Tag Archives aid

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to investigate and quash corruption in the UN’s aid agencies by Avagay Simpson

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to investigate and quash corruption in the UN’s aid agencies by Avagay Simpson

More than 100 million people across the world living in war zones and other emergency settings are dependent on humanitarian assistance facilitated by the UN. These populations are likely to ...

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where ...

EADI/ISS Series | Re-Politizing the European Aid Debate by Iliana Olivié and Aitor Pérez

Aid or, at least, its narrative, is increasingly politicised. This is happening in a period of emerging populist and/or nationalist movements in Europe. Maybe counter-intuitively, nationalism or populism does not necessarily lead to decreasing aid budgets or a lower profile for international assistance. The explanation lies in the fact that aid, when used politically, can be a useful tool for fulfilling donors’ interests.

The economic, social and political crises that have erupted in Europe in the last decade might be shifting the academic debate on the drivers of aid from the more traditional selfish vs. solidary divide to a―somehow related―new divide on Nationalism vs. Liberalism-Cosmopolitanism. Recent examples are the Brexit process, or the rise of populist movements in Europe.

Most analyses of the drivers of Northern donors published in the last two decades have pointedly explored the extent to which countries contribute aid according to ‘good’ or altruistic motives (based on recipient needs and/or merits and driven by solidarity), or ‘bad’ or selfish reasons (essentially the donors’ national interests). A great deal of these studies concludes that, indeed, Northern countries give aid out of selfish motives, often related to security or wealth, which is seen as something morally reprehensible. According to this literature, donors should shift to a more altruistic view of aid, that should be grounded in the principle of solidarity.

Currently, a new divide between Nationalism and Liberalism-Cosmopolitanism is emerging in the academic debate on aid. To counter the ‘cultural backlash’ of either lobbying against aid, or for using aid to shut ‘the other’ out in many European countries and sectors, some academics and activists point out the need for aid as a tool for the promotion of democracy, civil and human rights and a liberal ideal of world society. In this sense, aid can be used selfishly, but for the promotion of one’s values, not interests.

Aid to support political priorities

This new divide is one of the factors behind the current trend towards a ‘re-politization’ of aid, and signs of such trend manifest in the European aid narrative. For instance, the European Commission’s President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen’s mission letter to the new EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, states that it is necessary to ensure that “the European model of development evolves in line with new global realities […] and should contribute to our wider political priorities”. This is followed by more specific objectives, such as a comprehensive strategy for Africa, a post-Cotonou agreement, working towards the achievement of the SDGs, the promotion of gender equality and the support of civil society.

The ‘re-politization’ of aid, ‘politization’ or merely ‘politics’ is one of the driving ideas of our book “Aid power and politics”, recently published by Routledge. For instance, a sense of Liberalism and/or Cosmopolitanism lay behind the British former role as an aid super-power. In the late 90s and the beginning of this century, the UK played a strong leadership role in aid and development, building a strong capacity to influence the international aid community and, particularly, EU development cooperation policy. In a similar vein, the Scandinavian approach to aid―depicted as humane―responds to cosmopolitan and moral considerations. These values may be found among the policy drivers in this policy area, along with enlightened self-interest related to international common goods.

This perspective also applies in the case of Brazil. This country has been one of the most active countries in South-South cooperation over the past two decades. A significant feature of Brazilian cooperation policy has been its wide coverage, in geographical, sectorial as well as instrumental terms. Moreover, Brazil has channelled a large part of its cooperation policy through multilateral organisations and has established relevant alliances with other emerging countries. In this context, the purpose of reforming the major multilateral organisations and the search for greater international projection have led Brazil to establish South-South coalitions, in its search of regional and global leadership.

Aid as a tool for shaping global governance

In other cases, it would be difficult to argue that Liberalism and/or Cosmopolitanism is the vision behind the donor’s aid program. For instance, under the constitution adopted after the Second World War, Japan was prevented from sending its Defence Forces abroad, or from solving international conflicts by military means. This is what has made development assistance an important tool in its international relations. Economic diplomacy is a key concept for Japan when dealing with developing countries. At the domestic level, development assistance is also a tool to stimulate the Japanese economy, assisting small- and medium-sized companies, in particular to establish themselves in less developed parts of the world. Also, in Hungary, the aid system was reformed in the mid 2010s, when the government took stronger political ownership of the policy area with a view of using foreign aid to support Hungarian business interests.

