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Sweet sound of global philanthropy
by Bernard Hours
Saturday Aug 10th, 2013 10:26 AM
Bernard Hours is an anthropologist and honorary director of research at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD). His latest book is Développement, Gouvernance, Globalisation: du XXème au XXIème Siècle”, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2012
"...humanitarian emergencies. When invoked by an NGO (or international solidarity organisation), it is benevolent and peace-loving. As with the accordion, the music it produces depends on who is playing. The accordion just wheezes if badly played; all too often, international solidarity is an empty, artificial aspiration. If it is to work, one needs to know who it is addressing and what is being discussed.

Aid differs from solidarity because it is always dissymmetrical. It can be humiliating, even if that is not its intention. Development aid has been much criticised as a neo-colonial instrument of domination which, in the late 20th century, led more often to dependence and debt than to the intended emancipation. All the major religions consider charity as a means of acquiring merit for the hereafter. Aid is the proactive political form of charity, an individual Christian virtue. Since the poor are closer to God (the first shall be last and the last shall be first, etc), ensuring their dignity has become essential. The charity they receive is of moral benefit to the donor. The poor offer thanks in proportion to their humiliation, for charity places them in — or pushes them further into — a position of inferiority.

The humanitarian sector, which emerged in the 1980s, is a part of international moral action. In 25 years numerous NGOs have been founded and become morality enterprises, developing in the failure of development, now complete. Taking action in a humanitarian emergency is all the more pressing for being moral, as advertising messages endlessly tell us. Humanitarian merchandise, and a clear conscience, are now freely available on the market. The causes may be perishable, but the counters (on which they are sold) remain; one day they will find their place in the shopping malls, among the hairdressers and tanning centres. Urgency is a lever that enhances the effectiveness of humanitarian messages. It allows people to act fast without thinking too much about what they are doing, or the consequences of their actions. The fact that solidarity is just a pretext, a piece of window-dressing, is easily overlooked. The terms used evoke an ideological context — which is moral, political, even economic — in which solidarity is the buzzword and stated objective. But taking care of others does not necessarily have anything to do with “solidarity”.

to read "Sweet sound of global philanthropy" by Bernard Hours from the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique May 2013, click