22 Aug 2017 - by A4ID

The Famine Market

Our Twitter feed at A4ID has been buzzing with the latest news about the crisis in East Africa. The news hasn’t been good (and is apparently getting worse) as the response so far has been largely inadequate.

Although there are many reasons and factors (e.g. sanctions; for a particularly insightful analysis, see Simon Levine’s post at the ODI blog) contributing to this crisis, what appears to be largely lacking is funding. This is why a recent British Red Cross-organised meeting of corporate donors (blogged here) was so interesting.

The corporate donors at the meeting asked the Red Cross some tough questions, mainly about the food crisis in East Africa, but the terminology used and the framing of the questions are instructive. To choose one example from many, here’s a quote from the blog report: the corporate donors are “troubled by aid dependency and how to nip it in the bud, and fret about giving to the “right” emergency in a crowded market.”

That the corporate donors are concerned about addressing root causes is certainly encouraging, but a desire to give to the ‘right’ emergency in a ‘crowded market’ seems to me to be curious.

By way of a quick example, let’s say we have two disaster scenarios: one where the donor’s money can save the lives of 1 million people from near and certain death, and another where the donor’s money can save the lives of 1 million people from a likely, but not impending death. Which is the right emergency? It perhaps wouldn’t be too inaccurate to say that a donor concerned with ‘rightness’ would choose the former over the latter for funding.

And, what about addressing root causes? It may be instructive that the donors did not appear to seek ways to donate to development projects in lieu of this current emergency, or even to donate to both kinds of projects anywhere. Indeed, they were apparently “baffled” that there was a distinction at all between development projects and humanitarian aid. Perhaps these conceptual inconsistencies stem from the idea that world’s terrible abundance of humanitarian emergencies somehow creates a market for donor money. I suspect there are several ill-fitting aspects to this metaphor, but my concern is the belief that you can ‘buy’ progress and results as if they were products on a supermarket shelf.

Solutions do require money to buy food aid, equipment for aid assistance, etc. But if you want to solve the problem, not just the symptoms – and part of the problem isn’t directly solved by buying food or equipment – then donor money can’t really buy a discrete product anymore.

Often it is war, or government restrictions, or poor planning that are part of the problem, and so suddenly there’s an entire constellation of factors that require a comprehensive solution.

Solving these big problems requires experience, time, human and political capital, research, trust, and political will, among other things. You cannot truly ‘buy’ any of these items, and so suddenly the marketplace metaphor for humanitarian aid emergencies begins to look pretty poor indeed. In fact the use of such metaphors engenders all kinds of misconceptions which ultimately undermine aid and development efforts.

We would all like there to be an easy way to solve these problems but the reality is more complex and arguably depressing and it will help to remember that a) yes, there are *many* aid and development problems out there; b) very few them have discrete causes and solutions; and c) periodic blasts of donations probably isn’t the best way to apply a treat-the-problem-not-the-symptom strategy.

Assuming there is a ‘right’ emergency implies also that there’s a ‘wrong’ emergency, and that there’s a good way to measure its ‘rightness’. This is a dangerous path to tread when the lives of individuals are at stake.

Mark Sun is a Communications Intern at A4ID.

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