Be Careful What You Ask For

The discussion of localization is beginning to deepen. Here (summarized) is an opening salvo from Charles Lwanga-Ntale, director of the Kenya Academy Centre:  localization often seems to resemble ‘deconcentration’, a process whereby the systems and structures of the existing humanitarian sector are exported downwards.  Certainly an interesting reflection to lead off a conference entitled “Localization and Contextualization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) in East Africa”. Hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and the (Kenyan) National Drought Management Authority, the conference mixed government, NGO and academic communities, and placed a particular focus on regional examples of DRRM at the sub-national level, where counties and districts struggle directly with fires, landslides, refugees and drought.

True enough – localization can be many things to many people. Yet the warning on replication was eclipsed as quickly as it was issued. Localization has momentum and it has an engine – from diverse voices a rather uniform set of calls for more capacity building. A palpable hunger for knowledge and learning peppered our two days of discussions. A desire not only for the processes, tools and know-how of the humanitarian sector but also a deep conviction in the power of capacity building to change the behaviour of communities and people.  Have the past five decades of capacity building not curbed our appetite?

I’m not advocating that the global south build a wall (although that argument holds surprising merit), but something needs to keep all these consultants, UN careerists and INGOs busy.  The call seems to aim at training from the very INGOs and agencies that shaped local NGOs into mere implementing partners, and undermined their capacity as autonomous civil society actors. Beyond that, the headlong rush into capacity building raises Trojan Horse concerns. What comes with the sector rebuilding its systems, as Lwanga-Ntale phrased it, “further down the road”?

This much is true. The core of the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies and INGOs elsewhere referred to by many (e.g., me) as an “oligopoly” or “cartel” – has developed an immense amount of experience, know-how and (sadly less publicised) comprehension of what doesn’t work. At the same time, my less optimistic appraisal is that very little about humanitarian action warrants the dash towards replication. It’s not like we are passing on a bandolier full of silver bullets. And that is the good stuff.  What about the bad stuff, which often comes along with the good stuff? Or the bad stuff that we mistakenly think is good stuff?

Take for example the seemingly innocuous technology of the logical framework.  Or the constitution of a humanitarian action upon the foundation of projects. These are exactly the sort of capacity building initiatives the system loves to export. Yet aside from their bureaucratic appeal, they come riddled with proven deficiencies: reducing humanitarian work to tick-box processes and quantifiable targets, output without outcome, short-termism, top-downism, risk aversion, fear of failure, etc.  In the end, a sector full of successful’ projects that leave behind such staggering unmet needs that we needed a Grand Bargain full of transformative ambitions.  Local actors using contextualized logframes? Is that really as far as our ambition travels?

I note that those at the forefront of development thinking (and even a few donors) have embraced the need for Doing Development Differently, exactly by unlogframing it. As agencies scramble to maintain relevance and contracts by delivering capacity building, are we replicating an obsolete and ineffective technology simply because it is so ingrained in our thinking; in how we practice aid?  Isn’t that one of the problems we hope localization and contextualization will solve?

Even beyond the issue of effectiveness, here’s question getting too much focus: What value do does the system want or expect the north to transfer to the south?  Opportunity cost asks a second question: Does that value outweigh a flood of workshops and ‘best practices’ that will bury the south’s opportunity and right to author value for itself? To author a new rather than receiving an old value?

Capacity building strikes me as expedient, but not particularly ambitious. I would think development requires more of localization and contextualization. First and foremost, the space for local actors to respond to problems in their way, and to struggle in the creative process at the same time.  This involves going through frustrations and failures in proximity to communities, to arrive at successes through effort, invention and ownership, not effort, mimicry and dependence. This also involves less of an employment scheme for the existing aristocracy.

Crucially, it is through this struggle that NGOs in the north have built not only their practices, but their institutions as well.  It may be a crap slogan for fast food, but Burger King gets it right, as does Zen Buddhism.  Be your way. Endpoints are less important than pathways. For example, what is the cost of local institutions not developing organically but instead having their financial plumbing supercharged by the global north just so that they can be declared eligible to receive direct grants? Why not change those eligibility standards? This is exactly the sort of mimicry that we should block; a mimicry whereby we reproduce a humanitarian system in which subservience to its business objectives evolved as the dominant structure of the agency, while the operational response to the needs of people became at best secondary, at worst a simple input to a financial transaction.

