Interdisciplinary Studies Senior Capstone Project

Education Has the Ability to Change a Person’s View on Life… I’m Lucky to Have Experienced the Change

Students enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Studies Senior Seminar course this fall were given the opportunity to take hold of their education, a way in which the average Plymouth State University Student might not have the chance to experience during their four short years in the classroom. And yes, four years is a time frame I wish everyday I could keep extending. But the truth is, time is beginning to dwindle with only one semester left, and with that comes self reflection. I have always been a people person, I have always loved helping others and seeing them grow to fit their true potential. Knowing that I played a part in someone else’s happiness, whether the act be big or small, it keeps me motivated to continue doing what I find constant joy in. College is a crucial time in a person’s life, whether the person be young or old, what is common among both is the large amount of time, money and their mental state, constantly being pushed to the limit. In my opinion there is a significant social stigma in today’s society to have a solid grasp on who you are and what you want to be for the rest of your life. In general, individuals are expected to know what their future career path is before they finish high school, in reality they are expected to “know” when filling out college applications in the first few months of their senior year. At this point in the individual’s life, they are either 17 or 18 years of age. An age where they can’t legally purchase tobacco products, a scandalous magazine or drink a beer at a bar top. Yet, there is immense pressure to decide your future career pathway with the simple check of a box on an application.  You can unclick that box as many times as you want, because you grow and change each day but with that comes the backlash of being “wrong” or being seen as a “failure”. I was one of the many experienced who experienced failure, or so I thought. I came to Plymouth State to be a nurse, to pursue my ultimate goal; improving the life of another person. I was so caught up on this idea that it was the only way to achieve my goal, until a I “failed”. My grades weren’t up to standard and I had no other choice but to step down from the nursing program. It wasn’t until now that I realized, that my “failure” was actually my savior. Interdisciplinary Studies gave me the opportunity to be who I wanted to be with out limitations and utilize my education to the fullest degree. With this opportunity I was able to create my own major, Global Health with a minor in Spanish Language. For my final hoorah I have been working on two key components which work in tandem to comprise my senior capstone project. First, individuals will read my research article Who Are We to Help People followed by my applied project Changing the World Though Service: A Step by Step Guide. The goal of my Senior capstone project is combine the two, and educate individuals on how an interdisciplinary perspective such as Global Health, “can put things in a new light”. With that being said welcome to my life for the past few months…

How Does One Narrow Down Their Future Career Path Into One Simple Research Topic?

I can guarantee that any college student will tell you that when a professor gives you the freedom to choose a research topic, there will come a point where you really wish they had given you a subject and a freaking word count. Thinking outside the box is a difficult task that can be hard to kick start… especially when the topic is just slightly important. Okay I say that with the heaviest sense of sarcasm… because what could be more important than a decision relating your college senior capstone project?? What I can say, because it is was what I did, is a person can narrow down a research topic of immense meaning through passion. When you choose a topic based off of a passion it can ease the struggle of intensive research and writing. I chose to research how humanitarian aid can be negative versus positive because I wanted to challenge my own beliefs. I have volunteered abroad and hope to continue with this kind of service, but I needed a reality check, I needed to be put into check in order to truly know how to respectfully participate in this kind of humanitarian work. I had become so wrapped up in the happy idea that I was helping others and improving their lives, that I never once stopped to think, what if they didn’t want my help? What if me voicing my opinions and my ideas was actually harmful? My experiences abroad gave me a new perspective on life that changed me for the better. Now that I wish to pursue a career in this field it is my responsibility to cover all the bases, whether it be positive or negative. My past experiences helped me grow, and define who I am today. What I took home with me was reflection and realization about the opportunities I have each day starting when I wake up in the morning. I not only needed to be grateful, but I needed to utilize my education to help those who don’t come close to the opportunities I have taken for granted, in many instances. It’s so easy to get caught up with the difficult  things in life, the negative feelings and bad days. The easiest thing to do is criticize yourself and the life you are living rather than see it for what it is worth. We tend to forget how beautiful it is to be alive and healthy. We forget how much a cure it is to laugh so hard you cry, to sit alone and eat a meal or sip a coffee, to take a hot shower while sitting on the floor. Life will always be a concept that no person will quite comprehend, but the truth is, that is why it is so damn wonderful. Life should be intoxicating… invigorating… passionate. Life should show you struggle and disappointment, so on other days you can truly appreciate what is means to experience genuine happiness. To be a human being, is one of the greatest gifts a person can have. It is hard to always be aware of this, so here is my reminder to you: life always has a funny way of working itself out, be patient. Patience is a reward in it’s self, and if you are doing the best you can with what you have, I promise you will be rewarded. I hope you, the reader of this post, find meaning in what is written below and can take a moment afterwards to reflect on yourself and those you have encountered through out this life. Cheers!


