Student - April 26, 2007

Disaster assistance <i>with</i> victims, not for victims

Wars and natural disasters leave deep wounds in societies, but the victims should not be regarded as helpless. Relief and reconstruction efforts should be based more on the strengths of the people hit by disasters and their ability to pick up their lives themselves. In the classical form of relief this happens too little, and things have been made worse by Bush’s war on terrorism.

This is the main theme in Thea Hilhorst’s inaugural lecture. The professor of humanitarian help and reconstruction spoke on Thursday 28 April. Humanitarian help as we know it was started by Henri Dunant, who set up the Red Cross in the mid-nineteenth century to provide medical help on the battlefields of Europe. Nowadays humanitarian relief is provided in a wide variety of situations, from long-term conflicts to natural disasters, chronic famines in Africa, sudden streams of refugees, as well as managing refugee camps that have existed for decades. Despite this, the strategy in all of these different situations has remained largely unchanged: saving lives is central and the assumption is that the situation is an incidental conflict or a sudden natural disaster.

Humanitarian relief assistance has been criticised: for example that food aid destroys local markets, or that victims are not involved enough in the reconstruction efforts. Hilhorst explained in her speech that this is because of the gap between classical humanitarian relief and the development assistance for reconstruction afterwards. ‘Classical disaster relief emphasises the interfering character of the crisis and assumes that institutions disappear during war. Humanitarian help is motivated by the wish to lighten suffering, but is also driven by a lack of confidence in the receiving society. Classical emergency relief is tightly controlled as a consequence.’

The big advantage to classical disaster relief is that this approach is capable of setting up an operation in a very short time that saves lives. But a criticism is that such an approach ignores the local population. Take for example the complaints in Sri Lanka that, in the disaster relief effort after the tsunami, aid workers behaved as though they were in Darfur or Somalia instead of in a functioning society. If the distance between relief workers and the society being helped is big, very often the two do not actually work together. ‘Not making the effort to include local actors has nothing to do with time pressure in an emergency situation,’ Hilhorst concludes, ‘but with attitude and assumptions about the functioning of a society during a crisis.’

An alternative is development-orientated emergency assistance. ‘This approach emphasises the continuity of social and civil organisations despite the crisis. It bases its work on what is still there rather than on what is no longer there. Help is based on the trust that those receiving relief can participate constructively and that assistance workers should be given the space to be able to adapt flexibly to local ideas and conditions.’ When it comes to natural disasters, this approach is already widely used. Over the last thirty years the number of natural disasters has doubled, but the number of victims has halved. This is because the approach to disaster management now focuses on local disaster relief and strengthening local capacity to deal with disasters, states Hilhorst.

However, when it comes to war and conflict, the wisdom of this lesson has not been learned. Worse, as a result of George Bush’s war on terrorism, giving humanitarian relief has become more politically motivated than ever. And the consequence of this is that the gap between relief workers and the receiving population has increased. Because relief workers are associated with the occupiers, their safety is no longer guaranteed. In Iraq both the Red Cross and the UN have been the targets of bombers, and 64 relief workers have died.

Humanitarian aid is important but it can only be effective if it is based on the spirit and strength of those on the receiving end of the assistance, concludes Hilhorst. ‘Providing help is an expression of compassion, but only too often it also becomes a confirmation of superiority. The victim is seen as a suffering being. But it is not in their suffering that we can know people. We can only reach out by respecting people’s dignity as actors that own their lives and futures.’

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