One of the reasons why I work in human rights is because it is a mostly unambiguous field. Torturing, executing people extra-judicially, denying them due process rights is wrong. Period. There are some areas that are a bit gray – should we pursue the criminal indictment of sitting presidents, when it’s likely that by doing so they will increase repression in their own countries and/or deny access to humanitarian agencies? But in general, it’s pretty black and white.
Not so with humanitarian work. The old adage that you should not give a man a fish but teach him how to fish has definitely some truth to it – though it doesn’t explain what you should do when there are no fish in the river. And there are complex questions such as to what degree humanitarian aid absolves governments of their own responsibility to provide economic rights to their own people, to what degree it contributes to de-politicize local populations and maintain the political status quo and to what degree it has negative unintended consequences. For example, humanitarian aid is often appropriated by corrupt governments or armed groups that use it to hold populations hostage or to allow them to allocate their resources to weapons and so forth. And then there is the question of effectiveness.
This study shows that development aid aimed at children in Bangladesh has been pretty much useless: “in areas where the program wasn’t implemented, slightly more children were vaccinated against measles, and there was no big difference in death rates.” Similar accusations have been made in other instances.
I, of course, have no answers. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all – but it’s of little use to throw money at a problem without really understanding it. And I, of course, do not (understand it). So I continue with my morally “safe” occupation and leave more complex ethical matters to others 🙂