Comments: How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Highlighting the Pitfalls of Humanitarian Aid

July 14, 2020
Anthropology Professor Rania K. Sweis Leans on Her Fieldwork Abroad to Discuss Problems With Global Humanitarianism

In June, The Associated Press reported that international aid groups were reporting concern over the fact that “little to no U.S. humanitarian assistance has reached those on the front lines” during the coronavirus pandemic.

University of Richmond anthropology professor Rania K. Sweis has long studied critical global health and humanitarian aid in vulnerable areas such as the Middle East and North Africa. She spent two years conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt with children, healthcare workers, and global aid experts and her first book project recaps her findings of the complex effects of global medicine and humanitarian aid.

Sweis shared the following insights on the downward trend of humanitarian aid coming from the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic:

"Coronavirus has really brought to the surface some long-standing material and ethical problems with global humanitarianism. For one, keeping entire continents in a state of dependency for decades through aid, and then abandoning that beneficiary role because a crisis has to be contained at 'home' is incredibly tragic for recipients," said Sweis.

"I think what we are seeing very clearly is what remains deeply problematic about global aid industries," she said.

"Often, global assistance says more about the helper than the helped: their desires, culture, and ethical attachments. There is an additional 'othering' process to global aid: what happens 'over there' does not happen 'here' and 'those people' are not like 'us', etc. But here we are seeing areas in Africa in dire need of ventilators and other medical supplies, supplies that are needed in the U.S. as well. This condition does not resemble the usual beneficiary/recipient reality that has structured global aid for so long."

"In a sense, the pandemic has united regions across the globe in shared suffering, and yet the pandemic has and will continue to deepen already existing inequalities, and those who have been the most vulnerable of vulnerable populations will suffer the most."


Note: Media wishing to connect with Sweis as an expert resource can contact Lindsey Campbell, media relations specialist, at