Humanitarians Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between Crises

But Race, Wealth, and Politics Are Dictating Who ‘Deserves’ to Be Saved

The humanitarian aid industry is facing a moral and ethical crisis, writes international development policy researcher and practitioner Themrise Khan. It must decide if it wants to save lives—or be politically motivated to do so. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

On February 6, two earthquakes struck near the border of Turkey and Syria. Measuring 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, they have, to date, claimed over 50,000 lives.

Those of us who respond to such disasters cannot help but wonder how much bigger the next humanitarian disaster will be, and how we will be able to cope with it.

The sheer number and scale of humanitarian emergencies have increased drastically over the last few years. Conflict, war, climate, and natural disasters are all burgeoning as we speak. But are humanitarian agencies “fit for purpose” in this tumultuous environment? In other words, are they able to meet the standard principles that they themselves created? If not, how must their approach and structure change, as each disaster creates bigger challenges than the previous one?

These questions that besiege the humanitarian aid industry do not just stem from a lack of financial or human resources. They emanate from several ethical and moral questions plaguing the sector: Who is saving whom? Who is worthy of being saved, and why? And who makes that decision?

As much as these questions should not even be asked in the humanitarian assistance sector, the more they are being demonstrated by the sector’s actions.

The premise of humanitarianism—a selfless human act—is that every life is worth saving. But the humanitarian aid industry is operating on another premise altogether, one based on its roots as a bureaucratic, post-colonial phenomenon, created by rich countries of the Global North. From the start, this has encouraged the sector to perpetuate the myth of the “white savior.” By suggesting that only these agencies of the Global North have the means and the will to pull people out of the rubble and provide life-saving assistance, this has positioned the Global North as the source of hope for affected populations. In doing so, the organizations have granted themselves the power to determine who “deserves” to be saved.

The near complete diversion of humanitarian resources from Afghanistan to Ukraine when war broke out in the latter in early 2022 is an example of this. Afghanistan was reeling from the Taliban takeover only six months earlier when, suddenly, the industry deemed the Ukraine war more important. This same industry also continues to neglect other urgent conflict zones such as Yemen; Tigray, Ethiopia; and Palestine.

The humanitarian aid industry has become tangled in issues of power, control, and authority that are direct legacies of colonialism.

Similarly, the Pakistan Floods in mid-2022, which displaced over 33 million people and placed a third of the country underwater, did not receive attention from international agencies until well after a month of the disaster. Comparatively, the response to the Turkish earthquake was far more immediate. But there, too, the response varied drastically between Turkey and war-ravaged northwestern Syria, with the latter being starved of resources due to international sanctions against the Assad regime.

The most ethically ambiguous example was the recent decision by many humanitarian agencies of the Global North to suspend their activities in Afghanistan in protest over the decision by the Taliban to ban Afghan women from working with international humanitarian aid agencies. This pitted the issue of the freedom and rights of women against the neutrality of providing life-saving assistance to populations in distress.

One can make an argument over the worth of all these cases. Of whether funds are better spent on one disaster over the other. Or if one crisis is more accessible and contained than the other, or “easier” to address. Or even that severely prolonged humanitarian cases show no hope for improvement, therefore are no longer worth investing in. But it is not for the humanitarianism sector to make any of those arguments. Its job should be to save lives no matter what. Not abandon them.

Becoming the “moral agents” of sorts for the disaster-affected has led humanitarian agencies to become seriously disconnected from the nature of the emergencies they address, not to mention dangerously politicized. They are now grappling with a largely unethical dilemma: the prospect of having to choose between emergencies and choose between countries. Choice was never part of the humanitarian ethos. But somehow, it is becoming the norm. So too is the battle to “own” the affected. Which agency gets where first? Who stays the longest? Yes, resources are scarce. But evidence shows that the industry is prioritizing crisis events based on the importance of the geopolitical region in question, rather than the crisis itself.

These critiques do not in any way reduce the importance of all the humanitarian workers who risk their own lives in emergencies to save others. This is about the humanitarian aid industry as a whole, which has become tangled in issues of power, control, and authority that are direct legacies of colonialism. This is about the tussle between the white saviors of the Global North and recipients in the Global South, where the majority of the disasters are taking place today.

Humanitarian aid has become a battle of supremacy that is as much about wealth and race as people in crisis. So, what is the solution?

It’s not “localization,” where international agencies pledge to give a portion of funds directly to local organizations per non-binding agreements such as the Grand Bargain or the Charter4Change. The “local” response to humanitarian disasters is not only inevitable; it has existed for time immemorial. No one really waits for the United Nations or others to come and save them. Countries have to respond themselves from the very outset of a disaster. But our dependence on the international system of aid has led us to undermine the humanitarian expertise and ability to respond to emergencies of countries in crisis.

Instead, we must go back to the original ethos of humanitarianism, in which affected populations come first, regardless of where the disaster has struck.  Agencies must respond to every form of crisis in a manner that takes the nature of the disaster into consideration; access, or lack of it, cannot be an excuse.

The humanitarian industry must decide if it wants to save lives or be politically motivated to do so. One does not mix with the other. To face emergencies, the agencies of the Global North must combine forces with humanitarian networks all over the world. They must seek out partners in each country, and work through and with them instead of working at cross-purposes. They must broaden their view of humanitarian expertise as being available only in international organizations based in the Global North. They must support humanitarian emergencies on the call of the countries facing the disaster, not control the entire response altogether. Most of all, they must not pick and choose emergencies based on geopolitical locations. Disaster, in any form, affects us all.


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