The Trouble with “The Trouble with Aid”

“And the world weeps with them…”, narrates the solemn 70s commentator over images of children in Biafra, bloated by kwashiorkor. These are the opening shots of the documentary film, The Trouble With Aid, which screened on the BBC last week, a documentary by Ricardo Pollack problematising the growth of humanitarian aid through an episodic look at the great crises of the 20th century: Biafra, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda/Goma, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Clearly designed to give coherent shape to the critique of humanitarian aid and its discourses (as opposed to development aid) for a largely uninitiated audience, the film is neat and clear, but reductive. However, where it falters in its explicit intention — to untangle ‘the trouble with aid’, instead creating a whole new knot for itself — it accidentally offers us something far more interesting; that is, the reliance that humanitarian aid has on the moving image. Momentarily throughout, the film flattens the issue of aid to an issue of images, equating disasters to the illusory depth of films, while reproducing the image-reliant rhetorics it critiques through its own edits.

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