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Must Something Be Done?

A symposium on humanitarianism’s purpose

Colonial by Design

Joshua Craze

In the nineteenth century, earnest missionaries accompanied European colonizers, fervent in their conviction that, together, Christianity and colonialism would civilize the world’s pagan backwaters. Many now regard such beliefs with embarrassment and see Christianity’s civilizing project as the ideological handmaiden of European imperialism.

Yet many of the right-thinking liberals only too glad to renounce colonialism uncritically embrace the claims of purity made by the humanitarian industry today. If one listened to its evangelists, one would learn about a humanitarianism that is above the rancor of partisan politics and focused only on the needs of the world’s poorest people. Less discussed is the growth of a more than $40 billion industry dependent on celebrity endorsements and the commodification of misery, which has brought fat paychecks to UN officials but little in the way of improvement to the lives of the poor. Humanitarian advertising might assure you that every donation helps the hungry, but those dollars go into an absolutely antidemocratic system in which recipients of aid are treated as passive victims while decisions about their lives are made in far-off capitals, just as it was once thought entirely appropriate that India’s destiny should be determined in London. In 150 years, humanitarianism will be thought of with as much embarrassment as colonial Christianity; it certainly will have done as much damage.

Humanitarian hagiographies tend to focus on figures like Henry Dunant, the Genevan businessman who, in 1859, was spurred by the carnage of the battle of Solferino to cofound the Red Cross and lay the groundwork for the Geneva Conventions. Such heroic tales tell the story of humanitarianism’s basic principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. From these precepts emerge a vision of humanitarians as apolitical angels, unconnected to social or political struggles in the countries they deign to assist.

Humanitarianism’s true history is more sordid. Following the end of World War II, both private agencies and governments took part in a Cold War mission that made strategic loyalty the price for emergency rations. With the end of the Cold War, humanitarianism became part of the end-of-history fever dreams of 1990s liberalism. Structural adjustment programs cut the capacity of states in the Global South to provide social services, and the humanitarian industry stepped in to stanch the bleeding. Emerging markets in disaster- and conflict-torn countries from Somalia to Haiti proved fertile ground for ambitious do-gooders. As the industry exploded, humanitarian intervention became the left hand of military imperialism. While U.S. special forces went door-to-door searching for insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, humanitarian agencies undermined state ministries and turned themselves into governments, answerable not to the Afghan and Iraqi peoples but to the priorities of powerbrokers in Washington. All the while, the humanitarian industry has grown massively: it pulled in a record $47 billion last year.

Needs have also spiraled. One in twenty-three people in 2023 need humanitarian assistance, more than ever before, as the world struggles to cope with the largest global food crisis in modern history, compounded by climate change and conflict. While money is allocated according to the political goals of top donors, the political nature of humanitarian funding is not the real problem.

The industry itself is not fit for purpose. Humanitarianism is fundamentally set up to address emergencies: its funding cycles are short-term and its “solutions” are designed to support populations until normality can be restored. But normality has taken a holiday. Much of the world now lives in a permanent emergency, careening from climate-induced shock into conflict, and back again. Some 83 percent of people receiving humanitarian aid live in countries that have had UN-backed emergency calls for assistance for five straight years.

In this context, humanitarianism is a Band-Aid, and one with baleful consequences. As international NGOs—rather than national governments—have become the preferred channel for humanitarian resources, locally legitimate actors are delegitimized in favor of European bureaucrats. The NGOs aren’t primarily overseas to build roads, nor to invest in long-term development, and the only needs they address are the narrowly physical.

For instance, the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya has a population of over two hundred thousand people, most of whom fled from Somalia. Residency in such camps is predicated on the idea, enshrined at the heart of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that refugees will either be resettled or will return home. This means that most refugees are not allowed to work and do not get citizenship in their host country. Camps are supposed to be temporary, but with resettlement increasingly difficult and wars never-ending, many never leave. In places like Dadaab, hundreds of thousands of people have grown up without citizenship, dependent on handouts, waiting for futures that will never arrive. From the perspective of humanitarians, such camps save lives. In historical perspective, however, such camps are devices to manage uprooted populations; they are cages, designed to prevent people from fleeing to Europe and the United States.