This call is not for reinventing the wheel. This call is for reinventing the imperfect devices of humanitarian action, because local organizations with a relationship to the community and deep knowledge of the context might just invent something entirely glorious.

The Localization Surge

MSF used to run an ad: “The world is our emergency room.”  Snappy, no?  Raises an eyebrow or two if wiped over a photograph, say, of dusty civilians shouldering a wounded neighbour, or starving children swallowed by their swaddling.   It also raises an important challenge to the implementation of the “localization” agenda.  By definition, responding to crisis – to extraordinary levels of need – requires some form of surge, a capacity to scale up aid operations in response to crisis.  The UN- and Western NGO-led humanitarian system already struggles in this regard (see, e.g., MSF’s “Where is Everyone”). Local organizations might struggle further. In how many nations could even the combined NGO community open and maintain 19 surgical theatres, as MSF did within weeks of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or mount 53 million Euros of operations in about 4.5 months?

The general view seems to be that local organizations can surge, but to a lesser degree.  As Schenkenberg’s study explains, local NGOs often have a very limited ability to scale up. He goes on to describe the causes, such as difficulties in attracting/receiving funds or the unhelpful reality that in an emergency, newly arriving international agencies will often Hoover up staff from the local NGOs. Management capacity for rapid growth poses another stumbling block. While the World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain and the general strengthening of local NGOs may address some of these issues, they do little to address constraints in the model itself.

Within most Western societies the response to crisis rests upon our fortune, upon the wealth necessary to pay armies of soldiers or battalions of firefighters to sit on their ass – dead capacity that comes to life when the siren sounds. The aid sector can ill afford this model (although they increasingly pay armies of people to do little more than sit on their asses, that is a different blog).  Essentially, surge capacity in the major international NGOs exists because the world is their emergency room, meaning they are able to maintain surge capacity by distributing it globally, and then redistributing it when an emergency arises.

I suppose this marks an economy of scale. That same model works poorly on a national or provincial scale. There may be exceptions – Eastern DRC? South Sudan? – that could support such excess resources, but it is difficult to imagine many.  Note that this economy of the global scale plays a similar role when it comes to expertise.  Major international agencies can maintain in-house expertise along a wide variety of themes – nutrition, shelter, water, sanitation, etc. – because at the global level, there will always be enough business somewhere to keep such expertise busy (to justify the expenditure). Again, national NGOs do not have this economy of scale (or simultaneous diversity of crisis types/themes).

The point is that local NGOs cannot be expected to become local versions of the large international NGOs. No duh, right? And yet the bigger point is that they will nonetheless be judged for it. Rather mercilessly, I fear. They will be judged as deficient because they cannot surge. Deficient because they lack sufficient in-house expertise.  Let’s be clear. These are exactly the sort of weaknesses that the existing system will capitalize upon to claw back its pre-Grand Bargain dominion. Beyond the issue of power and control, these perceived deficiencies generate a truth in which local responders remain dependent on the existing international system for surge, one more nail in the coffin of second-class citizenship.

If we start now, can we work our way out of this?  Can we can imagine some form of standing capacity at the national level? Perhaps we should be investing now in developing/testing a number of approaches to national-level rapid response mobilization. Let’s embrace strategies based on dispersed teams/networks rather than centralized agencies. Perhaps we can imagine local chapters of an organization such as Human Surge? Or maybe we can just begin a conversation, and see where it leads.

Accountability Redux

I feel bad for the concept of accountability.  Must be hard for such a serious concept to get so little respect. At ALNAP’s annual meeting last month – a 2-day discussion of how change works in the humanitarian ‘system’, and why it so often doesn’t – poor ol’ accountability was stuck in the role of sectoral punching bag.  Need an example of how the system overcomes agreement, well-funded initiatives and 20 years of effort in order to resist change?  Then accountability is your man.  We even have trouble even changing the way we think about accountability (see e.g., my last blog), with system-led development of a downward accountability mechanism more or less occupying the entire space.

