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The Business of Helping People

The nature of humanitarian aid has changed as governments outsource more of their development programs to privately-run organizations.The result: the needy are often exploited by the people meant to be helping them.

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Aid organizations depend on the right images to raise money

A senior German minister demanded Italian police release the captain of a relief ship caught up in a refugee drama off the Italian coast.

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany's Development Minister, said Tuesday that Elias Bierdel could not be punished for wanting to help 37 African refugees he rescued from the water off the coast of Sicily.

The media storm surrounding Bierdel, who captained a ship owned by the German aid organization Cap Anamur, and the refugees has thrust the work of aid organizations into the public spotlight in the past week.


The growing aid business

In Germany alone, there are thousands of aid organizations whose business it is to help the needy at home and abroad. Among them are state, half-state, religious and private organizations of all sizes. In some cases, they're run by a small staff of volunteers, in others by a huge apparatus with hundreds of permanent employees.

A glance at the annual reports of some of these larger organizations gives an idea of the financial frameworks some aid organizations have at their disposal. Together, the groups "Brot für die Welt" and "Caritas" have a budget of around €170 million ($210 million) -- mostly made up from donations and state grants.

Along with globalization and privatization, the number of humanitarian and development NGO's has grown. In recent years, many governments have chosen to outsource development aid. Aid organizations initially welcomed the trend, seeing themselves more as a part of the civil society alternative, rather than as an extension of state bureaucracy.

But in the process, the founders of these organizations failed to notice that they've become subject to the practical constraints any company experiences, with far-reaching consequences.

With new independence, a degree of helplessness

"This growth in the private aid industry can be explained by the fact that it's become common practice in the neo-liberal strain of thought, to privatize any possible state role in this area," Peter Lock of the European Association for Research on Transformation told Deutsche Welle. "The state has pulled back, and now, aid organizations are in the situation where they are subject to the typical growth constraints."

Humanitarian aid organizations in the Third World often find themselves in a helpless situation. Caught up in a web of violence that is often perpetrated by war lords who refuse to respect their neutrality, the organizations are denied access to those who need their help. Often, they're only allowed access when one or both of the warring parties can directly profit from it.

Kind in Liberia

A baby is fed via a syringe at a therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children run by the French aid agency "Action Contre La Faim" in Liberia

This relative helplessness, coupled with an economic crisis in the donating countries, is changing the character of aid organizations. Their advertising campaigns have to be louder if they want to reach donor's wallets. Attempts to make a name for themselves -- particularly in the media -- drive some organizations toward flashier PR activities, or worse, exploitation of the very people they're meant to be helping.

Exploitation for a good cause

Children are ideal in this regard, as are old people and women -- images presented without detailing the context of the problem, or the role the aid agencies have taken in these structures. The problem of small arms and posed photos is a prime example, Lock said.

"We often hear the message that, in the development of violent societies in which small arms play a big role, woman and children are the central victims. But when you analyze violence in the Third World, you come to the conclusion that violent incidents are most frequently carried out by, and most frequently affect, young men," Lock told Deutsche Welle.

"Another example is the use of photo-journalism in ads that, to put it carefully, work with contrived photographs meant to project human suffering out of its social context and into our televisions. And that's not very helpful when it comes to finding lasting political solutions for these problems."

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  • Date 14.07.2004
  • Author Heinrich Bergstresser (dre)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5JS5
  • Date 14.07.2004
  • Author Heinrich Bergstresser (dre)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5JS5