Linguistic progress

The differences between the terms ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘relief aid’ and ‘development’ are often contentious. The usual short definition is that humanitarianism is about saving lives in an emergency, while development is about making those lives somehow better in the long term.

But life is never that simple. On this blog I call myself an aid worker in Afghanistan. Truth be told, development worker would be more accurate, but just doesn’t sound as alliteratively sexy.

In Afghanistan under the Taliban, most international organisations were in the business of humanitarian aid. Not because there was a humanitarian emergency that needed short term relief. But because many donors refused to fund development projects as these might then pass on resources or legitimacy to the ruling regime. The difference between relief and development was political rather than based on any assessment of people’s need.

Seven years ago the Taliban were bombed out of town and Afghanistan became a ‘post-conflict’ country, somewhere in the theoretical no-mans land between relief and development. These two terms are inevitably linked by an idealised notion of linear progress, always in that order: moving from relief to development.

In these years, international organisations have been expected to go from saving lives to developing them, and to develop the capacity and authority of the ruling regime. Most of these organisations would claim to be impartial and neutral, but they are involved in an inherently political business.

So, post-conflict development is what we are all about here in Afghanistan, despite the ongoing conflict in large areas of the country.

And development, despite the ICRC’s recent warning of the worsening humanitarian situation: of conflict, increased displacement and numbers of people being detained, severe cold, food shortages and the prospect of floods. They say they have less access to displaced people now than at any time in the twenty years they have been working here.

The assumed transition from relief to development is looking a little less certain.

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One Response to “Linguistic progress”

  1. Roberta Says:

    Linguistic progress indeed. A couple of weeks ago I was at the funeral of a dear friend, who had taken matters into his own hands by meeting a funeral director and her suggested celebrant while he still had the energy to plan. He wanted a humanist ceremony, and got one. At the reception afterwards, I heard two well-educated, nominally Christian people refer to it as a humanitarian ceremony. I doubt if they could give a definition of either human-derived word.

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