Aid may be inherently racist and colonial, but altruism is not — that’s a cause for hope

Aid Re-imagined
Jul 3, 2020 · 7 min read
The origin of human social life. (Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

“Is international aid inherently fraught and should we just ‘burn it down’…or is there a way out of this?”

That is the question The New Humanitarian recently asked the audience of one of their events. Most who answered were split in roughly two camps: 31% agree that “aid is inherently fraught and cannot be divorced from its colonialist roots”; while 44% think “aid can be re-imagined in a way that isn’t toxic.”

This comes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests globally, which brought to the fore arguments made by so many people in so long a time: that the international development and humanitarian aid sector has in its DNA the double-helix of racism and colonialism.

If the writer Arundhati Roy is right, we are at a point in our history that may be a critical juncture; a portal where we are faced with a choice: to walk through either “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred…and dead ideas” or “lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

With its baggage of racism and colonialism, how then can we as a sector walk lightly towards an aid re-imagined?

I’d like to offer a humble, partial answer: by updating the story we tell ourselves.

In 2017 I wrote an article on how “the future of aid is the end of it.” I still stand by that. I’m sure I speak on behalf of many people from the Global South when I say our reasonable aspiration is for our societies to be, in some ways, like the Global North: able to solve our own problems without requiring international assistance.

I am clear about this: the ideal world is one where aid as we know it is not necessary anymore.

But as human beings, whenever we’re made aware of someone requiring assistance, we often can’t help but, well, help. This is an empirical claim backed by rigorous evidence.

In biology we know that humans — and other animals, primarily mammals — evolved to be more cooperative because it increased their chances of survival. Our tendency to be more cooperative extends beyond our immediate kin: the “self-domestication” theory suggests that the bonobo monkeys evolved so far as physiologically so that they could look less aggressive to others (because this enables cooperation, which in turn increases survival rate); and there is data supporting the theory’s applicability to humans.

The evolution that led to our cooperative nature is also evidenced in anthropology: at first we evolved to cooperate with people close to us “such that individuals were interdependent with one another and so had a direct interest in the wellbeing of their partners.” But more astonishingly, we further evolved to cooperate with those beyond our close circles: “In a second step, this new collaborative skills and motivations were scaled up to group life in general…human cognition and sociality thus became ever more collaborative and altruistic as human individuals became ever more interdependent.”

This is evident even in the dismal science, economics, where homo economicus or the self-interested rational man is orthodox. Experiments in game theory have found ”human players behave more cooperatively and receive higher payoffs than strict rationality would permit.”

Finally, in the cutting-edge intersection on the study of evolution and philosophy, one book, which draws from agent-based modelling, argues that human beings evolved to become “moral” because this “serves to produce the best expected outcome, for each of us, over the course of our lives, given the constraints placed by other people.”

It’s hard to dispute: it’s in our nature to help others.

The double-helix of racism and colonialism might be in the very DNA of aid-as-we-know-it. But altruism, which pre-dates aid, is in the very DNA of us, human beings.

This is cause for optimism: this allows us to re-imagine the international aid sector not as the continuation of racist and colonial endeavours of the Global North, but as driven by our altruistic nature.

In the persistence of injustice, this enables us to re-frame our on-going, necessary work — including mobilising resources towards local development and humanitarian action, amplifying Black, Brown and Global South voices, and supporting the recognition of local and indigenous expertise — as the logical next chapter of the millennia-old story of human altruism.

Updating the story we tell ourselves is important because such stories become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In his new book, Humankind: A hopeful history, historian Rutger Bregman argues how people’s narratives of themselves become true: he references a widely-cited research on how students studying concepts in neoclassical economics (including the concept of homo economicus, the self-interested rational man) eventually made those students more selfish. Bregman says this kind of stories about ourselves, like ones found in neoclassical economics, distorts our understanding of human nature. He uses an example familiar to aid workers: people tend to be sceptical of just giving cash to the poor (such as in universal basic income, of which Bregman is an ardent believer; or in the context of development/humanitarian cash transfers) because they fear the money will be spent on things like alcohol and drugs — even if there is no empirical evidence to support that fear.