Who Are We to Help People?

A Close Look at the Controversies of Humanitarian Aid Abroad


The purpose of this research article is to inform the reader of the controversies that come with humanitarian aid assistance abroad. Humanitarian aid assistance is given to vulnerable populations who are plagued with violence and poverty. This aid can also target communities facing post-disaster reconstruction. The assistance can be short-term or long-term with the ultimate goal being to improve the lives of suffering communities. This article will touch on what humanitarian aid is, who are the donors and recipients, what their relations entail, how humanitarianism and disasters relate and whether or not foreign aid is an unequal exchange. The term “humanitarian gift” will be analyzed greatly throughout this article. The main focus of this research is to see the detrimental effects that can occur in another country if aid is given with selfish intentions.

What is Humanitarian Aid?

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The key intention of humanitarian assistance is to better improve the suffering of vulnerable populations in conflict-affected states through distribution of humanitarian aid (Wood 736). The term humanitarianism is defined as the giving or receiving of goods and services through a variety of circumstances (Swamy 355). This promotion of human welfare can be viewed as an act that;

“Should occur necessarily outside the the domain of the marketplace, shaped by the logic of the gift—conventionally understood to operate beyond the constraints and expectations of contractual exchange. Humanitarian gifts, however, are inextricably bound to structures and practices associated with the formal economy, and as such cannot be viewed in isolation from the domain of commodities, markets, exchange relationships, and patterns of inequality that shape global, regional and local relationships” (Stirrat and Henkel 1997).

The idea of the humanitarian “gift” will be a frequent topic of discussion and touched on greatly throughout the duration of this research article. The main points will reveal how this “gift” is seen to be beneficial while paralleling the arguments of controversy. Some even argue how acts of humanitarianism can at times be shielded behind the act of “gift” giving. While secondary motives are present to facilitate the state plans to rebuild a devastated region by relocating

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it’s inhabitants and opening land for investment (Swamy 354). This raises a question in which analyzes the importance of roles for non-governmental organizations, is the withdrawal process harmful?  Connecting, how their efforts coincide with the facilitation of a state’s withdrawal process. More specifically, examining the state’s withdrawal from a social situation and how weakening begins to occur within the state. Signs of weakening are exemplified through politics, but most visibly noted through the transformation of one’s “rights and entitlements” due to the gift (Swamy 357). How can one predict if a “gift” is well-intentioned? Can this be answered through history? Or does history repeat itself time and time again?

The historical role of humanitarian aid was born through the foundations of colonialism, racism, and imperialism within the constitution of disaster outcomes (Swamy 357). The quote below, seen in the journal article Humanitarianism and Unequal Exchange” by author Raja Swamy perfectly depicts the history of humanitarian aid (356):

“The historical role of many developing countries as taps and sinks for the accumulation of needs of Western capital has continued to shape production, exchange and consumption choices and strategies in developing countries. Furthermore, the world-system’s inequalities are shaped by historical patterns of extraction and production that advantage the global north, whose market demand disrupt and constrain production strategies across the world. Neoliberal

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 states in the periphery of the world-system have had to aggressively adopt strategies that privilege export-oriented production and foreign direct investment as necessary conditions for development, leading development countries like India to further entrench themselves within the world-system as taps and sinks for the accumulation needs of global capital, and in doing so intensifying assaults on local populations see to stand in the way of new market oriented forms of development that prioritizes the needs of private capital” (Chandrasekhar and Gosh 2002:6).

