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.

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.

The trouble with refugee summits

[Apologies for the long absence – I have been working on two large projects and distracted from my usual flow of sideways thinking.]

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

The UN Refugee Summit – all hype and no substance? A typically good read from IRIN. The question we have to ask as a sector, and I think within the framework of research rather than accusation, is whether the emptiness of hype constitutes the full extent of the damage. Do summits, conferences and other grand ‘change change change’ plus ‘build back better’ moments actually produce more negative than positive outcomes? Specifically – and I’ve blogged on this before, in the aftermath of Angelina Jolie and William Hague’s 2013 proclamation of a ‘historic moment’ in ending rape in conflict – do these well-hyped declarations actually function to diminish the likelihood of positive change? Did Bill Clinton’s ‘build back better’ speech help doom Haiti to the not-so-built-back future it would soon discover?

Mechanisms? The obvious question is whether the well-reported declarations of world leaders take the winds out of the sails of public pressure? Will people across the West now sleep better, knowing that the refugee problem is being dealt with by no less than Barack Obama and the entire United Nations?  More important than public urgency, what about pressure from within the sector? Do these global launches generate too much of an opportunity for the aid system to capture momentum, political will and (surprise surprise) funding, only to transform it into conferences, evaluations, policy discussions, guidelines, and the unproductive yet satisfying busy-ness of saving the world? One might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

The Viet Nam war produced the incongruous situation whereby young black American males were removed from the civil rights struggle and shipped off to fight in Viet Nam. A journalist/historian named Wallace Terry interviewed these soldiers. As I listened to this fascinating BBC program on Terry’s work, one moment caught my ear. One of the soldiers interviewed talked excitedly about the Black Panthers, justifying their violence because blacks had to fear the police and fear the KKK, so it would be a positive and fair change if white people also had something to fear.  I couldn’t help wondering if that same logic hasn’t fused with jihadi anger against the US or Europe.  Which prompts the strategic question of how to get rid of their fear?

3. Respond to the fear (and to the suffering, loss, hopelessness, anxiety…), not just the violence

And while I am on the topic, the news from the US when it comes to inner city gun violence will be one of the great producers of phd theses a hundred years from now. It defies comprehension. Here’s a recent headline: In Chicago’s Deadliest Day Of 2016, 9 People Killed In Shootings On Monday. Get that? On a Monday.

In a timely BBC piece, the journalist attaches himself to a local rapper to penetrate one of the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. The report quickly transports. I slipped into voyeurism, appalled and yet enthralled by the combination of youth, energy, guns and lurid deaths. The entertainment ended at 12:53, when our tour guide broke through to my human side. Worth the watch.

Parts of Chicago must surely define a humanitarian crisis. I say that less because of the violence than because of the pain, the unfathomable grief, anxiety, powerlessness and waste that produce urban landscapes seemingly imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Trauma wounds may be dealt with at the hospital, but where is MSF with its psycho-social programming for the tens of thousands of victims? Because ‘this shit will fuck you up’ and because you know that the US healthcare system isn’t offering mental health care? Where is Save the Children with its ‘Child Friendly Spaces’? Or, more simply, how do we respond to these Americans who desperately need to ‘get out’ of a place that ‘ain’t normal’?

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

Tired of the gloom? Here is a rather devastating take on humanitarian action, cleverly disguised as a restaurant review. “It’s the good intentions that sink vegetative restaurants. They are selling the goodness of their intentions in the hope that you’re more interested in filling the karma bank than your stomach. The explanations of the ingredients are always longer than the recipes. Vegetarian places are to restaurants what the Big Issue is to journalism… It’s a commitment to niceness and oneness and caring and nurturing. The Big Issue is vegetarian journalism.”  That’s the brilliant AA Gill’s Table Talk review of Tiny Leaf restaurant (Sunday Times Magazine 21 February 2016). By the way, he gave the restaurant two out of five stars.


Be Careful of What You Wish For

My summer series of posts is on the way. Isn’t it time we cast a more critical gaze upon the various panaceas being trafficked in humanitarian circles? For example, the localization agenda. Or innovation. Or the idea that if people in crisis only had internet access it would make everything better.

The first has already been published by IRIN.  Here’s a sample: A funding model that has already gutted the independence and effectiveness of international NGOs is not best-suited to empower local organisations within their own nations and communities.  Thanks IRIN for the post.