From this perspective, it could be argued that, when used politically, aid can be a tool for donors’ aiming at shaping global governance. This explains the evolving nature of ‘donorship’ as a result of the increasing weight of non-Western donors. It is also the reason why health objectives have shifted due to the appearance of private stakeholders in the global health system.

….Or the other way round?

However, this could also go the other way around: specific agendas, set in the aid universe, can shape the behaviour of countries or other agents.

These mechanics can be better understood with the study of specific agendas such as gender equality or democracy and good governance. In this latter case, this agenda, which became central in the aid regime in the late 1980s and 1990s, also faced difficulties in its implementation due to the confrontation of the international liberal consensus with domestic politics in recipient countries. As for gender equality, donor organisations cannot avoid addressing it in their development cooperation, but they can do so in substantially different ways. In the end, organisational origins, priorities and pressures, as well as normative environments, tend to bias and dilute global norms on gender equality.

Aid or, at least, its narrative, is increasingly politicised. In addition, this is happening in a period of emerging populist and/or nationalist movements or political parties in Europe. Maybe counter-intuitively, nationalism or populism does not necessarily lead to decreasing aid budgets or a lower profile for international assistance. The explanation lies in the fact that aid – eventually, re-shaped – can be a useful tool for fulfilling donors’ interests.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

0 Iliana OliviéIliana Olivié is senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid. At the upcoming EADI ISS Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”, Iliana Olivié will be hosting the roundtable session “What values and goals drive international assistance? Solidarity, self-interest, democracy and security in European aid”.

foto-perfilAitor Pérez is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute.


Image Credit: Defence Images, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0. The image was cropped.

EADI/ISS Series | Bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies: Four Avenues by Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie

EADI/ISS Series | Bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies: Four Avenues by Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie

Postdevelopment debates are relatively new to scholars studying the EU's Development Policy. However, bridging EU development and post-development can help us to think about (normative) alternatives to EU development, both ...

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

The localisation agenda, which aims to localise funds and responsibilities to local actors in humanitarian responses, retains an ambiguous concept of ‘the local’. The inclusion of power relations at multiple ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | How to defend a common humanity? by Khaled Mansour

In a gripping account of his witnessing of the gross human rights violations inflicted on others, Khaled Mansour asks why aid workers are becoming apathetic toward the crimes against humanity that are still occurring today. He shows how genuine change is made possible by a group of aid workers that are countering worrying trends in the humanitarian sector by means of a global movement called United Against InHumanity. This post is based on his keynote address for the 5th conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association that took place at the ISS on 27 August 2018.

Fifteen years ago, I survived the attack against the UN headquarters in Iraq, but the explosion killed 22 of my colleagues, also demolishing a personal barrier that I have had for years. This barrier ostensibly had helped me to cope with the scenes of abject poverty and degradation; violent deaths and inexplicable violence; and the looming menace that I have had to live close to for years.

For months, I stood at the brink of an abyss of dark and bloody recollections. Memories came flooding back: a flattened refugee camp in Jenin; small tombs for children that had died of malnourishment in Hirat; stories of torture inflicted on political prisoners or suspects from Syria to Pakistan, to name but a few.

I no longer try to forget these scenes. The barrier that I had erected between myself and even harsher and more frequent atrocities in areas of conflict is gone. And for that I am grateful. Like many people who engage in humanitarian aid and the defense of human rights in situations of conflict, I have had to grapple with occasional attacks of depression and waves of sadness, but I see them as signs of a shared humanity and a healthy vulnerability.

They are also a call for resistance through writing, teaching, volunteering and, most important, working with others to defend the dignity and rights of people in conflict. It is a call for action to build and rebuild what our common humanity means and how we can work together to protect it.

The growing apathy of aid workers

However, there is a dominant sense among critics of the humanitarian aid system that the old has disintegrated while the new is not yet born, as Grasmsci said almost a century ago.