Humanitarianism lives off a myth of a contextless world, in which “something must be done” by the rich—ignoring all the things that the rich world is already doing. The world is facing a mounting global debt crisis. Twenty-five countries spend more than a fifth of their revenue on servicing external debt. As governments cut social services, it is the humanitarians who step in to provide social assistance—but on Washington's terms. This is why humanitarianism cannot be reformed. For all the high-minded talk about the localization of aid responses and listening to communities on the ground, humanitarianism is fundamentally antidemocratic. The industry’s very principles of neutrality and independence mean that it remains aloof from the desires of the people it purports to help. The fundamental colonialism of humanitarianism is not in its politicization but in its design: donor countries in the Global North determine the priorities of international organizations, which dictate their “solutions” to the rest of the world. Not only have these solutions not worked, they have perpetuated an essentially colonial paradigm, in which American and European well-wishers save the benighted parts of the globe while denying the Global North’s role in perpetuating the problems faced by the South. The problems that humanitarianism sees in the world are real; but it is part of the problem, not the solution.

This text is adapted in part from “The Angel’s Dilemma,” Joshua Craze’s contribution to this issue.


False Binaries

Michael Barnett

I want to begin by acknowledging points of agreement. Too much of humanitarian assistance never makes it to affected communities and stays in the pockets of humanitarian organizations and UN agencies. Donors care less about the needs of distant strangers than they do their own interests, and contemporary peacebuilders do resemble nineteenth-century liberal humanitarians and missionaries in many ways. I have little faith that this humanitarian system run by a self-selected club of international actors can reform itself.

We seem to be observing different humanitarianisms, however. There is something quite dated about Joshua Craze’s criticism. There was a time, perhaps thirty years ago, in which hagiographies dominated books on humanitarianism, but the 1990s put those testimonials to rest in favor of thoughtful, often severe critiques. Indeed, many commentaries drew from Michel Foucault and nearly painted aid workers as a cross between prison guards sitting atop the panopticon and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet few of humanitarianism’s harshest critics went as far as to wish for its demise. When people are buried under buildings from an earthquake, or engulfed by violence from which there is no escape, or fleeing for their lives, yes, “something must be done.” It does not have to come from abroad, but it often must.

But let’s play along for the moment and suppose that Craze gets his wish: because humanitarianism is not “fit for purpose,” is “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” and cannot be reformed, it should be immediately tossed into the dustbin of history. How does the end of humanitarianism help those who are in desperate need for clean water, medical attention, shelter, sanitation, and food? Humanitarianism is designed to help during emergencies. Its ambition is to provide relief and save lives. It is a Band-Aid. It deals with symptoms and not root causes. It never aspired to save societies and states, build roads and bring development, or find justice. It does not intend to end all suffering, just suffering of a particular kind. Criticizing humanitarian assistance for failing to do more than save lives is akin to criticizing emergency room staff for not following their patients home after they are discharged to advise on their home life.

Perhaps Craze thinks that others will step into the breach at these moments of severe need if humanitarianism no longer exists. Local communities, in fact, do most of the work at these moments, but they can only do so much. The state is the ideal respondent, but it is often either nonexistent, lacking capacity, or part of the problem. (It would be great if others who were more selfless increased their contributions, but until then states are the banks.) How much blame can we heap on them for the failures Craze observes? Are humanitarians really the ones who undermined government ministries in Kabul and Baghdad? I would point to U.S. officials and local elites. If refugee camps are now crowded, quasi-permanent cities populated by individuals who are unable to work, this is not because of humanitarianism—it is because of states. UNHCR cannot issue work permits or christen new citizens as much as it would like to. Humanitarians deserve their fair share of blame, but these critiques are unfair.

I have never taken to arguments that present false binaries, especially jeremiads prepared to sacrifice those at risk of death and harm in the hope of some sort of justice. Nor do I agree with those on the right who hold that compassion to distant strangers is misplaced and potentially self-injurious, playing into Garrett Hardin’s “lifeboat ethics,” in which the rich are in the lifeboat and surrounded by the poor who are drowning; the boat has only so much carrying capacity, so if bleeding-heart liberals try to accommodate the poor, everyone will drown.

If you see, as I do, the point of humanitarianism as trying to stop the number of sacrifices in an unfair world, is the choice really between colonialism in modern garb and ending humanitarianism? Is there really no other option, no role for international assistance? Most surveys of local and national aid organizations and affected peoples seem to think there is. They have trenchant critiques of the current state of the humanitarian system, but few want to close the doors to any humanitarian assistance. Localization efforts are not about ending aid but ending aid as we know it.

