Humanitarian help (...) has a great potential to change the lives of those in need. But to what extent are these ambitious goals transformed into actual development?
Global health and development interventions are known to go hand in hand in various places in the Global South. Numerous donors and volunteers support these programmes with honest and altruistic motives- to help other people suffer less. Indeed, humanitarian help, economic and training programmes, health aid, and biomedical and technological innovations have a great potential to change the lives of those in need. But to what extent are these ambitious goals transformed into actual development?
Liberia, being one of numerous recipients of international aid, has been hosting numerous transnational interventions since 1960s. The majority of these were introduced to overcome the civil war crisis which ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. More recently, a new wave of interventions was brought as a response to the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016). According to AidData, 7,250 aid projects were launched in Liberia between 1960 and 2013, offering $13.7 billion in international funding.
There are more than 1,000 NGOs in Liberia, making it roughly one NGO per 4,000 Liberian citizens
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s 24th president, estimated that there are more than 1,000 NGOs in the country, making it roughly one NGO per 4,000 Liberian citizens. Moreover, the National Policy on Non-Governmental Organizations in Liberia (2008) expressed a concern that constantly proliferating aid projects are going beyond humanitarian relief, and challenge the state sovereignty.
When I arrived to Liberia to conduct my PhD fieldwork on ethics in Ebola research, I was fascinated by the vivid presence of international development aesthetics- virtuous posters, billboards, car stickers, banners, and entire quarters of NGOs in Liberia’s capital. These visually pleasant objects awkwardly co-existed with dire poverty, illiteracy and formal unemployment amongst hypothetical recipients of such aid.
One of the things that stunned me was the tremendous wealth differences between the developmental apparatus and common Liberians. While the Ministry of Labor struggles to promote a minimal daily wage of 3.5USD for unskilled and 5.5USD for skilled work, the real earnings of the bigger part of the population are below 60USD per month. At the same time, international NGO workers are commonly paid several times higher, in accordance with Western standards.
It was crystal clear that these and many other structural problems were not even close to being solved, despite the continuous presence of the developmental apparatus in Liberia for nearly 30 years. Still, Liberia remains one of the world’s poorest countries according to formal criteria of development.
Numerous Liberians draw exact parallels between the current state of "NGO-isation" of the country and systems of repression brought from the West in the past
As part of my project, I communicated a lot with the Liberian youth from Monrovia. From my experience, numerous Liberians draw exact parallels between the current state of NGO-isation of the country, and systems of repression brought from the West in the past. Whilst Liberia has never been officially colonized, many Liberians see the arrival of American settlers in 1822 as a form of colonization. In particular, the American settlers brought the Bible, Western Medicine and other Western practices to ‘save uncivilized people’. As a result, the Liberian society was stratified with the subsequent marginalization of indigenous populations. At the same time, the ‘civilised’ Liberians, never exceeding 5% of the whole population, held both political and economic power for more than 150 years. Numerous historians see this structural violence as the key factor which triggered the above-mentioned horrors of civil wars.
The developmental apparatus, indeed, can be locally understood as the echo of the past events: people coming overseas to bring their practices and knowledge in order to ‘save’ locals, while reinforcing systematic inequalities. With this remark, it is not a surprise that for many Liberians, the developmental apparatus is seen as an exploitative structure aimed at preserving the notion of emergency and thereby justifying its presence.
Bahn refugee camp, 50km from the Liberia/Ivory Coast border. UK Department for International Development.
One local community member once told me: “Aah, you NGO people come and go, but nothing changes”
Thus, as a foreigner conducting somewhat independent research, I was inevitably perceived as part of this bewitching system. Sometimes it took me several days to obtain consent to talk with people generally skeptical about my motivations. Numerous respondents had an impression I was spying for NGOs as I asked for peoples’ opinions, concerns and complaints. One local community member once told me: “Aah, you NGO people come and go, but nothing changes”.
As a part of my fieldwork I also visited West Point- one of the biggest slums in West Africa. Apparently, this area is a popular subject for visualization of developmental interventions, promoting slum tourism: “you are one of these white folks taking pictures and writing stories”. Not me, I thought, because I am not from NGOs, I am just a PhD student trying to understand the problems brought by new post-Ebola health care interventions, from the point of view of common Liberians… However, I collected data and left Liberia and its problems behind, just like many people did, somehow making profit from the suffering of locals.
Reconciling this grim depiction with distinctive optimism is a tough task. Indeed, in this variability of how humanitarian help is perceived by different stakeholders lies the tragedy of many global health and development interventions. Namely, the honest intentions of development aid could deviate considerably once humanitarian structures are deployed in real settings.
Global health and development interventions should take into consideration complex historical, economic, and political contexts in which projects are carried
To sum up, global health and development interventions should take into consideration complex historical, economic, and political contexts in which projects are carried out. That means talking and listening and giving opinions to people instead of talking down to them. Critical self-reflection is needed in the effort to make the world a better place.