In addition, as read in Swamy’s article; “the terrain of humanitarian action was circumscribed by the ideological framing of existing inequalities advanced by multilateral agencies and state government officials” (359). This quote poses the first, of many controversial questions. Is humanitarian assistance harmful or

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helpful?  The benefits of this aid can be exemplified through projects including basic human needs such as: food, shelter, water, sanitation and health services. All of which, are conducted through the logistics of relief coordination, infrastructure improvement/reconstruction. These logistics work in tandem with short-term activities formulated to promote and restore the protection of civilians displaced by disasters and conflict (Wood 741). The distribution of aid can begin with small-scale projects such as “aid stations” which target smaller populations, giving a sufficient amount of food and basic medical needs. While on the other side of the scale is the larger aid assistance projects. These projects include “extensive services” such as education, training, labor programs, public health programs, and long-term housing to 

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larger populations (737). Whether the aid project falls to the larger or smaller side of the scale, humanitarian assistance is predominantly provided to those in need affected by violence or displacement (737). 

Who Are the Contributors of Humanitarian Aid?

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 A humanitarian is considered a person who devotes their time and effort to improving the lives of others. Throughout this process there are no acts of prejudice based off of ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, financial background, etc. A key goal in their efforts is to maintain human dignity for the person receiving aid. As mentioned before, aid can be distributed through small and large scale projects. Depending on the circumstance these aid workers must

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be sure to focus on the success of their main objectives and rely less on coercion (the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats). It can be a dangerous slope for donors having the power to decide how their efforts can unfold, power has the potential to breed greed (Wood 740).

“Aid provides donors some leverage over the actions of recipient governments and can serve as an important lever through which donors can influence recipient behavior. Donors can rescind aid when recipients fail to comply with expectations or engage in high levels of violence against civilians– through  humanitarian, political, or strategic concerns may make any donor reluctant to do so. While changes in aid flows or pressures from the donor states are likely to influence recipient state behaviors at the macrolevel, they should also affect local level behaviors. To the extent that governments prefer to conduct abuses and atrocities with as little attention from the international community as possible, they should be least likely to commit them in areas in which there are large numbers of witnesses. Because larger inflows of humanitarian assistance also bring with them significant numbers foreign aid workers, the level of scrutiny of government behaviors is likely to be highest in these areas. Consequently, the additional scrutiny applied to these areas should help ameliorate government abuse in these locations provided that the incumbent regime desires to avoid the opprobrium of the international community” (Wood 740).

The roads may not always be smooth, a humanitarian can at times find themselves in a slue of dangerous environments and situations, putting their lives at risk to help another in need. People who partake in humanitarian aid assistance do this job because they truly want to help others and improve the person’s overall quality of life. A humanitarian’s “workplace” is ever changing.

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They can be found working in a local setting or abroad, whether it be in a community office sitting at a desk or getting down and dirty building houses in a poverty ridden community abroad. The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of others no matter the location or circumstance. The ecological framework of unequal exchange helps demonstrate this.  The quote below, seen in the journal article Humanitarianism and Unequal Exchange” by author Raja Swamy gives readers a better understanding:

“The ecologically unequal exchange framework allows one to examine a broader set of socioeconomic phenomena such as the relationships, the roles of powerful players such as the state, multilateral organizations, and non governmental organizations in advancing and shaping policies, priorities and outcomes, as well as the patterns of resistance and adaptation of local populations to these” (Swamy 356).

Instances suggest that humanitarians do not receive the recognition they truly deserve, “it is a wonderful ability to to be able to understand struggle, loss, pain and fear and to turn that understanding into a humanitarian act.