In fact, there are many interesting experiments in humanitarianism that are promising. There is the growing phenomenon of grassroots humanitarianism, refugee-led organizations, and more South-South collaboration. They are struggling to be born and must contend with a sclerotic humanitarian sector, and perhaps the energy put into possibly dismantling the existing humanitarian sector might be better put to strengthening local and national alternatives.


Crooked Timber

Alex de Waal

In December 1992, President George H. W. Bush dispatched the Marines to Somalia, following the demands of humanitarian agencies that American troops were needed to protect relief operations amid civil war and state collapse. I was working for Africa Watch at the time. Instructed to support the intervention, I resigned instead. In a subsequent radio interview, I asked whether the U.S. Marines represented the vanguard of the humanitarian international or the stormtroopers of a new philanthropic imperialism. The answer was something of both.

At that time, newly freed from the decades-long straitjacket of the Cold War and respect for the sovereignty of the governments of disaster-wracked countries, relief agencies hubristically anticipated that humanitarianism unbound—the term I coined to capture this unbridled ambition—could go beyond traditional relief operations and dictate political solutions in poor societies. Its first agenda was military intervention to enable famine relief operations, buying into the fantasy that Western armies were the magic ingredient for stopping genocide.

While academic study of famine increasingly identified political intent or recklessness as its major cause, charities glossed over this reality, and also the well-attested fact that emancipatory political action was the means of famine prevention. Instead, humanitarians in the United Nations and the voluntary sector preferred to see starvation as a natural disaster, in which white saviors would act out the fairy-tale ending. As I argued in my 1997 book, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, the main famine criminals were dictators, warlords, Cold War strategists, and their facilitators. Humanitarians didn’t starve people, though they may have been accomplices in letting their tormentors continue to keep them hungry.

Twenty years later, however, it seemed that, with a few notable exceptions such as Somalia in 2011, the great famines that had struck poor countries over earlier decades had all but disappeared. Explaining this was the initial motivation for writing my follow-up book in 2017, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. But as I was writing, it became clear that my premise was wrong. Famines were back, albeit in shapeshifted forms.

Mass starvation can be the product of one or more of three main factors, acting differently over the decades. One is food availability collapse. This was the main driver of historic agrarian famines. But in the era of globalization, staple foods became cheaper than ever before, so that even at the peak of the “world food crises” of 2008 and 2011, staple food prices were lower than the average of forty years earlier. Whether or not industrial cereal production is sustainable or equitable, it provides plentiful and cheap wheat, maize, and rice everywhere in the world.

The second factor is poverty—specifically what Amartya Sen calls “food entitlement” collapse, or the inability of poor people to buy sufficient food. The spectacular economic growth of China alone eliminated the world’s most significant historic epicenter of famine, with India not far behind.

Third is starvation crimes, the deliberate or reckless creation of famine as an instrument of policy or weapon of war. The single most important reason why the twentieth-century great famines ended was that totalitarian societal engineering, as in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, was now history, with North Korea as a singular exception. Colonial conquests and wars of extermination were also becoming far rarer. However, starvation caused by protracted civil wars was famine’s chief remaining holdout, with mass atrocities in Yemen, Darfur, South Sudan, and northern Nigeria leading to new famines.

The humanitarians hadn’t had much to do with the decline of famine incidence or gravity, but they weren’t irrelevant. The humanitarian international was now bigger and more professional than in earlier decades. Techniques of saving lives at scale, such as better child nutrition, a bigger focus on water, sanitation and disease prevention, and the new fashion for direct cash transfers, had transformed the business. Death rates in relief camps decreased rapidly. In Somalia in 2016, helped by generous donor funds, humanitarians adopted the principle of “no regrets” programming, taking the line that it is better to send relief where it isn’t in fact urgently needed than hold up aid until certainty about need and confidence in delivery could be achieved. There are many children whose lives were saved as a result.

Aid agencies provided several other indirect benefits too. There’s good evidence that simply having well-networked observers around deters soldiers from perpetrating war crimes. Humanitarian organizations employed a lot of thoughtful individuals—many wrote illuminating ethnographies of the societies where they worked, as well as penetrating critiques of the aid business itself. When I first articulated my “humanitarianism unbound” critique in the mid-1990s, I was shunned by some former colleagues. But the system learned—especially as younger professionals, schooled in postcolonial critique, entered the business.