There is also a shocking indifference in global and regional centers of power as to the fate of hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are decimated in conflicts. Over the past few years, millions have been killed, maimed or forced to flee their homes because of such horrific violence. Civilians are suffering in what has become normalised military operations in Syria, Yemen, the Gaza Strip and many other places. The Assad forces have used indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians, while the Israeli and the Saudi forces simply disregard the concept of military advantage as they bomb densely populated areas or vital infrastructure installations, killing and harming far more civilians than members of the Houthi or Hamas militias. Armed non-state actors, ISIS for example, have also committed their share of spectacular atrocities.

Compliance with the laws of war and holding violators to account are becoming increasingly difficult tasks. The refugee law is not faring much better. The EU deterrence measures against possible refugees are an abomination that resulted in thousands of people seeking asylum drowning at sea.

This is fueling cynicism among aid workers as well as recipients. Aid agencies are reportedly jockeying for a bigger slice of the USD930 million promised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the gigantic aid operation in Yemen. These two countries have led a merciless war against Yemeni Houthi militias, killing as many as 20,000 civilians. Starvation and blocking essential humanitarian supplies as a war tactic has been regularly used in Syria since 2012, predominantly by the regime, while aid agencies simply acquiesced as the authorities rejected one request after another to access besieged areas. And now, we face the criminalisation of both asylum seekers and those who help them in western countries.

These are disturbing trends.

What is more disturbing is how human empathy is eroding. With an unprecedented rise in populism, rights (legal and otherwise) are increasingly limited to citizens and then not even to all of them. Within societies from the US to India, more demagogue chauvinists advocate that all humans were not equal and that not all cultures can peacefully co-exist. They are not the majority yet, but their influence is mushrooming.

A need for greater political will

There is a glaring absence of political will at the state and intrastate levels. The cosmopolitan values that are at the root of much of the humanitarian and human rights movements seem to be in retreat. This absence of political will was very evident in the ICRC’s failure to introduce a new mechanism for compliance with the Geneva conventions in 2015, or in the miniscule outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, or the failure of the Refugee Summit in New York after two years of work to produce any real change to the grim reality.

So, to quote another Marxist, who was maybe luckier than Gramsci, what is to be done?

There is a large body of literature and policy studies that deconstruct the current aid system. There is a ton of policy papers and many think tanks that have ideas to reform/fix or change the humanitarian enterprise.

But what seems to be missing is sustained popular pressure to force a genuine change or quicken the pace of reform. There is a clear need for a movement of people to struggle alongside those who are affected in conflicts in order to ensure their rights to protection and basic needs.

United Against InHumanity: reason for optimism?

This is why a group of former and current aid workers, researchers, and activists have come together last year and started working to build such a global movement to produce action-oriented knowledge, engage in policy advocacy and, most important, organise and play an active political role against atrocities and the rising inhumanity in conflicts around the world.

United Against InHumanity (UAI) is still emerging, propelled by the outcome of extensive consultations with diverse groups and potential stakeholders in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Europe since late 2017 to turn a common feeling of indignation into a repertoire of impactful actions.

The overall purpose of UAI is to initiate and facilitate joint action by civil society at global, regional and national levels to challenge warring parties, their sponsors, governments and relevant international organisations in order to reverse the normalisation of indiscriminate warfare and the erosion of the right to asylum.

This is a tall order! But it is probably our only way to effectively stand against unbridled and murderous acts of inhumanity in conflicts instead of building barriers that we falsely think could save us.  

KhaledAbout the author: 

Khaled Mansour is a member of the emerging movement United against Inhumanity. He is a senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative. For the past 30 years he has been a writer in addition to working in aid, peacekeeping and human rights organisations around the world.

IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

The humanitarian aid community in reaction to security risks facing its staff is slowly but surely building a Fort Knox around itself. This article details only some of the risks ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

Today, in a rapidly changing world, humanitarian crisis response and humanitarianism is increasingly confronted with boundaries that are dissolving, displaced, or resurrecting. The bi-annual International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) Conference taking ...