My mother says I am always too negative, so I will stop right now and change hats.   As a humanitarian motivated solely by compassion for the suffering of the downtrodden (and certainly not even nudged by the Oedipal pleasure of critiquing the aid establishment), perhaps I can rally to the aid of that punching bag?  In the spirit of a few but not exactly earthshaking ideas:

  1. Think smaller. As I have written before, there “is a danger that we ask too much of accountability”; invest too much in the search for a magic bullet. Our internal efforts, long guilty of greater promise than reward, have nonetheless delivered improvements. To do it better requires framing these efforts within a more honest and explicit understanding of their limitations, diminishing their outsized sales claims reducing the risk that they pre-empt or displace other, dissimilar efforts. In particular, that they do not function to dissuade external efforts aimed not at bequeathing accountability to people, but empowering them to take it.
  1. Make existing accountability work better. Nobody ever talks about the demonstrated accountability most NGO executives show to their boards/trustees. We talk incessantly about accountability moving upwards to donors, but almost never mention boards. Why? Humanitarian NGO boards are filled with the great and the good, titans of the private sector, masters of communication, big shot directors of non-sector NGOs, noted academics and venerated politicians (or even royal family). What they are not filled with are titans, masters or even relatively knowledgeable persons when it comes to humanitarian action. Fiduciary responsibilities, market share, communications and duty of care receive dedicated, expert attention. Do operations comply with the dictates of impartiality? Independence? What about operations? Do boards ask hard questions as to their effectiveness or luxuriate in the sense that they are “great, really really super”.  Would it not be a relatively straightforward affair to insist that boards receive training in humanitarian action, and that Trusteeship more explicitly requires challenging the executive to deliver on downward accountability (not to mention the humanitarian imperative) rather than battle for higher fundraising results and profit efficiency? (Hint: I already have a day-long training mostly ready).
  1. Untick the box. Some donors now routinely require aid agencies to establish some form of accountability to local pops.   Donors have power and the system dances to their tune.  As with all such measures, though, certain features of accountability will soon become a tickbox exercise.  And there is a moral hazard here, as both donor and agency share an interest in having the project look good, a current weakness of upward accountability to donors (i.e., the fudge factor).  But we can still promote donor pressure as a good move. We should only require that we maintain clarity on one thing: This is not downward accountability to people, it is accountability to donors. Box not ticked.
  1. Paradigm shift. It is a mistake to ground downward accountability in the discourse of effectiveness. If accountability is justified because it will make aid more responsive to the needs of people and hence more effective, then avoidance of downward accountability can be justified on the same grounds. The sector has long reduced downward accountability to an option in service to effectiveness rather than allow it to function as a control borne in ethical obligation. Effectiveness allows avoidance via the domineering idea that taking time to involve people affected by crisis is outweighed by the humanitarian imperative to act now now now. Let’s be clear: some of these downward accountability measures appear awfully burdensome in terms of time and resources, especially at the early stage of a emergency response. They will slow humanitarians down. Loud voices will complain about bureaucracy killing people. Doors will be slammed. This is what the clash of paradigms will produce. Anger and self-righteous indignation. A new normative framework needs to be explicit: ethical obligation trumps effectiveness. So the response to complaints needs to be “So what!?” or “Don’t worry, we’re looking into that”, the same responses that the existing paradigm has produced in answering those who have been looking for greater ethical accountability. The trick is to dismantle this effectiveness-based critique prospectively, not wait for it to dismantle the momentum for change.

[Dear Reader: Please insert here a clever summation] [21 March: This post was updated (edits to mistakes and unclear phrasing)]

 

What’s in a name?

Change can happen in the humanitarian sphere. I kid you not. Take TPFKAB. The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries (also TPFKAAR – The People Formerly Known As Aid Recipients).  Long perceived as problematic – as passive, reductive and patronizing – over the past 18 months or so that nomenclature has been banished, the sector now self-imposing the more (politically) correct “crisis-affected populations” or “people affected by crisis.”

The new(ish) label is more correct in terms of the respect it confers upon TPFKAB. Reducing human beings to a status founded in their relationship to us – “beneficiary” or “aid recipient” or (worse still) “victim” (read: victim in need of saving by us) – placed a rather profound act of dehumanization at the centre of the humanitarian lexicon.  Kudos for recognizing the issue and making the change.  But the new label is sweeping; it too easily counts millions of people who lack a direct relationship to us at all, and whose well-being is heavily defined by that lack.  Why? Moving from TPFKAB to “people affected by crisis” involves swapping out those who actually receive aid with the larger, aspirational category of all those who probably should be receiving aid but often who do not. The new nomenclature obliterates this distinction.