Perhaps most importantly, the UN and private agencies provided a sort of internal refuge for dissenting nationals. Civic-minded citizens found gainful employment in their home countries, communities of like-minded people, access to international media and policymakers, and protection from abusive governments. It was a postcolonial encounter but not a one-way street.

Today, the world is shifting again. Financialization of global food markets has been more rapid, thorough, and detrimental than the application of financial instruments for disaster mitigation. The numbers of people in need of protection and assistance are climbing astronomically. The global precariat is expanding fast. Wars of starvation have become more prevalent and more deadly.

As serious as the material crisis may be, perhaps more alarming is what I have called “counter-humanitarianism”—the ethos that humanitarian action stands in the way of other goals, more salient to reactionary political projects. The counter-humanitarian’s goals may include taking and holding power, asserting national pride, accomplishing genocide, stopping migrants from reaching the shores of rich nations, or any number of other cynical and inhumane objectives.

Nigeria used starvation against insurgent areas behind a wall of silence. When the Gulf monarchies inflicted famine on Yemen, Western objections were barely audible. The Ethiopian government starved Tigray without raising complaint. Robust international instruments for warning, preventing, and responding to such crimes—let alone calling perpetrators to account—don’t exist. In all these cases, the humanitarian response has been too feeble, not too intrusive.

The international humanitarian system is a crooked timber, like humanity itself. It has not fully escaped either its colonial lineage or its salvation narrative, despite repeated criticism and important reform. But humanitarianism’s values, practices, and technologies—including its openness to critique—contain much that is worth preserving. It is not the culprit for famines, humanitarian crises, and starvation crimes, though its members may be complicit in silence about the causes and nature of those man-made calamities. Critics of the humanitarian international should reflect on its achievements as well as its failings. Better to hold on to a troubled and shaky relief apparatus than to discard it in a world in which most states would rather see humanitarians vanish altogether.


Taking the Natives for Fools

Musab Younis

“It is in vain that one tries to hide the [imperial] formula under a cover of humanitarianism,” explained the anti-colonial newspaper La Race Nègre, published in Paris by African and Caribbean expatriates in June 1927.

The ugly truth is that the colonizers are taking the natives for fools; establishing themselves in the colonies, they pursue only one single goal: to serve their own interests. The native is cheated, robbed, abused; he enjoys no freedom, no guarantee of justice is assured to him. He has no political rights—except in the old colonies, but even there, at the cost of what monstrous scandals are these rights exercised!—; he is compelled into forced labor and he succumbs under the weight of arbitrarily-imposed taxes.

And, what is more serious and more monstrous, the native is kept in deliberate ignorance. This is what all the civilizing work of France and the other metropoles amounts to.

The anti-colonial archive bristles with such ripostes to the idea that colonialism was ever motivated by humanitarian concerns. A century later, this critique has become more or less uncontroversial. Not many people still try to defend colonialism on humanitarian grounds.

Where does that leave present-day humanitarianism? Joshua Craze writes that it is still defined not by generosity but by dissimulation. After the official independence of most states in Africa and Asia, humanitarianism operated in the framework of the Cold War to maintain the control of populations in the Global South. Today, it remains fundamentally antidemocratic in nature. It occludes a structural understanding of global immiseration. Through its meager and insufficient assistance to the impoverished of the world, humanitarianism reestablishes colonial hierarchies of power.

Craze’s argument fits within, though it also simplifies, a strand of critical scholarship that has explored in detail how the contemporary development industry is premised on what Mark Duffield calls “the containment of the global poor.” For two decades, academic critics have sought to dismantle the self-justifying pieties of the humanitarian sector by showing that it does not function outside geopolitics but helps to construct that hard and violent reality.

As Duffield wrote in an influential article in 2010, a “development–security nexus” has emerged on a global scale that corresponds to Foucault’s idea of biopolitics, in which power now seeks not simply to destroy or contain life but to encourage, measure, and tabulate populations. The integration of humanitarian and development agencies during the 2000s may have seemed like a progressive response to calls for better policy. But the sharply delimited scope of this new development sector did not seek to overturn structural international inequalities. Instead, wrote Duffield, “rather than reducing the life-chance divide between the developed and underdeveloped worlds, the liberal way of development appears more involved with maintaining and policing this destabilizing division.”

