I’ve seen a lot of interesting blog posts discussing aid, development, aid workers, NGOs etc. recently that highlight an important problem.
While we all use these terms, we frequently don’t understand them to mean the same thing, and this leads to a lot of confusion in our debates with others which might be as much about semantics as it is about actual meaning or opinion.
Below I’m throwing out a few terms and how I define them – not because there are the “right” definitions – just because this is how I currently see things. I’d be interested to hear what you all think.
Development – The improvement of the economic and social wellbeing of a country including the realization of the economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights (i.e. human rights) of its citizens. I should probably add environmental sustainability to this. This is a process which is ultimately driven by the citizens and government of a country itself, although there are many external and internal factors which can affect it. ONE of these is aid. It’s not the only one – it’s not even the most important one. Some of the other important external factors that influence development include security, trade policy, migration policy, intellectual property and technology transfer arrangements, investment and the environment. The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index has a good explanation of this and ranks donor countries not only by their aid, but by the sum total of how their actions in all these areas affect development. Of course there are a whole host of internal factors that affect development such as climate, geography, natural resources, culture, history, governance etc. which aid scholars will long continue to hotly debate.
Aid – Support given from one country to another. It can come in many forms – it could be financial and/or technical assistance, supplies, services, goods in kind or direct assistance and action. It can be provided to different actors: governments (central and local), civil society organizations or to individuals. It can be provided for the purposes of long term-development, it can be provided to deal directly with an immediate crisis or some combination of the two. It can come from different sources – from government donors, from multilateral organizations and international financial institutions, from non-governmental organizations of various sorts including religious groups, from private enterprises, and it can come from individuals. People frequently use the term aid to refer to some subset of these activities but not all of them.
A corollary of this is that development is about much more than aid – but also not all aid is directly about development. I’d divide aid into broadly two types with plenty of room for overlap.
Humanitarian aid/emergency aid – This is aid provided in the immediate aftermath of some type of emergency situation whether a “man-made complex humanitarian emergency” or a natural disaster. The main purpose of this aid is immediate relief in order to save lives and mitigate the worst effects of the emergency as quicky and efficiently as possible. Often this means that participatory approaches, local ownership and long term development ans sustainability concerns take a back seat to the need to the need for speed to save lives. Over time as the situation stabilizes aid transitions from emergency aid to longer term development aid. Humanitarian aid is kind of like “give a man a fish”, which if he is close to starvation might be preferable to teaching him to fish in a dried up stream.
Development aid – Aid aimed at supporting a country in its long term development. This generally means that its aim is to strengthen local resilience and capability to develop by helping build skills and provide missing inputs with a longer term aim of making a country, community or individual self reliant. This is the “teach a man to fish” including “teaching him how to sustainably manage his fish stocks” as well as give him the possibility to be a better fisherman than you are. For more ruminations on the difference between aid, relief and development see “Appropriate aid vs aspirational development” from James Bontempo’s blog (and read the comments).
So who works on aid?
Aid organizations – an organization whose main function is the provision of aid, whatever type of organization it is, government, multilateral, not-for-profit, for-profit. Some organizations provide aid, but that isn’t one of their primary function – so for me that means they are not aid organizations (The military might be a good example of this!).
Aid workers – so it follows that this is someone working in the field of international aid, most likely, but not necessarily for an aid organization. I don’t think you need to be a front line worker risking your life in a war zone to be an aid worker. If your work supports the delivery of aid – then for me that makes you an aid worker. Alanna Shaikh put this very well in her recent blog “So I’m an Aid worker“. Yes you are and so am I.
You might ask, what about drivers, finance people, procurement specialists, human resource managers? For me this then comes down to attitude. If you do one of these jobs with the attitude that your aim is to try to support the delivery of aid to those that need it, and how you do your work and why is based around doing this as well as possible then I think you are an aid worker. If you do it only because it’s a steady paycheck, a nice 9-5 and you are qualified to do it, then maybe you are not.
I’m guessing a lot of you will disagree with me on some of these, or can point out holes in my logic. Please do, I don’t think these definitions are anything near perfect -they are just working definitions I have in my head., and I’d love to improve them. Also, if we could all stop for a moment and think about what we mean when we use these terms, and how others are using them too, then I think we might be a lot clearer in our thinking about aid and development issues more generally.