Debate Debrief: On Balance, Humanitarian Aid by NGOs Does More Harm than Good

Ever since the rapid proliferation of non-governmental organizations in the later halve of the 20th century, the NGO sector has become a growing force in the global arena. Garnering over $1 trillion annually, the NGO sector is the worlds 8th largest economy. Today NGOs play an increasingly important role in providing humanitarian relief and assistance. 

The modern form of international humanitarian aid owes its origins to the June 1859, when the battle of Solferino, a brawl between French and Sardinian forces against Austria, resulted in one of the most horrific bloodbaths in European history. In the wake of the battle, a young business man named Henry Dunant was confronted by the scene of wounded and dying soldiers. He, thereafter, dedicated himself to providing relief. Dunant’s account of the aftermath of the conflict, “A Memory of Solferino,” formed the foundational pillars of the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Humanitarian Law: Impartiality and neutrality. Humanitarian aid afforded by NGOs is largely guided by these fundamental pillars along with the principles of humanity and independence. 

Despite these simple core principles, humanitarian aid in the modern era is complex, with thousands of NGOs supplying various forms of aid worldwide. Relief efforts by NGOs have come under criticism for inefficiency, poor allocation of resources and have even been shown to have played a role in prolonging conflicts in some cases

Though springing forth from noble intentions and a moral calling, these issues pose the question of whether, on balance, humanitarian aid by NGOs does more harm than good. This past Thursday the club debated this motion. 

“Good intentions are not good enough…humanitarians are aware of this”- Professor Jens Rudbeck

Professor Jens Rudbeck, who leads the concentration in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, argued against the notion that humanitarian aid supplied by NGOs does more harm than good. Along side him was student debater Zeel Parikh. 

Professor Rudbeck offered arguments that aimed to stomp out claims about the NGO sectors’ inefficiency. He underlined the ways in which the NGO sector has undergone enormous change in the last 25 to 28 years. The transformation came in the form of professionalization, standardization and coordination. From 2006, NGOs have coordinated based on a formalized framework instituted by the United Nations. Professor Rudbeck highlighted the fact that todays’ NGO sector runs on highly professionalized labor, high speed dissemination of information through social media and drones, while new technologies like Blockchain root out corruption. All this, he claimed, has increased the quality of aid. Furthermore, Professor Rudbeck explained that individual donor nations bind specific humanitarian projects to a contract, without which NGOs cannot provide aid.

Zeel Parikh added to Professor Rudbeck’s defense, arguing that criticisms mounted against humanitarian aid afforded by NGOs is compounded by the newsworthy nature of the NGO sectors’ failure. She maintained that a negative light is often shone on NGOs because it is easier for media outlets to report bad news rather than give an account of successes. Furthermore, Zeel claimed that NGOs are able to more efficiently provide relief than governments as they are far more specialized and therefore less bureaucratic. 

“Our moral impulses are misleading”-Dominic Schlossberg 

On the affirmative side where student debaters Mitchell Bedows and Dominic Schlossberg. Mitch put forward the claim that governments are better equipped to respond to a crisis. He cited the global refugee crisis as an example of this, arguing that NGOs offer no long term solutions, producing refugee camps that keep refugees in “warehouses”. Mitch stated that foreign NGOs waste time and resources as they do not use existing frameworks in a given country but rather try to do everything on their own. Moreover, he insisted that Western NGOs take away government responsibility by providing services that a government ought to supply. As a result, when NGOs leave the the aid receiving country is unable to cope on its own.

Dominic declared that though it might be morally appealing, the aid that NGOs provide has devastating consequences in the long term. Adding to Mitch’s argument, Dominic stated that the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, that persisted for 20 years, illustrates the problem of government responsibility. He claimed that NGO supplied aid took away responsibility from the surrounding countries to help the situation. This, in turn, decreased incentive for long term solutions and contributed to the development of refugee population.