The Dangers of Politicizing Desperately Needed Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian aid may finally be on its way, thanks to a request from Caretaker President Juan Guaidó, but the politics surrounding poses clear risks.

Photo: La República retrieved

Yesterday, the National Assembly formally requested the U.S. for urgent humanitarian aid, both in shipments of supplies and in financing. During the OAS Permanent Council meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $20 million in aid.

While these words might seem promising and may indeed be necessary to fuel people’s hopes that Venezuela’s situation will improve, humanitarian aid isn’t a political trope, but a delicate and intricate matter.

“I haven’t said much on the matter because I know the National Assembly has good intentions,” says humanitarian expert Susana Raffalli, “but we can’t rush on this, there are regular channels and appropriate mechanisms that must be followed.”

Raffalli explains that key elements are usually left out of the political discourse, such as the difference between humanitarian aid (funds, supplies, food, medicines), humanitarian assistance (equipment, distribution, technical help), and humanitarian action (documenting the crisis and offering legal protection for victims). The money and supplies alone aren’t enough to provide proper response to the crisis; we need facilities and people to store, organize and distribute them, as well as reporting and implementing legal measures for the most vulnerable. “You can’t do anything with a dialysis treatment, for instance, if the dialysis machines are out of order or contaminated. Bringing supplies in large scale may also do more harm than good as it may cripple the operational capacity of Civil Society Organizations to manage resources. Supplies may also go to waste or become incentives for corruption schemes.”

Raffalli added that international agencies and programs, such as the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) or the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations fund (ECHO) must be requested by the states that receive them and indeed, the Venezuelan government had already done so. “CERF was activated two months ago, and many CSOs working on the humanitarian emergency have been implementing ECHO funds for the past two years.”

The general public doesn’t know much about this because humanitarian aid is meant for the most vulnerable populations at the brink of death. “Nobody here will get cooking oil, flour or milk, these are nutritional supplements and treatments to deal with critical issues, they won’t reach all the country’s inhabitants, that’s a myth we must clear as soon as possible,” says Raffalli. “Also, citizens who expect to receive high-cost medicines for their treatments must be informed that humanitarian aid doesn’t generally cover these.”

The money and supplies alone aren’t enough to provide proper response to the crisis; we need facilities and people to store, organize and distribute them.

Moreover, she says, the aid may never substitute the role of the state, much less in a case like Venezuela’s, where the crisis is nationwide. “The state must implement plans to restore the country’s ability to provide food, medicine and medical attention for citizens. This kind of aid is finite, no nation can be sustained solely by it.”

Los Andes University professor, Dr. Juan Gabaldón, also discusses the role of the state in this situation: “Humanitarian aid does help a lot with medical supplies and basic medicines that may indeed improve our situation greatly in a reasonable amount of time, but it’s momentary. The government must work to make the country self-sustainable again, to restore production, build hospitals and train professionals.”

Gabaldón is less concerned about the political discourse, seeing it as a way to build up momentum for a swift regime change. “As long as this regime remains in power, our options are severely limited, so the priority is to seek an end to it, and in that regard, the political leadership must galvanize support both in the country and abroad,” adding that people also need a ray of light to focus on in the darkness, a better outlook for the future.

As Venezuela’s situation grows even more uncertain, assurances that the country will overcome its avatars are indeed necessary to give people something to hope for. But the complex humanitarian crisis we’re experiencing is too delicate for wordplay and requesting and offering humanitarian emergency demands utmost care. Leaders must be mindful not to use this topic only as a political trope and strive to inform the citizens of its implications and intricacies. Hope is important, but false expectations and misinformation have done enough harm as it is. There are lives at stake.

With fortune, Guaidó and the National Assembly will prove that they know what they’re doing, and this tragic catastrophe will finally be put to rest.