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In turn, this brings happiness, not only to the one(s) in need, but to the person giving the helping hand” (Sokanu 2017). But this brings forth the argued question, does someone do this kind of work with the sole intention to help someone else or is their actual motive to make themself feel better? The answer can be argued in a multitude of ways, but ultimately it is based off of the worker and the situation. Each person in this world is different, society would not be unique if everyone thought and acted the exact same way. A humanitarian can help someone and help his or herself  simultaneously. It is when the means of humanitarianism

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becomes blurred and the outcomes of relocation are managed by a potential boost in economic development rather than focusing on the initial disaster (Swamy 361).

“Illegitimi Non Carborundum” Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down

What I can say through personal experience is this. You might start off with the thought that you will be saving another person’s life, when in reality they could be saving you. Whether you realize it in that moment, or years down the road, losing yourself in the service of others can truly impact you. During high school I struggled with depression, to the point in which I’m lucky to be sitting here writing this. I took some time off in my final semester and during that point a close friend, who was my service leader during trips came to visit me. At the time I was only weeks away from my second service trip and I wasn’t sure if I in the right mind set to go. He and I had developed a special bond on the first trip that I am grateful for till this day. I was in need of a reminder of who I was, and my purpose in life. With him he brought photos of my last trip with all the wonderful people I had worked with and helped. He told me they needed me.

El Salvador 2014

He told me that I needed to go and share my compassion and heart with people who needed it most. He told me I needed to be strong and build myself back up again. Him coming to me in my time of need made me realize that I did need to be strong, and that there were happy people who faced struggle I would never imagine facing. Him bringing the photos helped me but a phrase he said to me has never left my mind, ever. Illegitimi non carborundum, the latin meaning “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. What was so strange about this phrase was how later on that week a woman let me borrow a book of quotes, which I began writing down the ones I found comforting. A few pages in, in the middle of the page was Illegitimi non carborundum. Here I was in a mental state where I was constantly looking for reasons to feel sorry for myself and not

El Salvador 2014

continue on, and life was literally in my face telling me what I needed to do in order build myself up. I had never in my life heard the phrase, which made me realize then in that moment how crazy life can show you signs of reassurance. Dedicating my life to others and losing myself in service work saved me, when in reality I thought I was the one doing                                                                              the saving. This, is what influenced the decision to research controversy related to what I plan to continue with in my career future path. Perspective and work ethic can only formulate based on instances you encounter, and I needed to see that not every experience would be joyful and inspiring. In order to provide humanitarian aid one must be versatile in their actions, ready handle any situation, no matter the circumstance.

Who Are the Beneficiaries of Humanitarian Aid?

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In the past few years agencies and donor states provided about $14 billion each year in humanitarian assistance. Those who receive this aid are victims of natural disasters and violent conflicts (Wood 737). This assistance mainly helps with immediate needs for those who are displaced or affected by violence. The aid can be exemplified through material relief assistance, emergency food, relief coordination, protection and support services (737).  The majority of aid given is seen

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 in conflict-affected states which is beneficial, but on the other hand can add fuel to the problems with rebel violence which is present even before the aid arrives.

“Humanitarian aid sites such as refugee camps and aid stations often concentrate large amounts of valuable resources in specific geographic areas. As a consequence, these sites present valuable targets for rebels attemping 

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to replenish depleted sources or augment their capabilities. Predation is a common strategy of rebel resource acquisition, and rebels often engage in strategic looting and violence as means to compensate for short-term resource constraints” (738).

Humanitarian Relations Among “Donors & Recipients”

Touching back on aid and incentives for violence, it is important to analyze how the relations between the donor and recipient can be either beneficial or harmful. One can argue how the relationship can be harmful through the influence of aid on both rebel and government violence.

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Previous studies argue that “humanitarian aid can unintentionally create incentives for armed political actors to employ international violence against civilians in an around the areas in which in accumulates” (Wood 738). Humanitarian aid can induce rebel violence in two prominent ways, according to author Reed M. Wood in his article Doing Harm by Doing Good?

