Let’s stop and think about how we understand aid


Appeal videos of children in Bangladesh. The British Red Cross. INGO’s. Bono. At least one of these springs to mind when the term ‘aid’ is mentioned. We take it for granted that those receiving aid are spatially distant, that it is something which organisations or governments do in faraway countries. But what we often miss is the role each one of us plays in co-creating an understanding of what aid is, in the process perpetuating hierarchies and narratives that risk being demeaning and arrogant.

Sometimes problematic representations of aid are blatant for all to see. The backlash Comic Relief received in 2017 for its ‘poverty porn’ videos reinforcing white saviours is a classic point in case. We have all experienced appeals such as these in one form or another, and while I do not wish to undermine the work of these organisations, we must recognise they broadcast an unhelpful way of understanding aid that is carried into our subconscious and normalised. 

Though we shun the top-down dynamics that advertising campaigns create, we ignore the role each of us plays in perpetuating such hierarchies. Increasingly our interaction with aid takes place in everyday acts of shopping, whether it’s a donation you make at the checkout, rounding up your happy meal or purchasing a red item. These acts of charity allow us to transcend the line of consumer to that of micro philanthropist, but there is both empowerment and arrogance in this idea

The danger is that the spotlight is shifted to the ‘lack of’s’ that our donations solve; a pair of shoes, a school building, electricity generators, and away from the violence of disempowerment, the depravation produced by systematic exploitation, and the long history of disinvestment in the communities of the marginalised that constitutes a deeper way of viewing the world. But the focus is still on what ‘we’ can do to solve ‘others’ problems. 

Fairtrade has become a byword for ethical consumption as 93% of British shoppers now recognise its mark. It seeks to transform the conditions under which global commodities are produced, ensuring farmers and labourers can secure a minimum price for their work. Although we cannot guarantee that the value of the coffee we drink is accurately proportioned to the work of these farmers and labourers, the label assures us that we are helping those on the ground in some way. 

Photograph: Jens Schott Knudsen/Flickr

Fair trade suggests it is us who are providing a service for these distant figures, allowing them opportunities and money they might otherwise not have. But we do not think to acknowledge how much our cosmopolitan lifestyles depend on devalued, backbreaking work such as coffee bean sorting. Recognising our dependency opens us up to a relational understanding of poverty, subverting the top-down trajectory taken for granted as existing between poverty and privilege.   

A simple method for re-evaluating what we think we know about those who are dependent on aid is looking at welfare. We are so used to understanding welfare as something for the poor, but some of the world’s biggest companies are also the world’s biggest ‘welfare queens’. The Walton family, owners of Walmart, are worth $238 billion and yet along with McDonald’s, they make millions by paying their workers such low salaries that they become dependent on state welfare and food stamps. We are so used to seeing aid as being one thing, that it can blind us from realising just how many forms it takes within every part of society everywhere. 

It calls for a new way of understanding and interacting with aid. Comic Relief have recognised the need to move away from an ‘upper hand’ policy and instead  facilitate transformation from within. In an October press release they explain how going forward they will be working with media organisations across the country, having local film makers direct all new African films for Red Nose Day 2021. 

Commercially there is nothing simple about doing good. Choosing to shop fair trade, organic remain privileges of the global north. What we can do is understand the life history of global commodities and advocate changes in how they are produced, traded and consumed. We need a shift from seeing the smiling figures of visible poverty waiting for our charity, to the figure of the invisible worker.

We need a shift from responsibility, feeling the need to help, save and give aid, to something that postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls accountability; in this case understanding and accepting the role we play as global consumers. The ideal relation to the Other, Spivak says, is an “embrace, an act of love” Such an embrace may be unrequited, as the differences and distances are too great, but if we are ever to get beyond the vicious cycle of abuse, it is essential to remain open-hearted; not to attempt to recreate the Other narcissistically, in one’s own image, but generously, with care and attention. 

 1‘Relational Poverty Politics: Forms, Struggles, and Possibilities.’ Ed. Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood. 2018.

Philip Chennery is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador and Operations Team Member at SCRAP Weapons. He is currently pursuing a MA/PgDip in International Studies and Diplomacy.

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