Technological solutions for socio-political problems: revisiting an open humanitarian debate by Rodrigo Mena

The use of technology in the humanitarian aid sector is showing a steady increase based on a sense of hope that technology could help to improve the delivery of aid and solve multiple systemic problems. Technological solutions alone, however, cannot properly address such complex problems. This blog engages in an ongoing debate among development scholars on some of the hopes and concerns related to the use of digital and web-based technology in this sector. The main conclusion: we need more case research on the use of technology and, in the meantime, the careful use of technology is invited.

The application of technology is gaining popularity in the humanitarian sector due to the series of perceived benefits and ‘solutions’ that it seems to provide. Increasingly, development scholars are warning of the unintended consequences that such technological ‘solutions’ can produce—some of them negative. Dr. Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB, in one of his blog posts, cautions us about the limits of technological solutions, saying that ‘just because technologies can allow us to collect, store, analyse and communicate data and ideas in unprecedented ways should not lull us to think they can address old, entrenched problems in unprecedented ways. The primary constraints for human action are non-technological in nature.’

Long-term research on the topic by Dr. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Dr. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and Sean Martin McDonald, from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), reminds us of how technology shapes humanitarian action; they also write in a blog post that technology is implemented in the humanitarian sector without adequate legal, ethical and methodological frameworks. Another warning comes from Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, who in a recent blog post shows how the use of blockchain technologies[i] by aid agencies to support people in need, especially refugees, is embraced with great hopes, but also brings along deep concerns. He highlights the complexity of certain socio-environmental problems that are unlikely to be sufficiently addressed by technological solutions alone. Sandvik, Jacobson and Korkmaz in deepening the debate then call for more research on specific cases of the applications of digital and web-based technology in the humanitarian aid sector.

The utility of technological ‘solutions

Is the use of more technology really making humanitarian aid and disaster responses better, faster or more efficient? Even though it is difficult to find a single answer to this question, the reality is that many believe that technology can fulfil this ideal. Let’s consider a few examples:

Satellite images are being used for data collection and project monitoring with the hope that this technology will obtain more accurate information, more quickly. Iris and fingerprint scanning for the registration of the recipients of aid bring the hope of reducing duplications on the delivery of aid and more focused assistance. The use of Skype, email, and cloud systems are essential for the day-to-day management of humanitarian aid, but the hope remains that they will also improve the coordination of disaster responses and humanitarian aid provision within and among organisations and agencies.

Technology, it is said, will also reduce excessive bureaucratic bottlenecks and could provide a solution to problems of access and increased insecurity in the field. The use of digital payment systems, e-transfers or “mobile money” revolutionised the ways of delivering economic aid, promising more flexible, faster and safer economic assistance as compared to moving and distributing cash. Finally, there is hope that the use of technology will help to avoid problems of corruption, power struggles, or inequality. It is believed that using technology is politically neutral, but this belief has proven to in fact be far from reality.

A panacea for deeper problems?

Despite the benefits that these technologies can bring, they cannot be used naïvely, as the use of any technology (and the use of the information obtained along with it) involves multiple political and social variables. New technologies interplay with the realities of the places where they are implemented, and in places requiring humanitarian aid, with the existing and emerging needs of people.

We must question how these technologies interact with the inequalities of these places or their political regimes. As Korkmaz warns in his blog, there is also risk of abuse —institutions can use digital identities ‘to track people’s choices and desires, which could lead to increased surveillance and the use of information against refugees.

Technology is also subject to instrumentalisation and can be used for purposes quite the opposite of those humanitarian purposes it is intended to serve. The way in which information is collected, analysed and presented, can also be motivated by other, non-humanitarian objectives. In other words, the use of technology is never politically neutral— it affects and is affected by actors and processes, in ways not always fully understood. Reflecting on this is as important as thinking about the benefits of using new data-collection technologies. And we must also identify when, how and which technology to use.

The need for more case studies

The expansion[ii] and international call[iii] for the use of technology need to go hand-in-hand with greater reflection and deeper knowledge of the real impact, benefits and consequences of technology’s use. As McDonald, Sandvik, and Jacobsen argue in their blog post, ‘humanitarians need both an ethical and evidence-driven human experimentation framework for new technologies.’

