Typhoon Haiyan gives us a chance to consider context when we give.
Scenes of disaster in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan have rightly galvanized many people into action. It may well be one the most powerful storms to have taken place in history. With over nine million people affected by its destruction, a global effort is underway to furnish relief and humanitarian aid. USAID has pledged 55 tons of food and shelter materials and many other governments have committed matching funds.
However, among Americans, a unique legacy lingers in the Philippines that ought to be taken into consideration. Before giving into the immediate emotions that make donations seem like a good idea, we should consider our historical presence in the Philippines, which is hugely consequential to the country’s identity and politics today.
The United States possessed the Philippines as a colony from 1898 to 1946. While annexation certainly meant liberation from oppressive Spanish colonial rule, there are significant moral, racial, and political implications to imperialism that shape our relationship to the Philippines. On the one hand, the American presence in the Philippines led to the development of modern medical and education systems. On the other, the subjugation of one people over another led to the brutal struggle for freedom that gives us the Republic of the Philippines today. In the 19th century, this decision raised ethical concerns and drew political protest, but is rarely remembered today.
A more contemporary incarnation of this debate emerges in discussions on foreign aid as foreign policy, viewed by some as a vehicle for human flourishing and by others as the projection of coercive power.
Giving to victims in the Philippines taps into both sets of questions.
- Is there a special appeal to charitable donations for victims abroad because doing so satisfies the desire to do something quickly and easily?
- How should we address the practical challenges of giving to a credible charity, researching appeals on social media, or avoiding disaster fraud?
- Are we sending items that are actually useful and needed, or are we guilty of serving the immediacy of our own emotions, completely disconnected from history, culture, and the lived experiences of those we want to help?
- Should we take into account the historical connections we share with other peoples in humanitarian aid?
- How do we introduce a more informed and historically sensitive approach in our giving?
It is possible that clicking a button to donate can provide direct assistance from sincere and genuine givers. And perhaps it is possible that avoiding any seemingly abstract discussion of neo-colonialism, power asymmetries and cultural subjugation would ensure that these dollars would not be politicized. Then consider how much has been written about the ongoing harm of foreign aid and the culturally reductive, and sometimes outright offensive, approaches to development through money transfers or charity campaigns. These concerns take on special salience in the case of the Philippines, in which memories of colonialism and recurring manifestations of the white man’s burden are quite real and alive.
This is not to say we should cease charitable giving or humanitarian aid altogether. But we must pause, however briefly, to consider: how can we make better ethical decisions by taking historical realities into account? Human suffering exists in many forms, and sometimes hasty remedies to one misfortune conceal the continuation of others.
Cindy Ewing is a history Ph.D. student at Yale and the author of a historical study of overseas philanthropy for The Philanthropy Roundtable.