Three Big Questions for the World Humanitarian Summit

The World Humanitarian Summit is this month. The UN Secretary General’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility forms the basis of Summit. The report announces a new direction, or at least the aspiration for a new direction. There’s a lot to like. There are also questions that come to mind.

Big Question 1: When it comes to upholding the cardinal rules of war, is it good enough that states may (or may not) reaffirm their commitment to their past commitments?

Follow up questions:  Faced with ever more widespread disregard for existing obligations under international humanitarian law and an ascending moon of impunity, shouldn’t humanitarian actors be aggressive, fighting for more than a recommitment & photo op session?  Why does the Summit feel more like a kumbaya moment than a protest one? In its kumbayaness, does the humanitarian sector not show more solidarity towards the system of powerful states than to the people suffering unfathomable deprivations generated and sustained by that system of states? What is the cost of the sector accepting vast amounts of its funding from states that routinely violate fundamental humanitarian norms or fail to uphold them? Is it not time for humanitarians to rethink rather than solidify their close cooperation and partnership with all states?

The question not being asked: Given trending global norms of violence against civilians, blockages/abuse of humanitarian aid, and impunity, and given the humanitarian sector’s two decades of growing central role in all this crisis, is it not time to examine our (wishful) framing of the problem as an external one?

Big Question 2: Is ‘ending need’ a humanitarian goal?

Follow up questions:  What does it mean that the UN Secretary General proposes to make humanitarian action accountable to the Sustainable Development Goals? Isn’t that what development efforts aim to do, while humanitarians address the consequences in the meantime?  Where is the (humanitarian) opposition to the SG moving the sector’s goalposts? What happens to access if humanitarians are asked to end need by addressing the underlying politically-charged power dynamics of poverty, inequality, marginalization and war?  Does getting rid of the humanitarian – development divide actually require erasing the distinctions between the two?  Are the two really nothing more than ‘artificial institutional labels’?  What does it mean to place paramount emphasis on reinforcing national authorities when such a large chunk of humanitarian aid responds to conflicts involving those same authorities?

The question not being asked: What political and economic forces are driving the redefinition of humanitarian action as a subsidiary of state-building and development work (and what are humanitarian actors going to do about it)?

Big Question 3: Is it possible that major donors will invest in humanity differently than they have been able to do in the past?

Follow up questions:  How does the ‘Grand Bargain’ on humanitarian financing propose to reverse recent trends in funding when other efforts, notably the Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement, have not? More importantly, why didn’t that 2003 agreement work? In other words, how does the ‘Grand Bargain’ alter the political commitments of the major donors (e.g., to aid oversight committees and voters in their home societies) that have pushed aid funding towards short-term, project-based grants, direct links to homeland national/security interests, supply-based targets rather than human-based needs, ‘value for money’, etc.?  Are the major donors ready to overhaul their policies and organigrams to make this work? What of the heavily bureaucratized grant reporting that has evolved to demonstrate to voters that their taxes are well spent in these days of austerity – how in real terms do we arrive at significant direct funding to local NGOs?

The question not being asked:  Given decades of humanitarian actors blaming their inaction on the lack of external funding, what is Plan B in terms of humanitarian organisations taking responsibility for their financial (and hence operational) independence?

Bonus Question: Why is this billed as a World Humanitarian Summit?

Bonus Answer:  The Summit is not about humanitarian action (as I first expected it would be).  This Summit is primarily about preventing and ending humanitarian crisis, not alleviating its impact on people.  Good.  But that is a story of war, politics, development, marginalization, inequality, or even gender and ethnicity and culture.  I see that states will be at the Summit. I know that humanitarians have booked their tables.  Who else? Has the development sector mobilized? How about the peace and reconciliation communities?  Human rights and global justice agencies? Civil society organizers? Forget the H in WHS, this is their Summit too, because while humanitarians fix people caught in crisis, we need completely different actors to fix the crisis itself.

Double Bonus Question: Does anybody have any idea what is going to come out of the Summit?

Double Bonus Answer: Not me.

A Political Economy of Aid Reform?

The IRC has recently released a study of reports on studies of the Ebola crisis. Their conclusion is that these reports ‘offer valuable solutions, but they also perpetuate problems by ignoring fundamental realities.’  That is because these reports ‘reflect a persistent weakness of the global conversation about health systems: the erasing of politics.’  And now, for a bit of shameless self-promotion, IRC singled out our ODI report for not falling into this trap, for correctly saying ‘what most reports, and indeed most health systems efforts, failed to recognize: that any effort to improve health systems can only succeed if it is based on an understanding of the politics involved.’

What does the Ebola response tell us about the World Humanitarian Summit?

The fast-approaching World Humanitarian Summit holds the promise of a better humanitarianism, meaning it also holds the risk of repeating the same mistakes that have doomed so many of our good intentions in the past. Of course, there are multiple mistakes that undermine implementation of the humanitarian imperative. Shortcomings and gaps as well. Not multiple, but thousands.  But in some ways, there is only one mistake that needs fixing. We need to replace talking about what we should do with talking about how to do it. And in particular, how to do it given the incentives, architecture, political dynamics and culture which govern the ecosystem of humanitarian aid.