As the discussion on the need for awareness about the use of technology is already ongoing, it is important to start gathering information on specific cases showing how which technology is used in reality. Afghanistan presents a good case for examining the application of aid technology, as its use has increased here over the last decade4–6.

Ongoing research I’m carrying out as Visiting Scholar of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) on the (political) use and the introduction of data-collection technology in Afghanistan seeks to map this technology, also reflecting on who uses it, who can get access to the collected information, and how and for which purposes it is used. The research importantly also asks: does technology really fulfil the promises it carries?

The promotion of technology is still alive in Afghanistan and globally, as multiple new forms of technology are being implemented by the humanitarian sector, like bitcoin or blockchain technology9,10. However, the applicants of technology in the humanitarian sector should not be blind to its potential negative effects. Technology can be tremendously helpful, but must also pass the ‘do no harm’ test11,12 and should be applied in a reflective manner. In the meantime, the thoughtful use of technology and more research on the topic are invited.

[i] Blockchain technologies refers to a distributed and decentralized database of continuously growing records of digital information, ordered, linked and secured using cryptography.
[ii] The use technology in the humanitarian sector, if far from new, is a growing phenomenon since the late 20th Century1–3. The difference nowadays lies in its expansion and penetration at all levels of the humanitarian aid system.
[iii] There has been an international call to innovate and introduce more technology. For instance, two reports from 2013 reinforced the use of multiple communications and data collection technologies in the humanitarian system: the World Disaster Report from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), and the document Humanitarian in a Network Age from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

  1. Stephenson, R. and P.S. Anderson (1997) ‘Disasters and the information technology revolution’, Disasters 21, 305–334.
  2. Sandvik, K. B., M. Gabrielsen Jumbert, J. Karlsrud and M. Kaufmann (2014) ‘Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda’, Int. Rev. Red Cross 96, 219–242.
  3. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2011) ‘Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.
  4. IRIN (2013) ‘Innovative ICT helps aid workers in Afghanistan’. Available at: http://www.irinnews.org/feature/2013/05/02/innovative-ict-helps-aid-workers-afghanistan.
  5. Boone, J. US army amasses biometric data in Afghanistan. The Guardian (2010). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/27/us-army-biometric-data-afghanistan.
  6. Zax, D. In Afghanistan, Cash Has Become The Most Effective Form Of Aid. Fast Company (2016). Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3065011/in-afghanistan-cash-has-become-the-most-effective-form-of-aid.
  7. Jacobsen, K. L. Experimentation in humanitarian locations: UNHCR and biometric registration of Afghan refugees. Secure. Dialogue 46, 144–164 (2015).
  8. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian biometrics. In The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good intentions, unintended consequences and insecurity. 57–87 (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).
  9. DH Network. Blockchain for the Humanitarian Sector: Future opportunities. Digital Humanitarian Network (2016). Available at: http://digitalhumanitarians.com/resource/blockchain-humanitarian-sector-future-opportunities.
  10. Bello Perez, Y. Can Bitcoin Make a Difference in the Global Aid Sector? CoinDesk (2015). Available at: https://www.coindesk.com/can-bitcoin-make-a-difference-in-the-global-aid-sector/.
  11. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian technology: revisiting the ‘do no harm’ debate. ODI HPN (2015). Available at: https://odihpn.org/blog/humanitarian-technology-revisiting-the-%c2%91do-no-harm%c2%92-debate/.
  12. The Sphere Handbook. Protection Principle 1: Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions. The Sphere Project Available at: http://www.spherehandbook.org/en/protection-principle-1-avoid-exposing-people-to-further-harm-as-a-result-of-your-actions/. (Accessed: 5th January 2018)


Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

(How) should scholars say what humanitarians can’t? by Roanne van Voorst and Isabelle Desportes

In January this year, a long day of interviewing aid workers involved in the Myanmar Rohingya crisis revealed that these aid workers often refrain from talking about the human rights ...

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

About the author: Avagay Simpson is a recent graduate of the International institute of Social Studies with a Master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy. Prior to ...