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.

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.

This blog is supposed to spark critical discussion around current issues affecting humanitarian action. And have some fun. (For more, click on the ABOUT button).