The ‘Aid Machine’

Chris Herlinger | May 8, 2014

Image from the film "Fatal Assistance."

Image from the film “Fatal Assistance.”

I think a challenge is good for the soul, don’t you?

It used to be that humanitarian groups were praised no matter what they did. Few doubted the efficacy of emergency aid or the need for “development” assistance.

But the same kind of critical consciousness that has taken on the media, politicians and religious institutions in recent decades has finally focused on humanitarian groups.

I say, good. It keeps those of us who call ourselves humanitarians on our toes and makes us do our work better.

Case in point: Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck was recently in New York for the American premiere of his documentary film Fatal Assistance, which examines the “aid machine” in Haiti following the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Peck’s view of humanitarian assistance in Haiti is highly critical, particularly of the stalled housing reconstruction work championed by Bill Clinton and others.

In a recent blog for the World Policy Institute, I praised the film, all in all. I noted: “In what is one of many poignant arguments, the film declares that ‘somehow Haiti always survives its benefactors.’ It is hard not to feel that Haitians will survive this latest round of outside imposition with typical Haitian aplomb and endurance.”

Peck’s isn’t a perfect film, and sometimes the director misses distinctions and differences among humanitarian groups, as well as the fact that, as I pointed out, many “in the aid business know all too well what Peck and others point out, not only in Haiti, but elsewhere. Criticism of the ‘aid machine’ is being taken seriously at all levels of the humanitarian world, and efforts are being made to change and improve the way aid is delivered.”

Even so, I added, “Fatal Assistance needs to be seen by staff members of any international humanitarian organization that really cares about what it is doing.”

I hope we can do that among CWS staff, even though I think CWS did a generally good job of living up to Peck’s own thoughts about how best “to do” aid in Haiti:  “Listen to what people really need. Work with the local elected officials, work with the mayors, work with the young people, work with the local leaders, work with the neighborhoods, work with the government.”

Still, there are always things to improve and learn from, and no agency’s work is ever perfect.

Have a read:

Trailer for the film:

Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer