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Humanitarian Markets

The role of humanitarian assistance is like that of a car battery: it gets the cylinders moving until the sequence of internal explosions in the engine recharges the battery and makes the process self-sustaining. That task is made easier by using, rather than replacing, markets.

CAMBRIDGE – According to the Oxford Dictionary, humanitarian crises involve widespread human suffering and require large-scale provision of aid. In a humanitarian crisis, normal life ceases to be possible.

Under normal conditions, one person’s needs become another person’s livelihood. The system functions because each of its parts is both supporting and being supported by others. This virtuous loop is key to all forms of life, whether in microbes, animals, ecosystems, or human societies. Without oxygenated blood you cannot move your muscles; without thoracic muscles, you cannot oxygenate the blood. Humans cannot survive without food, but food can’t be produced without humans.

In chemistry, this is called autocatalysis, a system whereby the whole can be reproduced because each element is the product of one reaction and an input or catalyst of another, making the whole self-sustaining. In human societies, paying for the security and infrastructure needed to produce requires taxation, which is possible only if there is production that can be taxed to begin with. Any break in this autocatalytic cycle – for example, because of war or natural disaster – can disrupt the virtuous cycle. And yet the time that people can survive without water, food, and shelter is often too short relative to the time required to fix the problem. That is the essence of a humanitarian crisis.