Libya – 30 years on

Libya was my first real overseas working experience back in 1981. I taught environmental studies at a technical institute way down in the desert. Our mission – to turn the desert green. At the time, as I guess many newly minted PhDs do, I saw the world in terms of technical problems and technical solutions and, for all his faults the Brother Colonel Gaddafi was building houses, hospitals, roads, and schools and turning the desert green via huge irrigation schemes. You can see them clearly if you zoom down to Jarmah, Libya , on Google Earth, then zoom out a little and the irrigation schemes appear as big round foot prints marching across the desert to the south. Jarmah by the way has been an urban settlement for over 4,000 years.
Gaddafi was providing his people with the basics of foods shelter, health care and water, and as long as they stayed out of politics, protection. Libyan cities always left safe to wander round at night. Here’s the irony: he was doing what most aid agencies do in the name of humanitarianism. He was providing for that basic human right – the right to life itself.
The excuse of the humanitarian, and it can be a valid excuse, is that they are there temporarily to help keep people alive, when no one else will. Aid in extremis, the small light shining in the darkness. I think this is still true in and around war zones and immediately after earthquakes and the like, but here is the problem. Fully two third of humanitarian aid today goes into programs that have been running for more than five years. And over a third of that into programs that have been running for more than eight years. This aid is in effect a drip feed keeping people alive but nothing else. It suspends them in limbo. In almost every situation where this is happening the underlying causes of crisis rest in abuses of power, and authorities that have no interest in accountability – call it a lack of democracy if you like.
Where does this place humanitarian aid? Is it really, as William Easterly wrote recently in the New York Times, the last unwitting bastion of colonialism? Is it, when it moves outside of this strict definition as emergency aid to save lives, actually holding back the struggle for basic human rights?
I leave you with an email I received this morning from an old friend in Benghazi. He is Dean of a medical college there and for many years was active in the Red Crescent.
Libyan young men wrote a heroic historical epic. Libyan revolution is advancing in the west of the country and the mercenaries of Gaddafi is losing every day. Long live free democratic Libya.”

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