The new terminology risks producing a sectoral sleight of hand, as becomes obvious in usage, for example in relation to our humanitarian Waterloo, accountability to those self-same crisis-affected people.  Here is how the Core Humanitarian Standard, the latest elixir for our accountability-challenged sector, proclaims itself: It also facilitates greater accountability to communities and people affected by crisis: knowing what humanitarian organisations have committed to will enable them to hold those organisations to account.  I hate to sound picky (actually, I am rather picky), but the word “some” seems missing: “some (and often small percentage of) people affected by crisis.”  That is who gets our aid.

As Austen Davis wrote 10 years ago, “There are no accountability initiatives that would hold agencies to account for not being somewhere.” That remains true today.  In a smart paper on accountability, James Darcy further elaborated on this blind spot, highlighting the degree to which initiatives to establish humanitarian accountability really mean accountability “for what they do, and how they do it; not for what they fail to do”. Agencies remain unaccountable for their “strategic choices.” These form no small gap: “decisions about whether or not to intervene, the timing of intervention and withdrawal, which areas and communities to prioritise, the choice of programme approach and the ‘mode’ of delivery (how to work, with what types of partner, funding etc.).” (at note 10).

The result? Accountability frameworks that offer no accountability to many of those most profoundly affected by the humanitarian response to crisis – those not receiving aid.  Accountability, of course, is just one problematic area for the use of the new terminology.  What of the very image that comes to mind in a casual expression like “The international humanitarian sector has mobilized in large numbers, with dozens of organizations busy delivering aid to crisis-affected populations in [country].”? If only it were more true.

What of the TPFKABWSBDGA? The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries Who Should But Don’t Get Aid.  The new nomenclature may not conceal the agency or dignity of TPFKAB, may not wrap TPFAAR within their own victimhood, but it nonetheless manages to exemplify the same old trait of placing our lens onto their world, with something going invisible in the process.  In this case, millions of people affected by crisis yet unaffected by our crisis response.

Segregation is in the Air

[Warning: In places I find it hard to understand what I am trying to say! Help appreciated.]

My previous blog makes the (simplistic) argument that the label “refugee” does scant justice to the reality of millions of people forced from their homelands by violence and destruction in which Western governments has played a significant role. The term “refugee” builds too weak a case. It underplays their actual history.

A weak case, however, is not the primary harm to the refugee.  The primary harm lies in the attendant displacement, not the displacement of people but the displacement of disciplines, approaches and paradigms that might have more ably defended these people/refugees.  And it is we in the humanitarian community, or the more specialized community that fights for refugee rights, who have elbowed out these other communities. Would ambulance chasing plaintiff attorneys be able to construct a successful claim for residency as compensation for an Iraqi fleeing war and ISIL?  Or maybe not an attorney at all, but a wheeler-dealer businessman, or a military negotiator, professionals unopposed to horse trading, able to traffic in compromise and the crude use power? Or maybe disruption and violence – a refugee exercise of power to replace their submission to a stacked deck of a legal regime?

It is not so much communities that are displaced by our elbowing, but the paradigms in which they operate. The “refugee” label belongs to a particular set of discourses (professional, personal, political) and to a specific world view. It lives within a particular framework. It offers a home to me and people like me in terms of its thinking and values – progressive, do-gooder, legal, humanist, justice-fighter, not-a-banker-thank-goodness, etc. There is hence a lovely power in that label, allowing me to cultivate a self-image full of virtues.  For that reason alone I am, like many others, well-wired to hold onto it with clenched fists, unconsciously perceiving my world through its lens. Put differently, I work within a structural aversion to recognizing what might have been.  By way of illustration, David Kennedy’s analysis of human rights reaches a parallel conclusion, that it “encourages people to seek emancipation in the vocabularies of reason, rather than faith, in public rather than private life, in law rather than politics, in politics rather than economics.” (David Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue).

