Re-Defining Humanitarian Aid

This Encounter takes a unique approach to humanitarian aid, suggesting a focus on local empowerment.

Contributed by: Francesco Paganini

Local Empowerment

The ever-increasing desire that motivates people of faith to engage directly in the provision of service—thereby displacing professional aid workers—is another manifestation of humanitarian aid as traditional charity. One needs to fly only once from New York City to Port au Prince, Haiti, to understand the sheer volume of faith-based volunteers traveling to Haiti every day. They go to engage in recovery activities—but some such activities could probably be better performed by Haitians themselves. In a context where responding to a disaster is considered a duty rather than an option, faith communities would seek to build and rely on the capacity of local responders. Such responders function at lower costs and can provide quicker and more culturally appropriate aid. Instead, we continue to look for an emotional “direct connection,” regardless of whether that is our most effective role.

While many within the church world have complained about being told to “pay, pray, and get out of the way,” the fact is that, if humanitarian aid is not considered a “voluntary” action, then our ultimate goal should be to provide it in the most financially efficient way. This is not to say that volunteers from afar are never needed. It means that, in choosing when to use such volunteers, faith donors unfortunately are not considering efficiency as the primary criterion affecting their decision.

In a world that typically experiences at least one disaster per day, it behooves the faith community—given its biblical mandate to respond—to pursue greater levels of efficiency. Doing so would also mean demanding that our implementing partners use national staff as often as possible. Both implementers and funders in Haiti (and elsewhere) aren’t doing that right now. A shift to the more Christian paradigm of caritas (seeing love of neighbor as mandate rather than voluntary) would increase the pressure to do so.

Undignified Depictions

Perhaps the most disturbing distortion of the Christian mandate is the continuing use of exploitative imagery and language in fundraising. While the Christian community is not the sole perpetrator of this practice—secular agencies also being culpable—the practice violates a fundamental tenet of the Christian perspective: recognizing and respecting the human dignity of every individual.

The evidence of this distortion in Haiti is overwhelming. Christian organizations used a tsunami of graphic and exploitative images to solicit funds both within and outside of their faith communities. This kind of manipulation shows that many within the implementing agencies continue to opt for an emotional approach—invoking pity, which traditional charity requires, rather than relying on the Christian mandate of caritas. To my knowledge, not a single faith entity asked its members to give to the response effort simply because they were Christians and the need was verified. 

It will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for many members of the Christian community to disavow charity and to embrace caritas. However, it’s fully possible to make significant progress toward that goal. Ultimately, the shift needs to start with faith leaders, whether they occupy pulpits or administrative offices. Those leaders can begin by embracing the Christian understanding that humanitarian aid should not depend on an emotional response manifesting itself as charity. Instead, aiding others in distress is a fundamental mandate of the Christian faith. This is a sermon that needs to be both preached and practiced. The mindset that embraces caritas instead of charity will manifest itself in church leaders who refrain from sending their constituents to do disaster recovery work when people already on the scene can do a less expensive, more effective job. It will mean choosing to invest in disaster risk reduction not because of some emotional connection but because of a cost-benefit analysis. (There are plenty of unreported and underfunded disasters we can respond to with the funds we save.) It will be most clearly visible when those who now choose to use emotive images or stories that exploit the victims and deny their human dignity are no longer rewarded with the lion’s share of funding.

Finally, it is in liberating ourselves from the traditional definition of charity that we are free to embrace the Christian concept of caritas. Caritas redefines aid as flowing freely from a God-mandated love for our neighbors. This kind of love doesn’t leave room for choice or convenience. It stems directly from the sincere, wholehearted, fully liberating assignment given to us by Jesus: that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Francesco Paganini is the manager for International Disaster Response, United Methodist Committee on Relief. This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the September-October 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.

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