Friday Traffic Jam

1. The lesson of the traffic jam

The traffic situation in New Orleans tells us a great deal about the current state of the world, with humanitarians at the center.  I lived there in the late 90s. The peak hour jams were miserable. The wide cement lanes of I-10 reconstituted themselves as a parking lot full of people full of a demoralized rage. The solution was obvious — build another lane. So the traffic jams were then tripled for a few years as construction of another lane took place.  Traffic was eased. Hooray for the new lane.  And then it wasn’t: more people started driving, the developers built more homes so more people could move out to those homes . . .  A few years after the opening of the new lane? The same miserable jams, now 33 percent wider.  This is not my observation.  This is science. This is the problem of ‘induced demand’.

The humanitarian system functions as many things, and one is as a new lane. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism. Is it that human society will always tolerate a certain level of excess misery, of people in crisis due to poverty, pestilence and war that escapes our efforts at alleviation?  Greater and greater budgets, greater and greater resources, greater and greater effectiveness and yet needs still outstrip supply.  Getting on top of it (ending human need), in other words, will always remain at the horizon.  Or does the mechanism have more to do with the behavior of governments and armed actors? Those making a mess and those who are supposed to solve the messes (or prevent them in the first place) will not respond, will not take difficult action, and will not end their wars because humanitarianism relieves enough pain to reduce the pressure to act.

We do not like the old idea that humanitarianism prolongs war. But if we admit that powerful/western governments will rarely act until there is a crisis, then the lack of a crisis often means they will not act.  But this traffic effect is not a question of prolonging war. This is a question of allowing more war: this is the degree to which the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes not just a palliative or fig-leaf, not just an illusion of or substitute for difficult political action, but the degree to which it produces an effect of putting out fire with gasoline.

Can we learn from the traffic jam? Here is what the research proved. The answer to the paradox of why building more lanes actually makes traffic worse has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around.  More roads = more moving around. That raises a question: what does humanitarian action allow people (politicians, soldiers, refugees, donors, aid workers) to do?  Even more intriguing, here is another finding of the researcher: if you take away lanes, it doesn’t create a big snarling mess. People adjust and the amount of jam stays about the same. In humanitarian terms, that would be a very good thing.

2. You can’t make this stuff up.

There are some quotes that seem better placed in a Peter Sellers movie. Here is Philip Hammond, UK Foreign Secretary, speaking in the aftermath of the Chilcot Inquiry on whether or not the UK made too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq.  “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”

The word ‘great’ seems mildly out of place.  One could easily sub ‘monumentally misguided’. Does that ambition not seem familiar, though, to anyone in the international aid community?

3. Risk aversion or neurosis?

Has anybody ever measured the cumulative effect on our culture of entire nations singing their children to sleep with Rock-a-Bye Baby?  Hundreds of millions of admonitions pouring into the infant brain “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  Seems like a recipe for creating a nation of  neurotics. Evidence of this mass insecurity? The mass hysteria that Ebola provoked in the USA? Our collective overestimation and overreaction to the threat of terrorism? Well, here’s more evidence, in an advert I just saw.

Living Fearless

Apparently, we now reside live in a world where living fearless is thought to include that old daredevil pursuit of tasting lettuce at what appears to be a posh street market.  Be afraid. Be very afraid. Said the spider to the fly?


Brexit Now vs UK EU

The Referendum on staying in the EU strikes me not as a “great festival of democracy” but more an invitation for tyranny of the majority. Issues this important and decisions this enduring should be decided on the basis of principles and analysis, not a direct measure of popular sentiment or, worse still, fear-stoked self-interest.  It also strikes me as full of lessons for humanitarians.

The process has almost boiled down UK membership in the EU to the single issue of refugees/migrants (Trumping for many potential economic ruin) – yet another historic chapter in the denigration of an entire category of human beings due to otherness, this time based on a fear of kebab houses, long-bearded men who aren’t hipsters and increased wait times in the Tory-gutted National Health Service.  The tenor of this debate, as that of the more general ‘migrant crisis’, signals well the moribund status of ideals such as humanitarianism.

If that were not enough, then consider the appeal to the EU as a protector of human rights, justice, working class dignity, and democracy itself against the (Tory party’s) British government. Here’s one poster:

eu poster pic

The argument, relatively common, strikes me as too common, too causally passed from podium to populous, its accuracy familiar and suffered like the crappy British summer rather than revolting. There is something fundamentally wrong with governance in Britain if it cannot, on its own, protect its citizens and residents from injustice, overzealous anti-terrorism legislation, and the tyranny of the corporate elite. We humanitarians berate governments in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iraq for similar domestic shortcomings.  We do so with no small hint of frustration and condescension, an angry and smug appeal to the ‘enlightened’ external world – to the universality and binding commitments of international human rights – that has not yet overtaken the primitive internal state. Can it be that in Great Britain, such lustrous ideals and protections similarly depend upon a relatively full panoply of external laws and courts?

