Humanitarian assistance and development work should remain separate to put developing countries on the right track to achieve growth and benefit from emergency relief, writes Punkaj Gupta, Joint Managing Director and Group CEO, Essel Group ME

A few months ago, as I was walking down the streets of London, a charity fundraiser accosted me and promptly asked for a donation with a well-rehearsed pitch.

Donating £10 a month would make a real difference in providing education to poor children in Africa or Asia, he assured me. I would be making a real difference to their lives through this humanitarian action.

As someone who also operates in the humanitarian field, I enquired as to what kind of education they would be given and asked for more details on how the money would be spent. Annoyed at my pickiness with details, he walked away to try his luck with other passers-by.

This young man’s intention was undoubtedly good, but I believe he failed to make an important distinction between humanitarian aid and development work. The two are conceptually distinct and serve different purposes.

Humanitarian aid deals with emergencies tied to crises, such as war, natural disasters or epidemics. Its goal is to save people’s lives in extreme situations. I have seen firsthand the desperate need and immense benefits of delivering relief supplies to areas hit by these crises.

Development work seeks to address structural bottlenecks to growth. It is a long-term project whose goal is to improve people’s lives through incremental reforms and enhancement of living standards.

Put another way, humanitarian aid is like the firefighters that come to rescue you from a burning house. Development aid is like the architects who come to help you rebuild it.

Treating development work as a form of humanitarian aid is dangerous for the countries receiving it for several reasons. First, it risks reducing domestic incentives for reform. It treats structural obstacles to growth as humanitarian issues outside of the government’s control—like a flood or a war—rather than as something that can be tackled by appropriate government action, with targeted support from the international community if necessary.

Asking for £10 for education in a developing country is funding for development work, not humanitarian action. Primary education is a policy area within a government’s field of action. Poor education in, say, rural areas can be tackled by building better roads to connect villages to schools, or by offering better training to teachers. This is something that domestic governments and development agencies are well placed to help with, rather than humanitarian relief organizations.

Humanitarian relief deals with emergencies and this makes a big difference when governments decide what kind of financial assistance to bring to developing countries. Humanitarian relief should always be the priority in terms of financial assistance. It’s up to each country to promote economic growth and better public services. It’s up to the international community to save people from Ebola outbreaks, famine and displacement.

To return to my earlier comparison, few people will give you money to help you buy a house for yourself. On the other hand, many will be willing to pay the firefighters who will extinguish the fire threatening it.

Second, treating development work as humanitarian aid risks reducing the latter’s importance in people’s minds. Many people do not see it as their duty to fund the economic development of countries. However, many of those same people will see it as their duty to buy tents for refugees in South Sudan, or medical kits for people affected by a pandemic in West Africa. That is why the former should be referred to as development work and the latter as humanitarian assistance. Otherwise donors will be less likely to donate to real emergencies when humanitarian aid will be direly and quickly needed.

Economic development is important, but it should never come at the risk of reducing funding for humanitarian intervention. This is why the two concepts should remain distinct and this is what I would say to the young fundraiser that I met in London that day.