Others have joined Duffield in showing how dominant narratives mispresent humanitarianism’s intimate relationship with realpolitik. Ilan Kapoor has targeted celebrity humanitarianism as actively promoting corporate capitalism while hiding behind a veil of altruism; Wanda Vrasti has dismantled the ideology behind gap-year volunteerism, which transmutes desires for social change into the creation of neoliberal volunteer subjects; Polly Pallister-Wilkins has explored the correspondences between humanitarianism and global white supremacy. These writers and others have gone beyond simple rebuke to ask why the humanitarian idea has remained so powerful in the exercise of international power. How exactly are forms of deep inequality contained within—even produced by—an ethic that officially proclaims the equality of all people? Skeptics of modern humanitarianism can benefit from the theoretical depth and suggestiveness of this work.

But analyzing what we might call actually existing humanitarianism is only part of the story. Does humanitarianism in its complicitous form encompass the whole spectrum of possibilities of the humanitarian idea? Or could there be insurgent forms of humanitarianism?

These questions rarely appear in critical writing about the modern development sector. But they have featured in writing on the idea of cosmopolitan ethics. The theorist Paul Gilroy defends, for example, a resistant form of humanitarianism in his book After Empire. Discussing “the international movement of witnesses and shields” against the occupation of Palestine, Gilroy presents the case of Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old from the United States who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while defending Palestinian property from destruction. Corrie’s actions as a member of the International Solidarity Movement—unequivocally political and solidaristic, working in direct opposition to the policy of her own state, singularly unsuited to building a corporate-sector CV—could hardly be more different from the volunteer tourism that Vrasti castigates.

We might also think here of Cuba’s extensive post-revolutionary internationalism in health, disaster relief, and political struggle, as outlined by Margaret Randall in her book Exporting Revolution. Cuba’s example fits in a broader history of anti-imperial solidarity that has explicitly framed itself as humanitarian. The Nigeria-based West African Pilot in January 1939 celebrated the staunchly anticolonial Sylvia Pankhurst “as a great . . . humanitarian” for her advocacy on behalf of Ethiopia after Italy’s brutal invasion of the country in 1935.

If humanitarianism means forms of assistance, aid, and solidarity across spatial and cultural difference, particularly in contexts of emergency, then we have to recognize that voluminous humanitarian traditions have existed across time and space. And yet the necessary critiques of imperial humanitarianism sometimes seem to perform for dominant power one of its key hegemonic ambitions: subsuming every possible notion of intrahuman aid under the imperial ambit. A search on Google Scholar for “African humanitarianism” turns up hundreds of books and articles casting a suspicious eye on Western humanitarianism in Africa. The pages of results radically eclipse any documentation of African humanitarian traditions.


Humanitarianism as Handmaiden

Miriam Ticktin

In the face of the interlocking crises of climate change, authoritarian governments, and what Craze calls the antidemocratic embarrassment that is the humanitarian industry—to be condemned for its role in military imperialist ventures, and for housing the people it saves in camps that effectively become cages—I respond with wholehearted agreement: there is no reform possible.

But I do think it is worth clarifying a few things, so we can condemn humanitarianism in the most effective terms.

Firstly, Craze begins by likening humanitarianism to the Christian missionaries engaged in the colonial mission. While these missionaries were once lauded for their task of accompanying the colonists to civilize the world’s “pagan backwaters,” we now understand Christianity to have facilitated and furthered European colonialism. If, as he writes, Christianity was the ideological handmaiden to such imperial conquest, then humanitarianism must also be a handmaiden—but to what? This is not made clear. Is humanitarianism a handmaiden to military imperialism? Or is it an accomplice to antidemocratic forces more generally, per Craze’s accusation, possibly even the driving force of authoritarianism and inequality?

While it is clearly an enormously powerful billion-dollar industry, we need to be clear that humanitarianism is not a primary cause but a handmaiden—to racial capitalism, specifically: the same system that once produced European colonialism, even as it has now shifted into what we might call neoliberalism and neocolonialism. Humanitarianism exploits and deepens the contemporary lines of difference and inequality that capitalists need to exploit workers and derive profit; these inequalities have been enshrined by racial differentiation and hierarchy.

