Cynicism about humanitarian aid shouldn't dissuade us from trying

Cynics are just idealists who’ve gone through a Global Development Studies (DEVS) degree.

Like plenty of DEVS students, I spend a lot of time explaining my degree. But after that, the next question inevitably is: “Are you going to save Africa?”

The over-simplification of global issues has routinely derailed development work. Whether it’s forcing Indigenous peoples to “modernize” or the tendency to equivocate the entire continent of Africa to a starving, impoverished whole, it’s been the wrong move time and again.

But declaring development an all-together lost cause makes the same mistake of over-simplification.

Over the past few years, “donor fatigue” has been the subject of some weary nodding in development circles.

It’s the idea that aid donors are less willing to spend “a cup of coffee a day”, because those change.org petitions and the dozens of donations requests have left them spent.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spent last month urging potential donors not to lose interest in the Syrian refugee crisis, and donor countries not to rest on their laurels. The well-documented drop in donations after previous crises like the Nepali or Haitian earthquakes only lends credence to his request. 

In terms of dollars donated, potential donors are losing interest in humanitarianism. And then there’s the cynicism.

I remember speaking with a DEVS graduate involved in anti-pipeline activism on the west coast. He disagreed with most of the traditional development work being done around the world, which he thought were attempts to recreate western-style countries with tropical backdrops.

“DEVS is where you learn to hate development,” he said.

In DEVS, the most common grumble — besides overuse of the word “empowerment” — is that we’ve been taught to criticize and not to solve problems.

Apathy and cynicism are the side effects of recognizing that there are no Band-Aid solutions. There’s no way to parachute in for two weeks, dig a well and call it a day.

The challenge we face is using our understanding of development to do better, not to fall into cynical inaction.

Development work is highly nuanced. It takes place over long periods of time, and it’s often specific to one community at a time. When it’s good, it’s often small-scale and done in conversation with communities.

We should be cynical of drying up aid work and campaigns themselves — those methods are historically limiting.

But past mistakes can’t be an escape hatch that lets us say it can only ever be a failure. They’re lessons — errors to be avoided in the future, but not endings in and of themselves.

Nick is one of The Journal’s Features Editors. He’s a second-year Global Development Studies major. 

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