As I (and many others, no less than the UN Secretary General) have blogged elsewhere, the plug seems to have been pulled on the belief that governments should allow such ideals and commitments to constrain self-interest. This downward spiral lies not just in the behavior of states with long dark track records, but in the strengthening norm among the usual champions of international law, human rights, and multilateral civility. The EU’s decision on migrants seems perfectly emblematic in this regard. It should function as a wake-up buzzer, an indication that humanitarian protection needs a new strategy.

In places like South Sudan, Syria or Central African Republic, humanitarians confront their increasing impotence, an inability to appeal to international commitments and norms that were never fully upheld, but at least held some power. As Ban Ki-moon declared, “our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.” As a practice, humanitarian protection – the duty of humanitarians to move beyond a sterile delivery of material assistance and work towards protection – seems depressingly lost. Experts convene and much more easily describe the abysmal state of affairs than potential ways forward. This report of such a meeting held last June (disclosure, I am one of the authors), for example, identified three potentially useful strategies, but without any delusion that they solve the problem:

[… a] strengthened capacity to leverage political and armed actors resulting from (1) better analysis, of the sort that reveals not only the violations/abuses but also potential tactics towards ending them […]; (2) a deliberate, broader engagement with a wide range of actors external to the humanitarian sector; and, (3) greater humanitarian independence from political power.

Perhaps, as I have come to understand on the eve of the UK’s EU Referendum, there really is something quite wrong with the necessity of appealing to external, supra-sovereign covenants in order to guarantee fundamental human rights.  Such agreements work well enough for technical issues, like patent law or aviation safety, but perhaps we should never have diverted so much effort into the internationalization of our humanity. Instead, we should have focused that energy and effort into its localization, into all the different locals, from the ground up. Perhaps therefore we need to accept the decline of universal norms and official disregard for international covenants, and begin the 25-year march not to their reaffirmation but their replacement at each and every national level.  Local civil society as the centerpiece, rather than us international do-gooders. Because in or out of a common union should affect commerce, travel and cross-border law enforcement, not justice, rights or democracy.

Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

Dear United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,

Millions of people heard you. I heard you.

This is what you said before the World Humanitarian Summit.

Our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately injured and killed. Air strikes rip families apart. … The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits. (UNSG Summit Report ¶ 46)

Flouting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious … We can, and we must, do better. (¶ 48). Remaining silent while serious violations of international law are unfolding is morally unacceptable […] Our common humanity demands that we do everything we can to prevent and end violations and hold perpetrators accountable. (¶ 59).

Whenever serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law occur, Governments, global leaders and other relevant individuals must systematically condemn them. Even where we may not be able to stop violence and suffering immediately, we have a minimum responsibility to speak […] I have asked all United Nations senior officials to do so and I encourage all United Nations staff to act with moral courage in the face of early, serious and large-scale violations. I also exhort all relevant actors and stakeholders to end the double standard of condemning the violations of some but not of others. (¶ 62, emphasis added).

Let us make the Summit in Istanbul the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change (¶ 180).


This is what you said after the World Humanitarian Summit:

State, civil society and humanitarian leaders repeatedly stated that international humanitarian and human rights law is more relevant than ever: it is the last protection against barbarity. We therefore must not take the easy way out and declare all civilians collateral damage. (Chair’s Summary p. 3)

There was wide agreement that unless we hold perpetrators to account, there will be no stopping this downward spiral. (Chair’s Summary p. 4). The World Humanitarian Summit has been a wake-up call for action for humanity. It has generated global momentum and political will to move forward on the Agenda for Humanity and the five core responsibilities to deliver better for people across the globe. (p. 7).

The Summit is a point of departure to act, but there must also be a destination … Let us now turn the Agenda for Humanity into an instrument of global transformation. (p. 8)

This is what you did earlier this week. You succumbed to political pressure and erased Saudi Arabia from the UN’s blacklist of those violating the rights of children (due to their often indiscriminate bombing in Yemen).

Here is what others think you did earlier this week (click): Amnesty International, War Child, and Human Rights Watch (and 35 other organizations).  Here is what I think you did earlier this week: I think you gutted the World Humanitarian Summit.  Without a global recommitment to political responsibility, legal obligations and humanitarian ideals, the Summit births nothing more than a broad set of bureaucratic aid system reforms.