“First, it encourages looting and predation, which often result in significant abuses against the local population. Second, rebels often perceive humanitarian aid projects as direct challenges to their authority over the local populations. Where control or authority is threatened, rebels are increasingly likely to use violence as a means to deter civilian detections or eliminate the perceived threat” (738).

What’s most interesting about the relations between humanitarian aid assistance and government violence is how the aid can potentially create incentives for government attacks on civilians. This is more likely to occur if rebels successfully take over the aid and amplify its use to strengthen their motives. These acts put civilians at constant risk, especially when they are purposely targeted by rebels.

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These threats occur in and around aid sites, the catalyst for these threats is when rebels feel as though their ability to maintain loyalty with their local community is at risk. Although there are instances where rebel forces have been successful, they are not common. This is due to rebel forces absence of quality military capabilities and lack of ability to integrate projects into their governance structures. This is the reasoning for why they instead use violent threats to take over the aid, which lowers civilian support and loyalty (739).

Disasters & Humanitarian Aid

The term “humanitarian gift” was touched on lightly toward the beginning of this research article and here it will be analyzed closely, specifically comparing and contrasting how the term pertains to the devastating tsunami of 2004 off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Over time researchers have studied disasters through both a sociological and anthropological approaches, briefing on the effects of long-term and short-term unequal exchange.

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Currently, the accounts from the world-system effects, need to be taken and studied how their impacts alter social change. Historically, the ideologies of colonialism, racism and imperialism must be used to understand in tandem the impacts of the past, those seen today, and what the future might entail (Swamy 357). Throughout the duration of these studies it is interesting to see how easy controversy can become apparent. The quote below is a quality depiction of this.

“In studies of disasters a shift away from treating disasters as singular events has accompanied a push towards more critical analyses that shed light on the ways in which vulnerabilities of populations are produced, and mobilized in specific ways following a disaster” (Johnson 2011).

A focus idea in disaster studies that came of the same article in which this quote was seen, expresses the idea of an “event-centric” focus. “Disasters should be viewed as episodic, foreable manifestations of the broader forces that shape societies” (Tierney 2007:509). The idea of an “event-centric” focus was exemplified unanimously in the 2004 tsunami. The relations among humanitarian aid and unequal exchange posed negative effects in the reconstruction process in India’s Tamil Nadu state, specifically toward their artisanal fishing community (Swamy 353).

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In terms of development and demolition, the Keechankuppam bridge was constructed in the 1950s, neighboring the Nagapattinam port by state authorities. The bridge was needed for local fishing communities who were counting on the potential benefits and improvements it could bring. The problems of “endemic rural distress, poverty and food insecurity” would be soon be solved through the new bridge (360). People of Keechankuppam, Akkaraipetti and Kallar saw the bridge as a “symbol of a lost era” due to its capability of connecting fishers to town markets, schools, hospitals and government services (360). In addition, the bridge signified how reactive the state was toward the community after they expressed their demand for economic needs. Between 1950 and 1990 commercial fishing as an economic development skyrocketed with the birth of mechanized boats. The popularity of this commercial trade caused a large demand of transport efficiency, which for local fishermen, this disappointedly meant a larger focus on facilities located further south (360). The destruction to the bridge caused by the tsunami kicked open the

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gates of modernization in full force, unfortunately the local fisherman were not strong enough to keep the floodgates closed. The construction of the newer and larger bridge was swiftly put into action upstream while the old bridge was replaced by a Bank-funded fishing harbor (360). What about the fishing communities? What were they to do now? The bridge was destroyed, and the craft they had been practicing for generations to support themselves and their families was now a foreign concept. Here is where the term “humanitarian gift” becomes present (no pun intended). As mentioned in the introduction to this research article, a humanitarian gift is a form of aid given to a recipient from a donor. This typically occurs during instances of post-disaster reconstruction, helping those severely affected by the tragedy. Many argue how acts of humanitarianism can at times be shielded behind the act of “gift” giving. While secondary motives are present to facilitate the state plans to rebuild a devastated region by relocating its inhabitants and opening land for investment. This “gift” ideal is useful in comparing or contrasting the relationship between humanitarianism and unequal exchange, because it can have both beneficial and adverse effects on the recipients.  Those who study this term:

