Rethinking international aid practices in Bangladesh
While the pandemic was a first in recent times, there has been an international aid system in place for decades now to deal with the fallout of war, hunger, poverty, refugees, and forced displacement. Yet, that system is beset with failings to include primarily the voices of the affected—over whose entire lives, others, who may not even know them personally or contemplate living in their shoes for a day, call all the shots.
Outgoing UN aid chief Mark Lowcock recently said that the humanitarian system, much of which is funded under the UN umbrella, does "not pay enough attention to what people caught up in crises say they want, and then trying to give that to them." It "is still set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need," the UN Under-Secretary General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief said last month.
He cited aid camps in Cox's Bazar and Chad where people provided with aid were selling off some of what they received, for things they wanted more. Anyone who has worked in or visited Cox's Bazar in the last four years has seen the markets that sprung up to sell relief items distributed to the refugees such as blankets, sanitary pads, fortified cereal, and dal, especially in the bazars or on roads on the way to and from the refugee camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf. Considering they can't earn and have no money, what the refugees repeatedly said they did want was more food options or the cash to buy chicken or fresh fish and vegetables for a well-rounded meal for their families.
"Accountability runs mostly to the donors, not to the affected people," Mark Lowcock also said. While still not entirely accountable to those they are providing aid to, it is now at least standard in the industry to take feedback from those affected and there is a drive for those affected to not just be consulted, but to be involved in decision-making.In a recent comprehensive report on refugee experiences and recommendations, titled "Añárar Báfana" (Our Thoughts in Rohingya), brought out by the NGO ACAPS and the IOM, refugees emphasised that it was not enough to be included in discussions but not in decision-making. "Rohingya participants feel overwhelmingly frustrated and helpless as passive recipients of aid and many are losing faith in humanitarians and feel that discussing their issues is pointless," stated the report.
However, it's not just the people in crisis aid agencies don't listen to; historically, it is people from the Global South in general. For a while now, debate has raged about the decolonisation of aid, a system where Western donors and practitioners have long imposed their decisions in humanitarian settings and in particular, control funding and leadership positions.
Global aid still works with the principles popularised in the 1960s and 1970s, when famines and subsequent interventions led to a continuation of the white saviour complex that is still rooted in the system today. In the 1990s, the humanitarian system flourished as civil wars raged in several countries with Western humanitarians going to the most dangerous places in the world to make their fame (and fortune—it's a myth that aid workers are underpaid). Since then, however, the global aid industry has come under backlash for the parachuting nature of foreigners flying in with Western solutions to fix crises in poorer countries, the oligarchy large aid agencies have formed, and the omnipresent paternalism and sometimes outright colonial attitudes donors in the Global North hold towards those affected, and development practitioners, in the Global South.
Large INGOs and UN agencies dominate the country's aid landscape, commanding the largest amounts of funding while the rest scramble for what they can get, with local NGOs at the bottom of the food chain. Many local NGOs, which had been at the forefront of the developing Rohingya refugee crisis for years, were quickly pushed to the back of the room while predominantly European and American-based organisations and people flew in following the largest refugee influx into Cox's Bazar in 2017.
What has emerged since in Cox's Bazar very much displays the traditionally skewed power dynamics, where UN agencies and INGOs are at the top of the pyramid with national and local NGOs largely being treated as subcontractors. And while the INGOs and UN agencies hire locals and other Bangladeshis, leadership at these organisations is almost exclusively from the Global North. The uneven power dynamics are reflected in different pay scales for those from the Global North and those here in the Global South—the same position fulfilled by an American or a Bangladeshi with the equivalent level of skills and experience would be very different. It is evident in a two-tier hiring practice at these aid organisations where skilled locals and nationals are only hired for low-paid frontline jobs while aid workers from the Global North, transplanted in from headquarters or another crisis for a short time, are placed in leadership positions.
While those part of the system are not necessarily at fault and have inherited a hegemonic structure within which they have to work, national staff in the UN system should reckon with the fact that they will almost never rise to the top of a system that is stacked against them. Even at the highest levels of the UN, leadership for certain positions goes to certain countries by default and not through any semblance of merit. Outgoing Mark Lowcock, for instance, will most likely be replaced as head of humanitarian affairs by another Briton put forward by the UK. In a system set up decades ago, the five countries that emerged victors from World War II sit permanently on the Security Council and can veto decisions on the fates of the other 190 countries. In a more informal power-sharing practice, they also put forward their own people for five of the top leadership positions in the UN.
That the UN agencies are as fallible as other organisations, and whose scale alone means it is more fallible in cases, is not a narrative well-acknowledged in the country.The current aid industry is pointlessly bureaucratic, has seen large-scale failure in several countries and disasters, and is based on an outdated global standing that emerged from the fallout of the Second World War. Global aid narratives now acknowledge bloated organisational capacity and misused resources, which sees a large portion going to administration and marketing rather than actual causes, and it's time we did too.
Jargon-y aid work means various days are celebrated in the name of tackling crucial social and humanitarian issues such as ending violence against women and children, but which has become about wearing a certain colour and holding empty-of-actual-meaning conferences and workshops that few outside of the organisations watch or read about. Many of these practices have seeped into local and national NGOs' work, which depend on the UN and donor governments for funding and work on projects based on donor agendas. The amount of funding national and local NGOs have to work with, however, is minuscule in comparison—passing through several hands before some, after operations costs at every level, dribbles down to the local implementing NGO. In the "Grand Bargain" agreement, donors and international aid organisations pledged to allot 25 percent of all funds to local and national organisations "as directly as possible" and to reduce transactional costs. Local NGOs in Cox's Bazar, in particular, have been clamouring for this practice to become commonplace for some time now.
Involving those affected, rethinking how aid can be provided and distributed in a fair and dignified way, and channeling greater funds to training and capacity development here and directly in the refugee camps and other crisis areas can go some way in addressing international aid practices often inconsistent with realities in the Global South. Locals and affected communities themselves can take care of their own and the global aid industry should work towards making this the norm, not the exception.
Maliha Khan is a journalist at The Daily Star.