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“The Gift That We Have To Give”: Why Help is Defined Narrowly in Terms of Aid

June 26, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

A piece in Foreign Affairs asks whether humanitarianism is an act of charity or duty. What can seem on the surface as a dichotomy is in fact complementary: humanitarianism is, in the words of the author, a “gift that we have to give”. In the aftermath of Haiti, the obligation to “give the gift” translated in an outpouring of resources from private and public donations in the humanitarian relief industry that was entering the country. Few have asked  if the gift that we intend to give is actually what Haiti needs. One of the main blogs on humanitarian aid, Tales from the Hood,  has a clear idea on whether or not Haiti needs the gift of humanitarianism. As he puts it, the fact that we should help Haiti does not mean we can help Haiti. The fact that the humanitarian industry has been at work in Haiti for 200 years and yet nothing has changed leads us to a unique conclusion: it is time to leave Haiti.

Such a proposition could outrage all those who are concerned about the suffering of poor people and therefore  feel that there should be an ethics to aid, given the low cost for people in rich countries to do so. My argument is that pulling out of Haiti  would not constitute any infringement of the humanitarian imperative. In fact, the duty to help others has already been defeated when humanitarian responses to aid Haiti were being defined. Think about the schizophrenic behavior of the United States: the Congress was unanimous in approving the disbursement of fund for emergency response yet it was unwilling to extend ( at least for the first year after the earthquake) the temporary protective status for Haitians arrived after the earthquake: this meant that people who arrived in the US before the earthquake could not be repatriated but those who arrived after could. Similarly, the US failed to implement a measure whereby Haitians on the Green Card waiting list could be patrolled in so that they could wait the receipt of the green card in the US. The contradiction between declaring to be morally obliged to help and then being unwilling to adopt measures that could easily help Haitians, unmask the hypocrisy of the humanitarian imperative discourse. It shows that the moral imperative to help has a limit: it cannot go against its own self-interest. For example, when an expert at the Centre for Global Development proposed to increase by 50% the number of Haitians allowed in the US each year (it would have meant an increase of 10,000 people), he was accused of exposing American women to the risk of being raped by “big Haitians”.

In the mainstream discourse, there is often the claim that the West is morally obliged to help the poor. Yet, this “help” is narrowly defined in terms of giving out aid. If it implies measures that could compromise the self interest of the rich countries ( see trade or immigration) such moral obligation is glossed over or eve vanishes. Another post on this blog discussed how aid is sometimes more about creating jobs in the US rather than delivering cheap condoms to people who need it. Admitting the inability to help Haiti and pulling out from it is not tantamount to infringing the humanitarian imperative. There are other measures to help Haiti – only that they require to put aside its own interests. And this is a tradeoff that people in developed countries are not willing to accept.

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