Humanitarian Aid: not so humanitarian, after all

Rachel Mahoney

Through her anecdotal representation of Tanzanians during the 2006 East African Food Crisis, Kristin Phillips illustrates some of the ways food and humanitarian aid can be disruptive and destructive to receiving communities in the developing world.  Phillips writes that the flawed system food aid distribution in Tanzania — which was “funneled too narrowly to the very poorest citizens”— created new socio-economic stratifications that bred social tension and discontent (Phillips, 24).   Additionally, food aid undermined traditional Tanzanian values and beliefs surrounding gift giving.  One man Phillips interviewed explained how anonymous food do not allow Tanzanians to thank their donors, a vital feature of Tanzanian exchange practices:

“Tell us to whom we are indebted. We must know whom to thank … The gift is therefore at one and the same time what should be done, what should be received, and yet what is dangerous to take. This is because the thing that is given itself forges a bilateral, irrevocable bond, above all when it consists of food.” People were unwilling not to know to whom they were bound and beholden (Phillips, 40)

Phillip’s account of Tanzanian food aid is not unlike Erica Bornstein’s critique of World Vision, a Christian child sponsorship organization that isolates poor African children and connects them to American sponsors.  Bornstein summates the irony of this system: “In effect, new perceptions of economic disparity are produced by the very humanitarian efforts that strive to overcome them” (Bornstein, 595).  She continues to describe the post-colonial “ulterior motives” of many humanitarian aid missions, which effectively fracture and disenfranchise members of developing societies instead of providing solutions for long-term economic development and independence.

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