Prospective doctors and healthcare professionals are often asked about which particular field of medicine they hope to one day pursue. When this question has been posed to me in the past, I have often proudly announced that I would love to work around the world in the field of humanitarian aid, “providing help to those who need it most”. While it is true that thousands of humanitarian organisations undertake incredible work in times of unimaginable crisis, it is also irrefutable that the very existence of the industry has been built on the remnants of colonial history, and continues to perpetuate racist ideologies, such as the ‘white saviour’ complex and the notion of ‘voluntourism’. Indeed in recent weeks and months, it is only through the work of countless incredible activists that I have come to see the inequitable and often fundamentally racist nature of the humanitarian aid sector, and have come to question how I myself have internalised these problematic notions, and continue to perpetuate them in the discourse surrounding the field.
Humanitarian aid, by its very nature, creates a narrative based on status imbalance, forming a relationship between those who need help, and those who fly across the world to provide it. What’s more, the sector also serves as a vehicle for the erasure of professional and cultural expertise and excellence that already exists in these nations, as well as for the prevention of financial support and advocacy of grassroots, indigenous organisations that have first-hand experience of lived realities in these countries. The United Kingdom, a nation whose history is comprised of inflicting pain and oppression throughout its colonial empire, must reflect on how and why it is necessary to continue to assume authority in foreign territories in incidences of crises in today’s world in the form of humanitarian aid.
The UK’s Role
We needn’t go very far to observe the troubling role that the UK very often plays in international crises, and the even more distressing dialogue that can subsequently ensue amongst those in power in such moments. I write this article in a week in which the Secretary of State for the Home Department has promised to make small boat channel crossings undertaken by refugees “unviable”, describing the current situation as “appalling”. The lack of empathy and understanding that exists in the agenda of this message is made worse when we recall that many of these migrants are attempting to flee a conflict that was, at least in part, catalysed by wars that Britain helped to start. If we turn our attention to the ongoing situation in Cameroon, we see a conflict that exists between two factions, born out of French and British colonial rule respectively. This conflict exists because the harsh cultural and linguistic assimilation enforced onto this country has been made impossible by the incompatibility of two colonial regimes, and due to a colonial legacy of disparate distribution of financial resources and developmental opportunity between anglophone and francophone regions. Significantly, both British and French humanitarian aid organisations continue to work in Cameroon, and again, while much of this work is incredible, and can even very often save lives, it is only necessary because of the history of colonial maltreatment inflicted on Cameroon by these two nations.
What Can We Do Better?
On a macroscopic level, the most vital work is to ensure the relationship between all parties is one that is as equitable and cooperative as possible, and to act primarily on the experiences and insight of indigenous professionals and populations. As long as humanitarian aid is perceived as a field that provides assistance to fragile or vulnerable populations, its fundamental sentiment is in line with, and is therefore largely a continuation of, colonial rule. Instead, we can support and advocate for institutions that champion amazing grassroots organisations. These include organisations such as 1847 Philanthropic, which seeks to “enhance the long-term viability and financial stability of indigenous organisations in developing countries”, The Global Fund for Women, who “fund bold, ambitious, and expansive gender justice movements to create meaningful change that will last beyond our lifetimes”, and the Rainbow International Fund, who “make grants to small grassroots LGBTQ+ groups that are best placed to make a real difference with limited resources and often struggle to find funding.”
In addition to this, we can all (myself very much included) begin to ask more uncomfortable questions of ourselves and one another in relation to how we perceive the work undertaken by the humanitarian aid sector, and ask ourselves how damaging and racist prejudices exist in these narratives. Furthermore, we can remind ourselves of what the intended goals of the field are and, instead of defending this work where it falters, empower ourselves to seek out indigenous people that could instead assume these roles. We should in turn actively find avenues by which we can support, and be activists for, these organisations.
Further Reading (Articles, Podcasts and Books)
Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire https://akala.tmstor.es/cart/product.php?id=65051
Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com/