“…remind us that an object treated as a gift carries its own values that have to do with the social practice of giving and receiving gifts. A gift, for instance, carries with it the obligation to return a gift–and as Bourdieu (2010:5) reminds us, gift exchange involves a time lag between the original giving, and the return, it and it also requires the selection of an object that is distinct from, in terms, of objective qualities and embodied values than the original gift. Gift exchange is thus also about renewing social relations, including those that are founded on disparities of power, as for instance gift exchange between landlords and peasants” (Swamy 358).

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What is important for the reader to take from this quote is how “embodied values” pertain to the original gift.  The first problem that presents itself after the gift is given is this, “what is the obligation imposed on recipients as a result of receiving the gift of housing?” (358). In this specific example the humanitarian gift given to the fishing community by an NGO were housing projects. The obligation of the recipient was to follow the decisions of the state on how they could use or interact with the gift. Those being the location of the housing (which was further inland away from the fishing business), the overall quality of the housing, and “the formal abandonment of all claims to the coastal homes and lands” (359).  In conclusion if the state had reconstructed the old fishing bridge helping the fishermen recover then they might not have been left out of sorts and continue with their traditional way of life. Instead the state forced the communities to accept the housing located inland, by revoking their access to trade markets and services such as health care and education (361).

Does Humanitarian Aid Help or Hurt? When Does Aid Become Selfish Vs Selfless?

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In the article Ethical Challenges in Humanitarian Assistance by Kveta Princova, she writes;



“If we accept that our own interests cannot be more important than those of someone else just because these are his/her interests, then deciding on better alternatives cannot be influenced by our own interest more than by the interest of anyone else” (Princova 44).

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It is the contents of this quote of which should be used as a model for the act of giving humanitarian aid or assistance. The initial thought of giving aid should habitually be accompanied with a genuine sense of morality and dignity. In many instances donors will come to a crossroad in the giving process, where the pending issue of human rights forces them to decide whether the ethical

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dilemma will be ignored or causes a hold on the aid assistance.“At the level of the suffering, the conscious perception of people (recipients of assistance) with respect to their human rights is of the greatest importance for the ethics of assistance” (45).  In order to truly determine if foreign aid is selfish or selfless one must decide by the morals of the specific donor. Each person who decides to partake in humanitarian work is different, resulting in a different purpose of which they decided to start this work. It is important to not ask whether aid is selfish, but to ask when it is selfish (Heinrich 422). In order to know a donor/aid worker’s true intentions one can keep these few questions in mind. “Why is foreign aid given? Is its allocation driven by donor interests, and does it merely act as a bribe? Or is it determined by donor’s selflessness, concerns for global justice, and recipient needs?” (422). Keeping these questions in mind are key in determining one’s intentions but can in addition be used as guidelines to steer clear of blurring the lines of selfish vs selfless aid.

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Interested in planning a trip of your own? Check out my applied project:

Changing the World Though Service: A Step by Step Guide

One thought on “Interdisciplinary Studies Senior Capstone Project”

  1. This topic seems so absolutely crucial to those who wish to pursue humanitarian work. The question of how to help people in crisis without unintentionally making complicated situational dynamics worse for vulnerable populations seems incredibly complex and crucial for individuals and aid organizations to address. And the ties that bind receivers of aid to donors and their power seem potentially damaging to the whole enterprise of “helping.” That being said, I like the way you face these complexities head-on, not to convince people not to help, but to help them *truly* help, without replicating very unequal power dynamics or exacerbating threats.

    There are some spots where I had trouble fully following the logic between the quotes (so many of which were just really compelling and well-chosen) and your own prose, so there is probably room here for continued clarification and revision (you can see comments in for more specific feedback on this stuff:, but this research is a crucial complement to your project, and I am so glad you undertook this exploration!

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