It is no coincidence that this displacement ensures my privileged position within the sphere of the refugee. There is no finer feeling than to stand erect in the fight for the downtrodden! We act as their champions, complete with a loud admiration for their drive, resilience and strength. Within this world (and not that one) displacement leaves people like me as the high priests and anointed speakers. That in itself is not a problem. Not knowing, feeling or seeing it is a problem. Certainty of its Truth is another. A less fundamental example of the power of the paradigm, one that has finally been exposed, is the process by which the aid response to migrants, refugees and IDPs became compartmentalized within humanitarian action, rendering invisible needs and aspirations of a long-term or developmental nature, even as camps morphed over decades into lifelong settlements.

One way to look at it is that we rule by the blessing of segregation, in this instance taking the form of compartmentalization. As we bear witness to the transfer of power in the US it strikes me as a good time to think more about this segregation. More dangerous than ever-sharpening global inequality is the degree to which the haves will maintain this inequality through a web of segregations. Segregation of neighborhoods, healthcare, education, cross-border mobility and perhaps soon human genetics; segregation within communities and across nations. A simple litmus test: Does the status quo work in your favor or not? It does pretty damned well by me.

The world of the haves will protect its interests by building Trumpian walls, and has been doing so for generations if not longer. In part, it will drive further inequality via a sanitized segregation, avoiding the horrors of Jim Crow and Apartheid, replacing such racist ugliness with the institutionalized compassion of aid, peacekeeping and 5-pronged fixes after technocratic fixes.  Is it clear to humanitarians that we form part of the haves? Issue by issue we side with them, perhaps as their less wealthy (but living quite comfortably — thank you for your donations) brethren, perhaps as an agent of their business. As in the fight for refugee rights, we will thump our fists and push for change, but will do so while posing no threat to the paradigm, in fact thumping our fists just as urgently to protect it.

[Note:  Twelve hours after the original posting I made several changes in wording. For better or worse, substance remains the same.]

Refugee? We need a new label.

Certain labels bother me. Labels like “smuggler” that replace “mass murderer”.  Or “paradox”, when designed to hide consistency beneath a superficial contradiction.  What got me started on all this, though, was label “refugee”.

The crisis in the Mediterranean has sparked a healthy debate on terminology. A migrant, we are reminded, is not the same thing as a refugee.  Some worry about placing too much emphasis on the legal distinction, in the process creating a class of humans who are worthy of our sympathy, assistance and open arms. For others, “choices about words do matter.” The official UNHCR viewpoint: Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require.  The debate misses a crucial point.

The discussion of refugees tends to ask whether or not the people live up to the term. Do the circumstances of the flight from home measure up to the legal definition (i.e., a well-founded fear of persecution…)? It places the label of refugee on a pedestal. But what happens when the label does not measure up to the circumstances of the flight? When it masks a different set of relationships? In terms of the Mediterranean crisis, what happens when seeking refugee status weakens the claim to enter Fortress Europe? What we need, certainly, is for the governments in Europe to honor the ideals and protections they authored. What we also need is a new claim, one that better fits the contemporary circumstances of flight.

Stripped down, here are refugees: people living in Country being persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared then flee to Safer Country, where they are not persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared.  Note the formula: Country destroys citizens (or, wantonly fails to protect them from destruction), so citizens flee to Safer Country.

Note also the flaw in the formula: Safer Country acts out of discretion. Refugees have the right to flee Country and the right to seek asylum, but there is no corresponding obligation on Safer Country to grant entry/asylum. Rather, Safer Country is permitted and deemed to act out of generosity, human compassion and a host of self-congratulatory reasons (but certainly not political interests).  As so many have opined, nowadays such discretion comes with steep political costs, hence the shame of Fortress Europe.  That delineates the battleground and the political game in which we have engaged: advocacy and action aimed at getting our states to treat refugees as refugees should be treated. But what if they should be treated better than refugees?

Note the difference between the above formula and the current crisis. Waves of Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians comprise a big chunk of the refugee population crossing the Mediterranean. They clearly meet the refugee formula. But don’t they meet more than the old refugee formula? Doesn’t the modern formula also look like this: Safer Country bombs, wages war and/or fuels conflict in Country, so people flee Country, sometimes to Safer Country.

Why should the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan have to gain entry to the US or to the UK based on the codification of magnanimity into international law? Why shouldn’t they be able to claim a right to enter based on their homes and lives having been, in part, violently destroyed by Western military intervention or the conflict and nasty forces unleashed by said interventions?