I am, of course, not naïve. Elsewhere I have written that good intentions — that is, our altruistic motives — are not enough. We live in a complex world as rationally-bounded human beings without perfect knowledge of the consequences of our actions. This means in our attempt to do good, there is a high risk that we can unintentionally cause harm. In fact, this is true for most of the history of aid-as-we-know-it: in the name of altruism, the actions of the Global North have led to undesirable outcomes for the Global South.

In trying to repair what’s currently a deeply broken system, those who enjoy being in a position of privilege will find themselves in the epicentre of an uncomfortable tension — between standing up for others and stepping aside. In the context of racial inequality, this is acutely illustrated by the diagram below. Taken from a somewhat unlikely source, an Instagram meme account, its caption offers a useful heuristic for do-gooders in positions of privilege: “if you’re leaning too far in one direction, try the other one.”

Contradictions for white people in racial justice work. (Source: MaleFragility)

This highlights the need for updating the story of aid in a careful way.

As humanitarian futures thinker Aarathi Krishnan says, “There are so many of us that are talking about the future of humanitarian aid, but whose vision are we privileging in that re-imagination?” We must update the story of aid in a way that is cognisant of systems and injustices, instead of merely calling for charity. We can update it in a way that leverages our common humanity and fosters solidarity — such as through aid researcher and practitioner Jonathan Glennie’s idea of re-conceiving international aid as ‘global public investment’ for global goods.

I advocate for updating the story of aid because I am an optimist (or perhaps, as someone else framed it, I have not “earned my cynicism” yet). I want to look at our world and our fellow human beings critically but with kind eyes. I actively endeavour to look beyond aid’s systemic racism and colonialism, and attempt to see what economist Dan Honig labels “mission-driven bureaucrats”: that is, well-intentioned people, often invisible within the black box of aid bureaucracy, who are trying their best to make a change.

After hosting the event, “How to be Anti-Racist in Aid,” a number of people told me they are re-thinking their career in the aid sector. This critical reflection on our individual place in the grand scheme of things is welcome. Although I would temper this with an acknowledgement that there are precious few professions in the world that do not contribute to perpetuating our current system one way or another. We are in a system after all; and systems are self-perpetuating. Our focus should not be on purifying our individual actions, but collectively demanding and building a better system for our world.

More productively, as development scholar Olivia Rutazibwa argues, we should not throw the baby (altruism) out with the bathwater (aid’s racist and colonial past), and instead ask ourselves: “What do we keep? What do we throw out?”

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her popular TedTalk, “The danger of a single story,” said:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity… when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Right now is the moment for the statues of racism and colonialism in the aid sector to be toppled. We must reckon with — and not forget — aid’s problematic origins. We must continue to highlight it more widely within our sector. But to limit the understanding of human cooperation to this single, incomplete story is to accept the monopoly of racism and colonialism in our otherwise rich past as a species. This monopoly must be rejected.

As we rebuild our world’s systems, we must erect in racism’s and colonialism’s place a new foundational story for ourselves: one of altruistic human beings, in solidarity, helping each other achieve justice. The alternative — of isolationist societies, where there is less cooperation between different groups of people — is worse.

By updating the story of aid, we can re-imagine its future.

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards effectiveness and justice through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research — unafraid to venture beyond the realm of development and humanitarianism, using insights from philosophy, economics, politics, anthropology and sociology, as well as management. Aid Re-imagined stands for a more effective and just aid for our new, ever-changing world.

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Aid Re-imagined

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research. Get in touch: arbie@aidreimagined.com

Aid Re-imagined

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Re-imagining the way we do aid towards effectiveness and justice.

Aid Re-imagined

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research. Get in touch: arbie@aidreimagined.com