This racialized division is clear in the distinction between those who are fleeing their countries to make it to Europe and North America (because their countries have been exploited and ravaged for resources, creating wars over the insufficient remains), and those who build walls to keep them out, as well as “the European bureaucrats” Craze names and condemns. Their work as humanitarians maintains this hierarchy: creating saviors and victims who fit into racialized grids, represented by the stereotypical images of suffering Muslim women and starving African children we are now all familiar with. Humanitarianism responds to the capitalist demand for inequality by fixing people into essences: those empowered to help, and those who need help. The strong’s complicity in immiserating the supposedly pitiful rarely comes into question. Still, if we did away with humanitarianism but kept racial capitalism, what would change? We would have the same inequalities, the same disasters. Humanitarianism can and does have violent effects, it can be destructive, but it is ultimately a subservient partner.

Second, while I fully agree that humanitarianism is not democratic, I am not sure why Craze thought it would or should or could be. It was developed precisely to be the Band-Aid that the author accuses it of being, not created as a form of government, even though it has become one. Humanitarianism now plays a part in what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the anti-state state, and what others have called the NGO industrial complex: in tandem with the workings of racial capitalism, it fills in the gaps created when the state offloads its obligations to local state or non-state institutions with the justification that states are bad and should shrink. This enables the anti-state state to be cast as innocent, avoiding all responsibility. To ask such an entity to be democratic both asks too much of it and gives it too much credit.

If we cannot reform humanitarianism, perhaps we can follow the lead of those it has touched most deeply. France’s long-enduring sans-papiers movement by and for undocumented immigrants, including its latest incarnations as the gilets noirs and the La Chapelle Debout collective, has pointed to the problem of racial capitalism and attempted to offer a different way forward that challenges regimes of private property. They have long argued that they are in France claiming asylum and requiring humanitarian aid precisely because of France’s actions in their home countries, such as its repeated role in regime change, which has produced many of the wars that migrants are fleeing. France continues to invest in and extract strategic raw materials from its former colonies, and it maintains a financial stranglehold over large swaths of the African continent: today, fourteen African nations continue to use a colonial-era French currency that obliges them to deposit at least 50 percent of their foreign reserves in a French bank.

Humanitarianism stretches out its arm in the wake of the disastrous effects of these capitalist practices, not only on the Mediterranean routes where migrants are drowning but in France itself, where Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is currently working to help undocumented minors by offering social and legal assistance. But many people on the move—a term claimed by migrants all over to get away from legal categories built on exclusion and hierarchy, like refugee, asylum seeker, and economic immigrant—are taking matters into their own hands, refusing the logic of charity and humanitarian aid that would render them subject to the gatekeeping of humanitarians who decide who is worthy of aid. Instead, they are challenging these moral, political, and economic hierarchies by working with activists, houseless people, and others across Europe to occupy and collectively live in abandoned buildings and border zones, rather than under the control and surveillance of NGOs. We would do well to follow their lead in experimenting with how to move beyond humanitarianism.


Comrades Against Colonists?

Hong (Stella) Zhang

“How can you reduce poverty but live in a five-star hotel?” In her book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, Deborah Brautigam recalls being asked this rhetorical question by a Chinese scholar, presumably referring to Western aid industry professionals, whose privileged lifestyles sit uncomfortably with the dire living conditions of those whom they are supposed to help.

Arriving on the scene of international aid in the 1950s, the Chinese have always been conscious to cultivate an image that distinguishes them from Western (and for that matter, Soviet) donors. When Zhou Enlai, China’s premier and chief diplomat, announced the eight principles of China’s foreign aid during his famous trip to ten African countries in 1963–1964—principles that continue to be cited as the guidelines for China’s foreign aid—he made sure to include one that stated, “The Chinese experts and technicians working for the aid recipient country are treated equally as the local ones with no extra benefits for them.” As a part of their pre-mission preparation, Chinese foreign aid workers would be commanded to endure hardship and never seek privileged arrangements in the recipient countries. As they were sent off to build railways, roads, factories, or provide medical care in Africa or other Asian countries, many died, of disease or by workplace accident.

A narrative of self-sacrifice thus could be built around China’s international aid, in which Chinese solidarity with Global South nations is so great, Chinese people are even willing to give their own lives for it. Individual tragedies were subsumed by a self-glorifying account of the abstract “Chinese people.” This narrative of international solidarity has been used to rationalize China’s poorly managed aid-giving—driven by hubristic demonstrations of generosity rather than careful planning—and its prioritization of supply and production for foreign aid projects when the domestic economy was experiencing crippling shortages during the first half of the 1970s. The narrative continues as a historical myth of Chinese foreign aid, even though many of China’s foreign aid projects have been used to satisfy the needs of the rulers, rather than the ruled. To the question posed by the Chinese scholar cited above, Brautigam thought of a possible reply: “How can you finance a presidential palace for Sudan and call it foreign aid?”