The justifications of such interventions are irrelevant. Iraqi, Afghan and even Syrian refugees aren’t Jewish dissidents being persecuted by a brutal Soviet regime. They are the victims of wars that we must, in part, own. What about, for instance, a creative invocation of the tort law concept of joint and severable liability? What about seeing them as creditors, collecting on a debt? In other words, what about moving beyond a claim to asylum and an exercise of national discretion to an obligation based on compensation for our national actions? We should be calling, hence, not just for the Refugee Convention to be fulfilled, but for it to be supplemented by a different notion, one in which people whose homes and lives have been destroyed get to live in the homes and lives of those who contributed to that destruction.

*                           *                           *                           *

Addendum: I will leave it for somebody else to make the parallel argument about economic migrants.  The formula used to look like this: Poor Country is hopelessly incompetent and corrupt so people go to Richer Country to look for a better life rather than starve to death at home. Now it looks too much like this: Richer Country enacts global economic policies and houses global economic actors that render people in Poor Country…

Multilateralism and its Discontents

1.  Did you miss Antonio Donini’s “The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action,” on the IRIN website? Here it is. Donini smacks a lot of nails on the head. We live in an era of decline when it comes to the international agenda for a less violent and oppressive world. Global governance is heading the way of the polar bear, swaying in confusion on the lip of an isolated floe. Even Europe, typically much less unprincipled than my own USA, let alone Russia or South Sudan, has “become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.” The article points the finger, and then examines how the retreat of multilateralism impacts upon humanitarian action. Finally, he asks, “what is the reflecting humanitarian to do?” I have the answer.

No I don’t.  I have one way of looking at it. This retreat of multilateralism rebalances the bargain between humanitarian aid agencies and their major Western donors. It rebalances our bargains with the corporate sector as well, because we humanitarians have long accepted to represent what Donini labels “the smiley face of globalisation.”  This sector we love needs to stop smiling about globalization and it needs to strike a new respect for the principles it enshrines.

On the government side and on the corporate side, some of this is aidwashing (see Point 2 below).  Some of this is soft power. Some of this is market entry.  Some of this is product placement. Some of this is guilt…  The sum of good impact far from counterbalances the sum of those somes, let alone the sum of drone warfare, hyper consumerism and political domination. Nor can it; nor should it. No government can place international interests above self interest as a matter of policy. No corporation can place do-gooderism above profit as a strategic objective.  And no humanitarian organization can afford to ignore these equations.

In other words, no humanitarian organization should continue with the delusion that this headlong rush into ever deeper partnerships with the private sector and dependence on Western donor governments will pave a virtuous path forward for humanitarians.  Of course corporations and entrepreneurs have much to offer. Of course they do good. Of course government aid agencies have much to offer. Of course they do good. But that should begin the discussion, not end it. Faust, at least, traded his soul for knowledge.  Budget relief seems somewhat less noble of a bargaining chip.

The point, as I concluded in a recently published report, is that humanitarian actors “need to decide how far they are willing to become coherent with the policies, players and multilateralism that help produce the crises of displacement, inequality and war in the first place.” Or perhaps Peter Buffett explains it better: Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. 

2.  Earlier this week I tweeted about Boris Johnson. On most days, an easy target. “You gotta love politics” I quipped, in reference to Johnson lambasting the Saudis for bombing Yemen while seemingly oblivious to the irony of the situation given Britain’s arms sales to the Saudis. That “paradox” has been noted before. And yet perhaps we aid industry vets do Yemen a disfavor with that label. Paradox? Perhaps that is only the way we choose to (mis)understand it, as a paradox between this delivering of bombs to the Saudis and relief aid to the bombed. Perhaps the paradox is more about how humanitarians can be so world weary and yet so naively full of our own wishful thinking.

There is no paradox whatsoever. There is enabling, causation and even a coherence of action, like arriving home with flowers on the day you will tell your wife what happened at Jonathan’s bachelor party. Are we really so convinced of our goodness as to ignore how the large humanitarian expenditure in Yemen pays for the arms sales to the Saudis? That is its purpose and that forms, hence, part of the impact that should be owned by us, regardless our less bellicose intentions.

