ultra right-wing republican type before reading what I have to say – I’m totally the opposite. I have a real hard time witnessing unjust (yep! That’s a touchy, subjective word, ‘unjust,’ but I’ll assume I won’t be called into splitting hairs over that one…) pain and suffering, in any form, on any living thing, period. And no, it’s not because I choose to live in denial and pretend all’s swell in the world, and it’s certainly not because I feel powerless against poverty or suffering. Rather, it is my bleeding-heart sensibility coupled with romantic ideals of a better world that force me to seriously question and severely doubt the long-term benefits brought on by humanitarian organizations.

Like felonious behaviour and junkies, social workers and rehab clinics, humanitarian groups are a necessary part of the societal cog. Where am I coming from, you ask? Try to imagine our world if everyone got ‘better’ overnight and was able to kick all that is deemed to be bad habits and vices. Boom and voila! No more alcoholics, junkies, addicts, overeaters, shopaholics, gamblers, and perverts! Just think of all the people that would suddenly find themselves out of work, not to mention that all these ‘bad habits’ support million dollar industries. I can’t even begin to imagine the effects this would have on the world, both in terms of macro and micro-economics, as well as the ultimate and inescapable need to create new modes of escapism. Our societal infrastructure, as it stands today, relies on alcoholics, junkies, social workers et al.; and it also relies on humanitarian and developmental organizations. That being said, it becomes clear that one of the primary goals of a majority of these humanitarian and developmental groups is that of a necessary tool in helping “advancement” in ‘delinquent’ countries.

All definitions researched for “Third World ,” irregardless of the source, support this notion in their very definition of the term; each presupposes (falsely) that Third World countries, like social-deviants, are non-active participants in the way the world is meant to function, and that they should be helped in order to gain a normal place in ‘society.’
Here for example, is the definition found in Wikipedia:

"Third World is a categorical label used to describe states that are considered to be underdeveloped in terms of their economy or level of industrialization, globalization, standard of living, health, education or other criteria for "advancement". The name Third World arose during the Cold War to refer to nations that did not belong to the similarly termed First" or "Second Worlds". There is debate over the appropriateness of the term. Critics of the term caution that the term implies that industrialization is progressive."

The concept of a “developed” versus “undeveloped” or Third World country is based purely on economics, period, even though proponents of these definitions claim that such things as education, health, etc are considered when applying these labels. Notice that the above definition states, “in terms of their economy OR level of education…” There is a clear separation made between the economy and the very products or side effect of economics. It’s no coincidence that in our modern societies (the ones applying these labels) education and health have taken on economic related importance and delineate one's importance in our market. One no longer goes to school to learn, one attends school for a job, and our health is but a factor in some complex productivity and cost-to-society equation.
If our true goal in life and reason for creation is to advance industries and markets to make more things better and quicker…and smaller, then perhaps our society and way of life should be imposed on others. But I like to believe that I wasn’t put on this earth to consume in order to be accepted, nor to please a boss because I’m earning him more money; should I be considered a nut-job living in some sort of Hare Krishna cloud for thinking that we humans should have a purpose higher than owning plasma TVs and fancy cars and that perhaps our so-called developed countries have taken a wrong turn some centuries back, and that this has obviously resulted in the terrible loss of true values and an increasing number of mental disorders?
Many tribes come to mind which appeared to be living in near perfect harmony and symbiosis with nature until we came along. What would the world be like today had these cultures imparted their ways of life on us? What if colonising and ‘exploring’ countries had considered spirituality (not to be confused with religion) and true joy to be more worthwhile commodities and had foregone the idea of exploiting these people for their natural resources?

And isn’t there something totally ethnocentric in wanting to impart our ways of life unto these people and cultures? Couldn’t this behaviour be compared to the Jesuit obsession – what exemplifies a summum of pretentiousness – with wanting to convert non-Christians? The driving force behind many of these developmental aids really stems from expectations towards the Third World to ‘catch-up’ to us in order to be more economically viable? Is this the world-in-mind version of “no child left behind” – no race left behind? Isn’t our so-called modern world partially responsible for many of their hard-ships? We’ve colonised and re-populated and divided and decolonized and exploited and taught them shame while we acted like true Vikings! Should it be surprising that these are now many of the very cultures we feel obliged to help today? It saddens me further to think that the help we bring removes them even further from the people they once were, and the cultures and values they once had.

But history has lead us into a world where Third World villages have become museums for tourists and life-changing trips for confused teens and adults. I was dumbfounded to recently learn that some of these all-inclusive resorts now offer packages that include ‘adventure’ treks and Monster truck tours to “typical” Third World villages way out in the boondocks. Of course these villages are no longer typical in that, like in any scientific experiment, the mere act of observing alters the observed act i.e. these villages have been transformed to encourage and please tourists – you can damn well be sure that ‘souvenir huts’ appeared where there were none before and that these towns’ economy now relies on tourism … (here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Monster Truck Safari).
And so people, under the guise of adventure, tell themselves that such an opportunity is a real eye opener, a life lesson, etc. That through this experience, they will be able to better appreciate the benefits of living in the conditions we are offered. Unfortunately, the success of marketers in constructing and shaping our capitalistic mindset implies that for many, this experience and subsequent lesson generally translates into a greater appreciation for consumer goods rather than the opposite. Moreover, this experience has merely changed their attitude in that it permits them to brag to neighbours and friends that they’ve seen hell, and they now know what it’s about, yet always conclude with something along the lines of: but it’s the people’s own fault; they live like pigs!
Yet viewed this way, aren’t these gated-community type synthetic-paradise resorts that tend to act more as status symbols than true travels doing more good to many of these people than the average humanitarian organization? They certainly boost and/or create local economy.

It cannot be denied that guilt-induced hypocrisy – modern day’s eight deadly sin – plays an important role in motivating many of these groups as well as donations to these groups. If we really wanted to end poverty and hunger throughout the world, we would do so. Heck, consumers spend how much money each year on ‘self-help’ products that essentially teach us “anything is possible if [we] aim to have it!” And with that very motto in mind, CERN has put how many billions of dollars into attempting to re-create the Big Bang?! And yet it seems that nothing can be done to end hunger in the world while on December 19, La Presse, a francophone daily out of Montreal, published an interesting article questioning why, in many industrialized countries, roughly 40% of our food ends up in the trash while there’s so much hunger in the world?

But for now, at the individual level, since aid is a natural and necessary part of our world order, I applaud every effort that actually brings food to the truly hungry, and a sense of self-worth and preservation to those suffering unimaginable moments, abroad and at home – wherever it is needed!
What’s the solution? I don’t know. Perhaps, and certainly Ayn Rand would disagree, it lies in finding a way to hinder the competitive and individualistic nature of capitalism so we can all start believing in other things again…

Merry Christmas and all that...but I wish mostly joy!

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© 2008, Pascal-Denis Lussier

Photo credits: "Which Way?" by Pascal-Denis Lussier

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