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Famine and the rethinking of humanitarianism and NGO practices in Africa

Famine and the rethinking of humanitarianism and NGO practices in Africa

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by karinda tolland. Originally submitted for BA ANTHROPOLOGY , with lecturer Abdullahi El-Tom in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by karinda tolland. Originally submitted for BA ANTHROPOLOGY , with lecturer Abdullahi El-Tom in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/11/2013

 
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Famine and the rethinking of humanitarianism and NGO practices in AfricaABTRACT
After decades of humanitarian efforts in Africa and countless billions of dollars, why is it thatan estimated 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa remain without enough food? Despitedeeper and more extensive international involvement by charitable relief agencies, or as theyprefer to call themselves, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), famines in Africa appearto be more intractable than ever. Clearly the huge amount of money spent in the name of 
‘humanitarianism’ should in fact help those it is intended for; however, there are many
reasons to doubt the impact of the humanitarian effort in Africa.This essay explores the workings of humanitarian action and NGO practices in Africa, aswell as, the specific relations of social dominance and power asymmetries between first andthird world states. While charitable humanitarian acts are laudable and necessary, globalaltruism does not always guarantee effective action
and may be in fact be ‘wounding’ and‘injurious’ upon recipients involved in one
-way flows of development aid. Many relief workers and by extension, the organizations they work for, have a real commitment to savinglives and reaching the poorest of people; however, good intentions are not always sufficientto produce desirable results. As will be shown, global altruism is no easy task and our desireto understand the nature of Western goodwill is never straightforward. In this essay, whatmatters is not the search for the origins of famine in Africa, but the specific relations of power and especially the tensions arising from the assertion of Western power. Could it bethat the humanitarian institution represents a disempowerment of (or disincentive to) thepeople directly engaged in the grips of famine, which diminishes their capacity to find theirown solutions?
 
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Humanitarian aid is, in large part, a reflection of institutional and donor interests and anyclaim to neutrality on behalf of the NGO must be continually questioned to avoid pastfailings, such as, poor governance, dependency and the weakening of African institutions. Isuggest that the answer is certainly not to cease providing famine relief, developmentassistance or humanitarian aid, as we have a moral and social responsibility to act; however,rather than seeing famine in its current form, as a problem that requires a technical andscientific solution, usually from the so-
called ‘experts’ of the Western world, a more ethical
engagement with the local community is required. The role of the humanitarian should be tosupport and guide sustainable development initiatives decided upon in partnership with those
who experience chronic hunger, instead of focusing so much on a ‘reactive’ emergency
response. It is time to take a closer inspection, learn from the lessons of the past, and assesswhether the current humanitarian model in Africa is actually doing more harm than good.
 
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Introduction
Famines do not arise without warning and are in fact the product of a pattern that we havehad plenty of opportunity to observe and recognise; a pattern of unstable food supply,caprices of weather, crop failure, unstable regimes and endemic undernutrition. This age-oldphenomenon that has periodically ravaged mankind is central to the activities of thehumanitarian agency. In recent decades we have seen the rapid growth of what Alex de Waal
refers to as the ‘humanitarian international’
 
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the cosmopolitan elite of relief workers,officials of donor agencies, consultant academics and the like, and the institutions for whichthey work (1997:3). Despite deeper and more extensive international involvement bycharitable relief agencies, or as they prefer to call themselves, non-governmentalorganizations (NGOs), famines appear to be more intractable than ever. The impulse to rushahead and do something practical to relieve the suffering of famine is laudable; however,altruistic motives do not by themselves guarantee effective action. When an African countryslips into a food crisis, the fingers of blame start pointing in a familiar circle. The aidagencies blame the United Nations, the United Nations blames its donors, the donors blamethe sovereign government - and everyone blames the international community. The capacityof Western agencies to respond to crises has increased rapidly, with greater resources, fastertravel, and a general easing of restrictions following the end of the Cold War. But so, too,have tensions, arising from the assertion of this Western power.The idea behind humanitarianism is that in extreme cases of human suffering external agentsmay offer assistance to people in need. This essay explores the workings of humanitarianaction and NGO practices in Africa. Following Alex de Waal consideration will be given towhether inter
national humanitarianism is an ‘
obstacle rather than an aid to conquering famine
in Africa’
(1997: xv-xvi). Could it be that the humanitarian institution represents a

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