The trouble with labels

The realization that humanitarian action masks political (in)action is an old story, as is our collective lament that blankets, pills and food will not fix an Afghanistan, even if they may prove quite useful to the cold, sick and hungry.  This is the problem of the humanitarian fig-leaf.  The humanitarian sector at times recognizes this effect, and has long echoed former UNHCR High Commissioner Sadako Ogata’s well-quoted wisdom that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” That is certainly true, but tends to be deployed as an alibi for our failures.  We forget to invoke Ogata as a critique of our successes.

In other words, we humanitarians bear responsibility for maintaining the lustre and exclusivity of the humanitarian label, a mode of action that emplaces one set of responses by displacing others. Have we not safeguarded our turf by averting any critique of the its sufficiency; of the effect of humanitarianizing a crisis? Beyond a label that obscures the political and military, it also occupies turf within the aid sector. To label a crisis as “humanitarian” makes us the Big Kahuna, and its calcification into policy and practice – for example, the humanitarian-development divide – has usefully meant that only humanitarian projects could be funded in some contexts.

The price of the label hence falls upon people. To wit, using blankets and pills to fix war, rescue at sea to fix killer migration, or the incongruity of responding to decades of crisis in places like DRC or South Sudan through projects aimed at addressing people’s immediate needs.  As I write in a forthcoming report, the “urgency of [humanitarian] needs eclipses but in no way lessens a greater spectrum of human aspirations – to secure livelihoods, education for their children or to live in peace.”  The degree to which such short-term approaches to long-term problems have been particularly damaging in refugee settings, addressing neither the causes of flight nor the protracted nature of being in flight.

So let us begin. Let us begin by tossing out Ogata, as a necessary but insufficient realization.  As Tom Scott-Smith cleverly concludes, the problem is not with the humanitarian solutions being inadequate, but ‘humanitarian problems’.  In his words: Framing an issue as a distinctly humanitarian one necessarily limits the responses available. Seeing inescapably political issues as humanitarian ones, in other words, can seriously curtail the possibilities for reducing suffering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the recent migration crisis. 

So let us begin in earnest by a moratorium on humanitarian tagging. The situation in DRC is not a humanitarian crisis. The situation in Haiti is not a humanitarian crisis. And the situation in the Mediterranean is not a humanitarian crisis.  The world should not sleep better knowing that humanitarians have responded to a humanitarian crisis.

And if it does not seem to be in our institutional interest to remove our label? Take heed! What goes around comes around. Look no further than the ‘crisis’ of refugees and migrants in Europe or the Ebola response. It will not be long before the security label more completely paints over the humanitarian one, replacing victims with problems, aid with self-protection and compassion with fear; replacing one Big Kahuna with another.

The Complex Politics of Compassion

The politics of compassion. That was the theme for this past weekend’s XVIII Humanitarian Congress Berlin.  An aptly complex topic for today’s aid workers because compassion may not always prove a force for humanitarian good.

Compassion lies at the heart of humanitarian action. Unoriginal pun intended. The principle of humanity, which sets the purpose of humanitarian action, functions as a two-sided coin, at once the family of all human beings as well as the sentiment we feel for fellow human beings in pain. That constitutes humanitarian action as a rather radical enterprise, whereby compassion calls us to respond to the suffering of humans simply because they are human, not because we share the bonds of family, clan, tribe or nation. And it is a response that comes from within, not from external interest or motivation (political gain, military advantage etc.).

So much for the theory. Mind you, I believe in the theory. Yet I am also concerned about the power of compassion to lead humanitarians astray. For instance, the label of compassion is too easily slapped on the sort of pity and paternalism that degrade humanity, reducing people to beneficiaries, patients, victims and generally helpless masses who lack any agency in their lives.

Or, as I last blogged (see October 10th), compassion drives our attention as individuals, societies and organizations. Compassion brings aid. Good. But responding to crisis thus entails a distribution of our attention and compassion. When our compassion draws us towards Syria, Hurricane Matthew and hopefully soon to Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin it betrays the Central African Republic (yet again invisible), Myanmar or, (thinking back) the people in the Lake Chad/Nigeria region these past two years. Put differently, compassion may comprise one element of the principle of humanity but it has consequences for the principle of impartiality.

In reverse, attention can spark our compassion. So the vagaries of media interest – the profitability of some victims – help determine where we respond, or don’t. Witness a speaker on Friday who noted that at least one government in Europe tried to block publication of images of child refugees.

