Scholars Discuss the Ethics of Humanitarian Aid

By Erica Steinhoff '16

After reading Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan: What is Wrong with Humanitarian Aid, the Park Scholars met on Saturday, September 7 to discuss the ethical dilemmas and other issues raised in the book surrounding humanitarian aid. In the book, Polman critically analyzes the industry that has grown up around humanitarian aid using specific examples of humanitarian crises around the globe.

This discussion was part of a seminar that the Park Scholars partake in every semester. The day began with small group discussions facilitated by program director Dr. Matt Fee, Associate Dean Bryan Roberts, Associate Dean Virginia Mansfield-Richardson, and Assistant Professor Arturo Sinclair. During the discussions, the scholars used Polman’s critique to reexamine their own beliefs surrounding humanitarian aid. “These type of critical analyses are essential for Park Scholars, because we are committed to using our passions for media and social justice to make a positive impact in the world,” said Junior Kaitlin Hulbert.

One main subject discussed was the question of whether organizations should provide aid to all humans suffering, even if that includes the perpetrators of the conflict. One instance of this occurred during the conflict in Goma in the late 1990s when supplies were provided to all persons in refugee camps, which included members of the genocidal Hutu militia. This leads one to the ever-present question of whether providing aid in a crisis actually relieves human suffering or if it simply fuels the conflict.

After the students explored other complex questions pertaining to the ethics of humanitarian aid, they came together for a screening of the BBC 4 documentary The Trouble with Aid directed and produced by Ricardo Pollack. The documentary presented a chronological analysis of the effectiveness and ethical implications of humanitarian aid that has been provided to persons affected by humanitarian disasters over the past 50 years. It showed the perspective of aid workers through interviews with members of NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children; it also questioned the media’s role in portraying humanitarian crises.

The scholars ended the day by researching the specific NGOs discussed in the documentary and book. They analyzed how the organizations use media to elicit donations, involvement, and engagement.  To wrap up, the scholars looked at the organizations’ current aid projects in order to determine what philosophies and ethical guidelines the organizations follow. Sophomore Kaitlyn Tynczuk who researched Oxfam found this exercise enlightening; “I expected the organization’s main focus to be on solving the problem, but instead they emphasized gaining media attention,” she said.

This seminar gave the scholars many opportunities to draw connections to present happenings in the international community, as well as their own personal experiences. Many Scholars currently work with or will work with international NGOs in the future and they will take what they have discovered through their analyses and apply it to their experiences.  



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