Is Humanitarian Aid Effective at Creating Change?

When we talk about providing international aid, we often talk in acute terms. We react to an immediate and obvious threat and find solutions to directly address that crisis. We witness those struggling with starvation and severe illness, so we respond with food aid and vaccines. When there is an ongoing crisis such as Covid in India, this kind of aid is absolutely essential! It helps relieve the immediate suffering and life-threatening effects of a humanitarian disaster. 

While this type of aid is helpful and effective in the short term for prompt relief, it is not as useful in the long term. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as ‘Band-aid’ because of its temporary nature and lack of ability to transform underlying causes. ‘Band-aid’ can be problematic because it is an easy avenue for charities and nonprofit organizations to claim they are making a difference or helping others, especially in regards to poverty relief or hunger. On the surface it appears that they do, however, they are simply addressing the consequences of a problem rather than the underlying cause. For example, providing free meals or donating clothing items may help with immediate hunger/need, but it fails to actually change the circumstances that caused the hunger/need in the first place. 

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to tackle world hunger and world poverty is that it requires changing societal structures. Inspiring change within these deep and underlying systems is a daunting task with much complexity, meaning that many international aid networks rely on top-down methods and temporary aid rather than working to change the system from the bottom-up.  Many grassroots organizations especially struggle with this, as they often rely on donations from their supporters, and in order to receive such funding they have to prove that they are effective and making a difference. This is easy to present with temporary aid. But transformational aid is more hidden and is harder to identify, meaning it is not as easy to show the results on the surface. 

At Divineya we recognize that temporary aid and transformational aid must go hand in hand in order to create change and empowerment. 

In India gender inequality is systemic. It is an underlying issue that is unable to be addressed through top-down methods (for example, telling organizations that they should have women in decision making roles is not alone going to change pre-existing pervasive attitudes and biases). Rather, change needs to come from the bottom up. It must be inspired by the very members of such organizations, rather than an outside force telling them what to do. 

Transformational aid is the kind where we work to encourage autonomy for our member community. We provide the resources and support system for our women to create change themselves and find the best ways to transform their communities. By providing them with the tools to create their own methods of change, we are working to dismantle the systems which keep them oppressed. By listening to their needs and adapting our strategy to address the things they feel are most important, we empower them to not only trust their own intuition and ideas, but also the determination and resolve to reach their own goals. We place them in powerful decision-making positions which gives them the authority and voice to enact new ideas which they would not have had the support to do alone.

This is one means through which we can begin to challenge the structures that perpetuate inequality. Eliminating world poverty is a daunting task! But the way forward is to start small, with one community at a time. The social bonds that connect us all are powerful, and working to strengthen and build those up into a sustainable and empowered network is one way to address the structural causes of inequality.