Prof. David Gordon: Does Humanitarianism Do More Harm Than Good in Africa?


David Gordon

The African continent is teeming with well-meaning international, humanitarian activity, but how helpful has it been? This was a question posed by history professor David Gordon at a recent faculty lunchtime seminar,”The Redemption of Slaves and Pagans in Nineteenth Century Congo: Tracing the Origins of Modern Humanitarianism.”

Professor Gordon discussed the well-intentioned efforts of Belgian Catholic missionaries, who termed themselves the “White Fathers,” to liberate Congolese slaves, which often meant redeeming them from slave traders.

In this interview, Professor Gordon traces the origins of modern humanitarianism in Africa back to the efforts of these missionaries, and asks whether international initiatives to help war-torn and poverty-stricken African nations in the years since have had perverse effects.

Within the realm of peacekeeping, he explains why some Africa experts like Richard Reid in his Warfare in African History (Cambridge University Press, 2012) have come to the conclusion that “giving war a chance” might have been more efficacious in peace-building, even as such ideas disturb our liberal humanitarian conscience.

Professor Gordon spoke with College Writer and Multimedia Producer Tom Porter. Click below to hear the audio,

Interview Transcript

Tom Porter: How did you arrive at this subject?
David Gordon: When I originally did my research in Africa, particularly in Zambia in the 1990s, the preponderance of aid and humanitarian agencies was just remarkable. Most of the vehicles being driven around belonged to aid agencies. And the longer I stayed around, I detected the suspicion that people had of humanitarianism and humanitarian aid and they weren’t being treated just as heroes. And I began to understand why there were a lot of people from abroad being employed in positions that locals thought they could do better. I especially recall one incident: I was staying with a Peace Corps volunteer who was showing people how to dig pit latrines, the guy could hardly use a pit latrine and he was supposed to show them how to do it!  And the absurdity of it was increasingly felt and increasingly apparent and I also detected the resentment that people began to have, and how they began to question the motives and the efficacy of all this humanitarianism.

I was working on a different project at the time, and published two books on different, although related, topics. And then I came back to the subject through teaching here, because students see Africa through the lens of humanitarianism.

TP: And in this modern day humanitarianism, you see parallels with the 19th century?
DG: I do see parallels, not just parallels, but I see the humanitarianism of the 20th century growing out of that, so the agencies and the individuals who built those agencies had their first experiences in setting up colonial institutions and human rights organizations related to colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

TP: You argue that the anti-slavery crusade in 19th century Congo was not what is seemed, and was not humanitarian?
DG: No it was not at all. It was not as easy to end something as the white fathers first envisaged and they essentially became slave masters rather than ending slavery in a nutshell. They also threw a lot of resources at trying to help the vulnerable but those resources, literally the money they paid for slaves, found its way into the hands of the slave traders and strengthened them to a degree. So it was very contradictory because it would strengthen them and at the same time the white fathers would conduct military campaigns against them.

TP: Is there a parallel with how the white fathers’ attitude perpetuated the slave trade, arguably, and how some people today say aid policy policy can perpetuate poverty?


Humanitarian Aid Camp in Congo, 2008. Source: Julien Harneis

DG: I think misguided aid policy can firstly disempower local people, providing resources that could be developed locally. One admittedly easy example is donating clothes to Africa. Who doesn’t need clothes? That’s obvious, but what of the clothing manufacturers in Africa? What happens to them with the surplus of excess clothes?  That moment has actually passed but it’s a very easy example of the phenomenon.

What I’m actually more interested in, more than economic aid, is humanitarian aid, especially in conflict and post-conflict situations: how helping refugees for example might perpetuate conflict. Conflicts within Europe or in Africa often end when one side is thoroughly defeated and that defeat often means simply people don’t have enough food to eat. That has also happened in American history. It is increasingly not allowed to happen in modern African conflicts because resources are distributed among the most vulnerable refugees and those resources, firstly often don’t find their way to the most vulnerable because there are certain powerful individuals within the refugee community that gain access to them; and secondly it prolongs conflicts. Now these are incredibly difficult decisions. Perhaps the UNHCR has developed a policy that accommodates some of these tensions. The issue is humanitarianism these days is not in the hands of singular agencies and with the proliferation of NGOs, humanitarianism is often driven without direction, without purpose and without much policy.

TP: To get back to that point about prolonging conflicts, isn’t the alternative to let people die?

DG:  Well that’s the huge dilemma. I”ll give you two cases that might be good examples of “giving war a chance.” The first case is the refugee camps that were set up for hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees after the Rwandan genocide. Those refugee camps became bases for the Hutu militias and army that had conducted genocide, but also for very vulnerable refugees. The UNHCR and a number of different aid agencies continued to insist on the integrity and the right of these people to remain as refugees. And ultimately the new Rwandan government said ‘No’ and they invaded the refugee camps and massacred tens of thousands, the human toll was immense. The better policy might have been more forceful humanitarianism at that point, which insisted that these camps close, and a forced repatriation must take place. Now, those are difficult (questions), but the consequence of prolonging humanitarianism was disastrous.

The other quick example I’ll give is Biafra. The Biafran war (which occurred in Nigeria in the late 1960s), continued until the Nigerian government said ‘no more humanitarian aid to Biafra.’ And they cut off aid. Human suffering was huge but end with a unified Nigeria, and it was a war which was resolved.