We need to think differently about how we do humanitarian work

The focus should be on helping people become self reliant


DFID/Derek Markwell

The International Committee of the Red Cross provides drinking water at a refugee camp in Liberia. “ICRC providing clean drinking water at a refugee camp in Liberia” by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elise Wood, Opinion and Clubs Editor

In Guatemala, “almost half the population cannot afford the cost of the basic food basket” and “the prevalence of stunting in children under 5 is one of the highest in the world,” according to the World Food Programme (WFP). My grandparents lived in Guatemala for several years, and they got involved with a humanitarian organization called Cultiva that approaches humanitarian work differently from many other organizations, focusing on helping people become self reliant and having a long lasting effect.

Often when we think about humanitarian work, we think about giving things away. This can be appropriate at many times, including natural disasters and urgent situations. However, it’s not always the best approach. When we do humanitarian work, we need to focus more on helping people break out of the cycle of dependence and become self reliant. Giving people what they need can help them, but it won’t help them learn to support themselves.

Much of the humanitarian work being done in the world, though well-meaning, doesn’t leave a long term positive impact. Often, people who want to do humanitarian work enter a community, do what they think is best for them, and then leave. “Most organizations don’t effectively prepare for long-term sustainability—they don’t build water delivery systems for the city, they don’t build housing that will last, they don’t build infrastructure for program delivery,” said Michael Vanrooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Vanrooyen has had a lot of experience with humanitarian work, and found that planning for short term instead of long term isn’t what people really need. Humanitarian organizations like Cultiva, that spend time thinking about how to help people in the long term, are more effective in their efforts to help.

One of the biggest arguments against this approach is that often, people are just in urgent need of help. This includes events like natural disasters, wars, disease, and some cases of extreme poverty.  While I agree that people in this type of situation might just need to be given help, I don’t think that’s a long term solution.

“Imagine yourself in their situation. You have nothing and you’re dependent on people. As soon as you can, you’d want to become less dependent and take the future into your own hands,” said Paul Spiegel of Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with BBC. When we help people in urgent situations, we should find out whether they’re going to be able to recover on their own later. If not, we should continue to help them, but changing tactics by helping them become less dependent on humanitarian aid so that they can support themselves in the future.

If people want to get involved in humanitarian work that doesn’t make people more dependent, there are lots of options. Teaching people skills, like how to budget or pay taxes, is a good way to help. Helping people learn to garden so they can feed themselves or helping them get an education so they can better support themselves are also good solutions. Traditional humanitarian work, such as cleanup help and providing food is still important after events like natural disasters, and it helps people return to life as normal.

Giving away aid is an important part of humanitarian work in urgent situations, such as health crises or natural disasters. It’s important that we also focus on helping people help themselves. It’s better for mental health, and it’s something that can be kept up in the long run. It also allows those who want to do humanitarian work to help more people as time goes on! It’s important we focus on doing humanitarian work that hands people’s lives back to them.