To the extent that humanitarian aid can be considered a continuation of the colonialist project by the West, China’s foreign aid programs have always been part of its state-building project. During the Maoist period, it was the credentials of a revolutionary state determined to dignify those exploited by the imperialists that foreign aid programs were designed to buttress; in the Dengist era of pragmatism, aid underscored the state’s single-minded pursuit of economic development, with much focus on economic cooperation and mutual benefit. Throughout, foreign aid provision has been explicitly tied to the requirement to recognize Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China to the exclusion of Taipei. Under Xi Jinping, who departed from Deng’s “lie-low” foreign policies in pursuit of superpower status for China, foreign aid programs have again been expanded and institutionalized. A new narrative of China being a responsible and beneficent power has been superimposed on the old narrative of self-sacrifice; together, they form a dramatic curve of growth, in which an underdog became a rising power.

As such, at least in the post-Mao era, China’s foreign aid programs are geared more toward image-making and relationship-building than proselytizing any particular ideology—even though there is no shortage of glamourizing China’s “economic miracle,” for which the Chinese Communist Party takes credit. In other words, the foreign aid programs are more about gaining the recognition and respect of the world, rather than changing the world in China’s own image—as Western humanitarianism sought to remake the world in its liberal image.

This explains why China has been a keen collaborator of United Nations agencies in recent decades, even if most of its foreign aid is conducted on a bilateral basis. In a decisive turn from the Maoist era, when the UN was viewed with suspicion as dominated by imperialist powers, China since the 1980s has gradually increased its participation in UN-led humanitarian and developmental programs. Beijing now sees the UN as a democratic forum of the world’s nations that provides the most legitimate platform to launch its challenge against U.S. hegemony. It is telling that under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy and an all-encompassing drive to strengthen China’s economic, political, and social ties with the rest of the world, in particular countries of the Global South—the Chinese government has signed agreements to enhance cooperation with various UN agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the International Organization for Migration. Rather than critiquing the power of the Europe-based bureaucrats in determining the allocation of resources for those in need, China seeks to join forces with them.

Meanwhile, China’s foreign aid programs have created a distinct ecosystem of their own that largely operates in parallel to the aid industry that grew out of Western humanitarianism. In this state-building project, aid programs have largely been managed within the state sector, rather than being organized through the marketplace like in many Western donor countries, although this may start to change. The engineers, technicians, managers, agriculture specialists, and medical doctors dispatched by the state to provide services in various foreign aid projects have been seconded from state-run or state-certified institutions; they are supposed to return to their positions in China after completing their aid missions. Nevertheless, China’s foreign aid programs have given rise to a different set of commercial actors: the concentration of aid in infrastructure construction projects presents attractive business opportunities for Chinese construction and engineering companies seeking to expand overseas. They have often bid for the government’s foreign aid projects—for which only Chinese companies are eligible—as a strategy to secure a foothold in new countries.

China has both challenged and reinforced the international aid system. It is a challenger in the sense that China’s foreign aid programs originated from a communist past and have been almost entirely state-led—China’s private philanthropy sector has largely focused on domestic needs—and Chinese foreign aid programs’ apathy, if not antipathy, toward liberalism has made Western donor governments nervous. But in their push for economic development by integrating the world’s poorest countries into the capitalist production system, China’s foreign aid programs contribute to the project started off by the colonial powers and go on to reinforce a hierarchical order, wherein some countries’ opportunities to grow are subject to their integration into the global value chain led by others.

Recently, the country has deemphasized the infrastructure diplomacy of the BRI in favor of the Global Development Initiative. The GDI addresses more traditional humanitarian concerns such as poverty alleviation and green development in order to “foster global development partnerships that are more equal and balanced” and “forge greater synergy among multilateral development cooperation processes,” to quote Xi Jinping’s address to the 2021 UN General Assembly—hardly antagonistic talk from China, which held a “Ministerial Meeting of the Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiatives” for UN agency heads and diplomats the following year. Through such partnerships, China seems to embrace the agenda-setting power of the global bureaucracy rather than advocating for greater say of the local communities, demonstrating an interest in taking charge of the old hegemon instead of doing away with the old regime.