I have not yet understood why this move leaves me so sad and so angry. After all, as an example of politics and power trumping the norms and principles of humanity, it seems emblematic of the current state of affairs to the point of banality. It exemplifies well the shortcomings of the United Nations and, more generally, global leadership.  Could it be that your words pierced my cynicism?Touched my humanity?  Could it be that I felt hope? Yes.

If May’s Summit functioned as a “wake-up call” then your actions this week signaled a death knell, clear notice that the most fundamental commitments to humanity were not reaffirmed, nor a new moral courage discovered.  While I was never convinced the Summit was worth staging, I am certain it was not worth killing off so quickly.

Mr. Secretary General, this is the moment, a critical juncture for your World Humanitarian Summit and for your legacy. Stand up now. Put the Saudi-led coalition back on the list.

Yours sincerely.

PS: And Mr. Secretary General, if you happen to run into other world leaders, could you ask why they do not loudly insist you hold the Saudis accountable (even in this small way) for their actions? Sadly, I think we know the answer. Back to business as usual: shared inhumanity, many irresponsible.

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

WHS — Views from the outside.

[The World Humanitarian Hootenanny is over! Scorecards are popping up, from glowing to relatively unfavorable to stinging and everything in between.  I will be giving my take on some key issues in this and forthcoming blogs.  Like a friend not invited to a wedding, I can only offer my envious observations from afar.]

  1. The Three NGOs We Need

The prominence of the localization agenda has been touted as a key WHS success, with the golden statue being awarded to the Grand Bargain. That recalibration of humanitarian financing includes the highly praised central commitment “to channel 25 per cent of financing to national and local responders as directly as possible by 2020.”

Will moving money from major donors to national governments and local NGOs contribute to empowerment? It might. But the politics of aid may not be so kind. Rule #1: there is no such thing as a free lunch. That point aside, localization seems to have been reduced to this ‘groundbreaking’ shift of funds, which may actually divert attention from a much broader local empowerment.  To begin with, the management of this new financial windfall – the bureaucratization and proceduralization which it will require – seems poised to become the core business of the humanitarian sector over the next several years. Empowerment? Be careful of what you wish for (the subject of a future blog).

Looked at from within the sector, for meaningful localization to occur, the system essentially needs to empower people against itself. That, of course, runs contrary to the working of most systems, which is why the humanitarian sector has been characterized by such a grotesquely lopsided north-to-south grip on power. Beyond funding, how might the system contribute to local empowerment? With hundreds of NGOs essentially duplicating one another in terms of service delivery, here’s my list of the three agencies that have long been missing from the sector.

  1. Fundraising without Borders. Rather than tie local NGOs and civil society actors into the institutional funding mechanisms that have so effectively gutted the independence of Western NGOs, the aim of FWB would be to support (1) the development of fundraising within the local context and (2) entry into the well-established fundraising markets of the West.
  2. Image Rescue Committee. The IRC would function as a communications and promotions department for local response to crisis, be it civilian, NGO or governmental. The aim is to counter the skewed narrative delivered by the humanitarian sector – one that disempowers everything local by promoting a dated, warped tale of how they have been (heroically!) saved by the Western intervention.
  3. No-Mercy Corps. According to their own reports, international actors have worked for decades towards empowerment of the marginalized, poverty-stricken and oppressed populations of the global south. And yet not one has focused on empowerment against one of the most powerful and undemocratic forces impacting on their lives, the aid sector itself. Ending this Uncle Tomist free ride, NMC would work to create a set of local mechanisms or bodies (external to the sector) that build control and accountability over the aid sector’s interventions.

Three magic bullets to deliver on the promise of localization? Not at all. Perhaps more important than the potential of FWB, IRC and NMC to empower local responders and communities in the future is what their absence says about the past. Why is it that these organizations, designed and resourced to stand up to the humanitarian oligopoly, do not exist?  Why did the humanitarian ecosystem** not give rise to these rather obvious aid functionalities? Because Grand Bargain or not, the architecture, incentives, power dynamics and culture of the aid system all push in a different direction.  And that is one problem the WHS should have been busy addressing.

** Actually, FWB and NMC would better suit the development community, that has long missed out on opportunities to exploit the humanitarian field for its development gains – see here, here or here.

[Over the weekend, I hope to put some flesh on FWB, IRC and NMC, so that post is coming.]

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