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The Humanitarian’s Dilemma: Don’t Be so F***ing Naive

July 6, 2010

In an article on Slate, a former aid worker asks “Should Westerners help needy Africans?”, but instead of answering this (quite condescending) question (for the record, ewz says ‘yes you should’), she goes on to tell a very long story that concludes with her deciding that all Congolese people shouldn’t be trusted.

Wait what?

Here’s what happens in a nutshell: she is working in the Congo, meets a boy who asks for money to go to school and then, out of nowhere, begins judging the 14 year old boy for having a ‘defeatist’ and ‘victimised’ attitude which is the reason he always fails in life, tries to mentor him, sometimes fails but overall succeeds, and in the meantime pays for his tuition, and watches him do better and better in school and even start up his own business. In the end, when she gives him the final payment before leaving the Congo, we are led to believe by her conclusions (because he smiled and said he lost the money) that he used the money for personal gain. Therefore, erm, all Congolese people can’t be trusted.

Ultimately, the author of this article manages to be both incredibly condescending and incredibly naive, which is quite a feat, considering aid workers tend to only manage to be one of those at a time. There is certainly an element of truth in her claims that all Congolese can’t be trusted: when people grow up in fucked up environments like the Congo, where conflict is systematic, long-term and has effectively destroyed people’s normal livelihoods, people are going to develop pretty fucked up worldviews and survival strategies. And not surprisingly, these strategies and worldviews will differ from the sheltered, privileged worldviews of societies and people who aren’t suffering in places of conflict.

Where this author has got it completely wrong is that she stands ‘above’ this worldview which she calls defeatist and lazy, and expects people to emerge from this worldview simply out of nowhere. It is quite naive to assume that this boy, who for all intensive purposes has never experienced life outside of a conflict zone, is capable of having a ‘healthy’ worldview that isn’t defeated or victimised. This guy was born a refugee for God’s sake, he is a fucking victim! What did you expect him to do, go through and put the money towards an education when he knows chances are this education will be of absolutely no use to his survival?

Her judgements on the boy, and the wider Congolese society, are also incredibly condescending and naive it’s borderline ridiculous, but unfortunately, not that uncommon in the Western-dominated humanitarian aid world. Yes, Congolese society is kind of fucked up, but if you grew up in the Congo leading the same shitty life this boy has led, you’d have a pretty ‘defeatist’, ‘lazy’ and ‘victimised’ view of the world yourself.

We can’t keep absolving aid recipients of their agency, or expecting them to lay down and live their lives according to how Westerners (or, for that matter, ‘privileged’ people who tend to control aid resources) would live. There’s a schism that needs to be addressed and the Slate article manages to completely fuck it up.

Do you want to know how to solve the humanitarian’s dilemma, here’s my lesson: stop being so f***ing naive.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2010 5:20 pm

    classic use of ‘wait what’ there!

  2. generalisation cr*p permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:20 pm

    For starters, Sysh, you base your piece of critique on a naive generalisation made by some humanitarian worker in DRC. Well, your piece is full of generalisations too! Congratulations on that one…
    What does it mean to be a humanitarian? You have from the early stages of last century (at least), every type of people claiming to be humanitarian from Soviet leaders to tropical African puppet political leaders, with all NGOs of the planet in between.
    If you would appeal to the cliche: dictators and humanitarians love to be in photos with kiddies, at least it would have had an historical base!

    I was “a” humanitarian in DRC for a year, and only in “my” NGO I saw 93 expats (let alone Congolese staff) going through their missions in a post war (errrr) conflict zone. You had all the spectrum from complete disaster to truly committed and effective staff. So what?

    Humanitarianism is about putting some humanity in situations that should have never existed. So there is plenty of room for improvement, take a lucid look, do not scratch easy surfaces please!
    Wanna criticise humanitarianism? Well, come up with something more juicy that the random “humanitarian” account on how some boy got money for himself claiming it to be for education

    At the end, the Congolese deserve better…
    It really breaks my balls that all this humanitarian criticism is based on trivial, egocentric, surface, non-relevant to what the survivors of war are going through… crap

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