Humanitarian aid, as a general principle, aims to reduce human suffering wherever it is found. While from one lens this goal seems altruistic, noble, and born from a deep-seated respect for humanity, it can also have other motives.
Aid agencies and donors may have other impetuses that inspire them to take action in a certain context. Some of these motivations may be relatively benign – a member of a diaspora group may donate money to an aid agency in their home country after a natural disaster, while they do not donate after a disaster in a far-away country to which they have no connection.
Other sources of motivation may be more manipulating. A donor may pour funds into a country that has strategic importance, but give proportionally less to a state that has great need but little geopolitical clout.
Aid recipients are often referred to in the humanitarian sector as “beneficiaries.” This term is inaccurate and deceiving. It assumes that aid recipients benefit from aid – that is, it assumes that aid makes their lives better in some way or another.
However, this is an extremely naïve and simplistic way of understanding the variety of outcomes aid can have on recipient individuals, communities, and states.
A previous NK News article on Do No Harm explored the potential for humanitarians to cause harm in the DPRK, concluding that humanitarians must consider the negative consequences of their aid if they want to act in the best interest of North Koreans.
Aid recipient is not a perfect term, either – as a student in one of the author’s courses pointed out to her, it is a passive term that does not recognize the potential for a more dynamic role of the end user of aid. However, it is more value-neutral than “beneficiary.”
With the current flurry of activity between the U.S. and the DPRK, as well as inter-Korean activities, it is worth reconsidering the potential for aid to not only have negative effects, but to be primarily acting in the interests of the giver.
If engagement between the U.S. and the DPRK, and the DPRK and South Korea, results in greater opportunities for aid from American and South Korean civil society, will humanitarians from these countries be responding to suffering, or is there potential for their responses to have other motives?
Aid agencies and donors may have other impetuses that inspire them to take action in a certain context
WHAT OF BENEFICIARIES?
One way of unpacking these questions is to consider who benefits from the provision of aid.
Are there other potential beneficiaries of aid, besides the recipient populations? The givers of aid, the very humanitarians who claim to be responding to suffering, can in fact be the main party who benefits from the delivery of assistance.
Humanitarian groups can benefit from an improved reputation, greater visibility, and even increased potentials for winning funding and grants.
Individuals can benefit from a feeling of doing good – picture the wealthy American college student that volunteers to paint a schoolhouse in Africa or South America.
Paying a local company to do the paint job would have been a better benefit to the local community, but the college student wouldn’t derive the same do-good feeling and opportunity for prime social media photos if they simply handed a wad of cash to a local contractor.
Humanitarians who have motives that supersede alleviating suffering, such as fostering feelings of inter-Korean brotherhood among South Koreans or laying a foundation for eventual religious conversion, may place their own experiences and feelings above those of the North Koreans their actions supposedly aim to help.
This is not to suggest that all South Korean or faith-based organizations are selfish or inherently designed to prolong suffering more than other organizations, of course. Organizations may have these backgrounds but be able to objectively look at the humanitarian situation in the DPRK and elect to pursue projects to respond to need.
One potential outcome of inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK engagement will likely be increased humanitarian activity
Instead, it is a call for the givers of aid to thoughtfully and realistically consider who benefits from their efforts, proposed or actual – the people receiving aid, or the members of the giving group? Is the aid really appropriate, useful, and designed to address problems whilst causing the least amount of harm possible?
SUFFERING AND BENEFIT
One potential outcome of inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK engagement will likely be increased humanitarian activity. While aid is likely to continue to face barriers in the form of sanctions, there is potential for greater opportunities for exemptions than have been seen in the past year.
There have already been some signs of this, such as the passing of humanitarian exemptions from sanctions for a range of humanitarian actors and South Korean civil society, including food aid, activity.
Much remains to be seen, but if this trajectory continues, it is vital for the international community to take this moment to question not only the utility, appropriateness, and effectiveness of aid, but also ask if it is really targeted at the needs of its intended recipients.
Aid does involve cooperating and working with the regime, and the provision of humanitarian aid always has capacity for negative consequences, including prolonging suffering.
Aid providers may not always be pursuing humanitarian engagement for selfless reasons – their own benefit may in fact be at the core of their decision to pursue engagement in North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 925 words of this article.
Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-09-04 23:17:30