Posted by: Nathaniel | January 28, 2009

Top Five Critiques of Development and Humanitarianism

Originally posted on Just Means

Each fall, thousands of passionate students are thrown back into the chaotic jumble of classes, parties, and the great big dreams of changing the world that make up the American college experience. At the Center for Global Engagement, we recognize that students’ good intentions don’t always match their ability to act and design programs to help students develop the skills they need to address issues of global poverty and inequality.

At its best, education is about challenging you in ways that improve your ability to think and act. With that in mind, we regularly ask our students to read and reflect upon some of the toughest criticism of development and volunteerism available. It seems to us that the more critical voices you can add to a complicated worldview that still drives you firmly in the direction of doing something, the better suited to creating change over your lifetime you’ll be.

With that in mind, here are some of our favorite gut-wrenchers to challenge even the most determined optimists.

5. The Subtle Problems of Charity (1899)
Jane Addams

One of America’s foremost progressive reformers and social entrepreneurs, Jane Addams kept busy not simply founding Hull House and changing the way we provided support for the urban poor, but writing about the philosophical challenges of philanthropy and democracy. This article is important for its recognition that charity inevitably splits the world into the helpers and those to be helped and can, as such, become an instrument for reinforcing rather than redressing inequality.

4. White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good  (2006)
William Easterly

Easterly, the “anti-Jeff Sachs,” wrote this book to prick the swelled expectations of movements like the One Campaign that suggest that the key to ending global poverty is more aid money. While the work has been used as a bludgeon by the anti-aid political Right, Easterly’s focus on challenges like governance and bureaucracy should be required reading.

3. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2003)
David Rieff

If this one doesn’t hurt your soul, you might not have one. Eloquent, pleading and brimming with barely-controlled rage, Rieff’s ‘Bed for the Night’ is a chronicle of an ever growing disenchantment with the hypocrisy of humanitarian intervention and a serious condemnation of the overreach of aid and development organizations.

2. “To Hell with Good Intentions” (1968)
Ivan Illich

In the late 1960s, post-development theorist Ivan Illich levied this scathing critique of the naivety of international assistance on a group of university students about to begin volunteering in Mexico. It cuts straight to the bone of the limits of ‘solidarity’ and the difficulty of transcending class difference to create partnerships for change.

1. Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (1986)
Barbara Harrell-Bond

“Imposing Aid” is every bit as imposing as its title. Written by the woman who literally invented the field of refugee studies, this seminal work chronicles how the very programs created to support people forced from their homes end up undermining their dignity. Harrell-Bond takes the top spot not only for the incredible clarity and precision of her critique, but because she’s spent the last quarter century working to put her insights into practice, building refugee studies programs in London and Cairo and inspiring generations of change agents along the way.

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Responses

  1. Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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  2. When I started working for BHB, the first thing she had me read was David Rieff’s book. It hurt my soul and made me take a much more critical eye towards humanitarian aid (exactly what BHB intended, I’m sure)


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