Friday, January 30, 2009

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Imitates The Onion

Hat tip to Atlantic blogger/FT Columnist Clive Crook for mentioning that development economist and NYU professor William Easterly has a new blog, Aid Watch. Easterly has been somewhat controversial for questioning whether traditional foreign aid approaches actually benefit the world's poor. In a recent post ("And Now For Something Completely Different: Davos Features “Refugee Run”"), Easterly writes about the tasteless event promoted by the flyer above, which apparently took place yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Excerpt:

When somebody sent me this invitation from Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I thought at first it was a joke from the Onion. What do you think of the Davos rich and powerful going through the “Refugee Run” theme park re-enactment of life in a refugee camp?

Can Davos man empathize with refugees when he or she is not in danger and is going back to a luxury banquet and hotel room afterwards? Isn’t this just a tad different from the life of an actual refugee, at risk of all too real rape, murder, hunger, and disease?

Did the words “insensitive,” “dehumanizing,” or “disrespectful” (not to mention “ludicrous”) ever come up in discussing the plans for “Refugee Run”?

I hope such bad taste does not reflect some inability in UNHCR to see refugees as real people with their own dignity and rights.

Of course, I understand that there were good intentions here, that you really want rich people to have a consciousness of tragedies elsewhere in the world, and mobilize help for the victims. However, I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?

1 comment:

DaveinHackensack said...

Incidentally, about 110 blocks uptown from Easterly at NYU, Jeffery Sachs at Columbia espouses more of the conventional wisdom on foreign aid (i.e., more of a focus on increasing spending, less focus on prioritizing, accountability ROI, or minimizing corruption).