I am not sure if I mentioned this already, but while completing the course on African Conflicts last semester, I developed an interest in the field of humanitarian assistance and have consequently signed up for two DU courses in the respective program. I am certainly just a beginner in this field, but the course readings, as well as the on-the-ground experience professors and fellow classmates share, have already shown me that there is more to humanitarian assistance than the desire and obligation to offer help to those who most need it.
Good intentions and the willingness to offer succor to individuals and regions torn by conflict or disasters, whether natural or man-made, are certainly important, but it seems that the impetus to deliver that help is often fueled by various geopolitical, ideological, or plain selfish reasons. Often, the hungry continue to be hungry, the abused continue to be abused, and the ill continue to be ill or simply die, despite the billions of dollars, or euros, or (insert currency of choice here) being pumped on a regular basis into the bank accounts of many concerned organizations.
A particular topic that sparked a comment from me and is responsible for this post is the idea that what humanitarian programs often target is the improved quality of life for affected populations. I understand that the ultimate goal is for every person in the world to at least have a base level of a quality of life that allows him or her to enjoy life without worrying, beyond a certain accepted level, about being hungry, being homeless, or dying from a preventative disease. The problem arises when different people profess very divergent ideas on what the minimum requirements are for a basic quality of life. Is having a house, a vocation, and access to basic education and healthcare enough? Or should all people be able to have more and want more in order to experience “the good life”?
Ultimately, except for the worst case scenario, whether one is poor or has a poor quality of life depends on whom that person compares herself to. Growing up, I had no notion of the concept of being poor. Now, I am finding out and learning that evidently I was poor. I was poor from the perspective of many in the developed world. I had one pair of summer shoes (although I preferred going barefoot) and one pair of winter boots (that leaked by the way). New clothes meant the school year must be starting. There was one kind of chewing-gum in the store and the best sweets I could get were the ones made by my mother (which were delicious if you must know). For some, that is poverty. For me, that was the best childhood I could ask for.
I had no idea I was considered poor until the iron curtain was lifted and the wonders of the West flooded our stores. Yes, I could finally get anything a child in a developed country could have. Problem was, I could not afford to buy most of the new items filling the local shops. Nothing had really changed. I still had food, and clothes, and a roof above my head, but for the first time in my life, there were things I could not buy. And that meant I was poor.
Perspective, then, does matter. Should humanitarian actors live in the best houses and drive the newest car models when they deliver assistance or should they blend in with the local communities? Depends on what their purpose is, I guess.