A parallel thread ran through Friday’s panel debate of medical care under fire. There, the sensational shielded the everyday, as the discussion remained tied to the US military bombing of MSF’s Kunduz hospital and the deliberate destruction of healthcare in Syria. It is precisely the shocking quality of such carnage that draws our compassion and condemnation. But it is perhaps also true that our greater concern, attention and action should be devoted to the banality of violent attacks on medical care, to the attacks against healthcare workers and points of care across the world, in exotic locations as well as in our home communities. Perhaps the everyday poses a far greater threat than the spectacular; it certainly poses a different problem, and not one so beyond our control as the abuse of violence by world superpowers.

The point is not to question compassion as a key characteristic (the motivation) of humanitarian action. The point is to question blind faith in our compassion, in its authenticity as well as its impact. It means that we must follow our hearts and at the same time seek out the blind spots, the unseen or unattended crises and the deception of our emotions.

That said, we must not abandon compassion for the sterility of formulaic needs assessments or automated ‘humanitarian’ action. At a fundamental level, the politics of compassion is the antidote to our self-inflicted politics of humanitarian universalism. Compassion grounds our action in the human being, rather than in the framework of multilateral abstractions we have erected to define humanitarianism; a massified, globalized set of principles and legal obligations that are proving ever more ineffective in speaking to people, let alone to the governments and belligerents most responsible for crisis.

The Three Ds of Search and Rescue

A hand stretches from water and another from the side of a boat. A rare moment of purity in humanitarian work.  The hands clasp, and a life is saved. It is far from coincidence that this purity flourishes on the open sea, in a space beyond the borders of states, a no-man’s non-land where, unaided, human survival can be counted in minutes.

rescue-at-sea-pic
Source: AFP

We can be proud that there in the Mediterranean the humanitarian imperative to save lives defeats the savagery and oppression that force millions into a desperate displacement, defeats the policies of democratic nations that eliminate safe and legal alternatives for people to reach Europe and defeats the evil greed of the smugglers (misnomer alert!**). Those victories are, however, short-lived.

Last week search and rescue (SAR) operations pulled over 11,000 people from the sea, from boats so densely packed they recall the slave ships of centuries past. That is a spectacular number of hands. But the purity of search and rescue is a deceptive purity, one that masks costs borne by the humanitarian organizations engaged in SAR, by the fundamental principles and ideals of human rights and by the people pulled from the sea themselves.  Because once that moment of purity has passed we leave the sea for land, where the humanitarian ethos collides with political reality, fear and gutless self-interest.

The image we have of rescue in the Mediterranean is a naïve one, for in fact the human quest for freedom and security and refuge often leads to the not-so-Hollywood ending of low-budget incarceration.  From the sea and into the realm of mankind we might better append three Ds to SAR: Search and Rescue and Delivery into Detention and Deportation.  Official containment policy propels this punitive approach, and research has shown the “highly detrimental impact of detention on the health of migrants and asylum-seekers”, not to mention the degradation (see this article in the excellent June 2016 issue of Refugee Survey Quarterly).  SAR teams deal with consequences; they struggle with their inescapable complicity in the matter (see this analysis of MSF’s difficult and lengthy internal debate). As humanitarians they choose the life of those at sea over DDD, but they do not have to like that choice.

Humanitarian organizations and other activists alike have lifted their voices in protest, against the conditions and policies of detention, against the failure of our ideals and legal obligations to protect people in danger and against the human cost of political leadership’s deliberate failure to establish anything close to a functioning safe and legal alternative to reaching Europe. Those protests have not fallen on deaf ears, but they have fallen on ears that place political survival above principled commitment.  From a different angle: their protest is drowned out by the protest of those more anti-immigration in persuasion. The Aylan Kurdi moments of overwhelming public compassion prove too brief to sustain policy.  And almost cruelly, humanitarians must ponder their role in that as well, for the power of humanitarian purity renders much else invisible.  In this case, the mediatique drama of the rescue at sea obscures both the prologue and the epilogue.

** What does sending thousands of people into the sea on unseaworthy boats have to do with smuggling? What are the smugglers concealing and conveying?  They aren’t even on the boats any longer. This is not smuggling. This is mass murder.

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