Thus far, and the Ban Ki Moon’s recently released report reinforces this weakness, the Summit process has traded more heavily in attractive ideas than in an analysis of how history might avoid repeating itself.  New and intriguing recommendations surface, and yet they resemble the sector’s standard recommendations, conclusions and lessons learned in the degree that their feasibility is wishful. As the UNSG admits, the measures he proposes are not new, a “testament to the failure to learn from the past and to embrace necessity and change more forcefully.”  (UNSG ¶170).  It does not help that the UN’s #1 humanitarian, ERC Stephen O’Brien, has proclaimed that the system is ‘broke’ but ‘is not broken.’

How do we change our stripes? By ending the gravy train of funding for technical evaluations, dismissing rather than embracing so-called ‘lessons learned’ approaches (see here for one of my previous blogs on lessons identified but not learned), and basing analysis on a thorough political economy of the given situation.  In other words, at the system level and at the organization or project level, stop promoting reforms based on an overly simplistic understanding of the problem. Top aid thinkers Ben Ramalingam and John Mitchell explain it a lot better than I could:

Two broad sets of reasons for this lack of change are widely cited. One is that there are many drivers of change for the sector, of which the reform agenda is only one. Reforms, moreover, are seldom, if ever, the most prominent of the internal drivers. Others include organisational interests, professional norms, donor interests and so on. These serve to reinforce the status quo of the sector. … The second set of reasons relates to the reform efforts themselves. Seldom have change and reform efforts attempted to change the fundamental rules and incentives that underpin humanitarian aid effectiveness.

The paramount question is whether we will do better in the future by examining how and why we failed in the past, replacing the question of what do we want to achieve.  In this regard, the Ebola outbreak and response signaled (once again) the need for a more transformative agenda, one that avoids wishfully imagining the dawn of a new age where global public good trumps political self-interest, and instead addresses both the shortcomings of humanitarian action as well as their underlying causes.

Three Songs (3)

[This blog is the third of a 3-part series.]

Part 3. Towards a New Song

Adding up the Swansong and An Old Song, here is what you get: a sterling example of oversimplification. Mea culpa. The point is to make a point: the two songs share a foundational error, one emblematic of too many similarly inspiring yet fruitless aid songs.

Both Ban Ki Moon’s compelling World Humanitarian Summit report and the international community’s push to Leave no one behind rest upon a causal logic shaped something like this: by identifying a problem and agreeing to solve it, highly skilled people plus good intentions will fix the problem. This approach works well for repairs, when something is broken, like an engine with a leaky radiator. It works less well when the system itself is flawed, when the problem is generated by the system functioning as it has evolved to function, regardless our collective intentions and commitments to the contrary.

Remember, the same people have come together over and over again to declare that the recipients of aid should participate meaningfully in the process or that humanitarian action must be accountable to local communities. Another example: ask yourself how the proposed ‘Grand Bargain’, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) solution to the woes of humanitarian financing, differs from previous attempts such as the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement.  Does it once again ask the leopard to change its spots? Or does it set forth a plan that will work in spite of the spots?

Such idealism requires an ahistoricism, one that occludes the magnitude of previous efforts dedicated to the same ideal. In our zeal and in our need to believe, humanitarians all too regularly leap past the question of why it didn’t work before. Are we frightened the past might blunt our enthusiasm (or funding) for the future? Would history usher us towards apathy in a world so full of brutal crisis?  Or, in less psychological terms, do ideals obviate the grim need for systemic change given a sector where nobody gets fired for singing an old song?

In Moon’s own words, Leaving no one behind “is a central aspiration of most political, ethical or religious codes and has always been at the heart of the humanitarian imperative” (One Humanity, ¶ 72). Beautiful. Dead wrong for humanitarians, but beautiful. A goal to be endorsed wholeheartedly for the development community, but the humanitarian imperative instructs that we should leave people behind. It even tells us who: the principle of impartiality instructs that the most urgent of cases are the ones to receive aid first. (All the more reason to hope that development works to build capacity that can address less urgent needs.).

The problem for humanitarians today is not one of leaving people behind, it is one of leaving the wrong people behind. Reaching the most vulnerable imposes political, program and personal costs/risks that have long forced aid away from the most vulnerable (see, e.g., MSF’s Where is Everyone). To begin with, reaching the most needy costs a lot more than reaching the merely needy. Reaching the most marginalized entails far higher risks of delay, insecurity and unforeseen consequences. It requires an aid industry able to embrace the likelihood of failure, not one that must flee the risk of it.

The aid community aspires to aid the most vulnerable, the humanitarian system is largely designed (by evolution, not intelligence) to avoid them. Political pressure ensures that we will not hear USAID or DFID disavow the idea that aid must deliver ‘value for money’ or ‘bang for the buck’. There can be no press release on not building ten clinics for the needy IDPs near Goma, but instead venturing out and building two clinics for the desperate IDPs in the hinterlands (for the same amount of money and with a year of delays). NGOs cannot boast of new programming directions that might not work, complete with promises to learn from mistakes. Taking more risks cannot gain approval from boards governed by concerns for public reputation, future funding or the threat of lawsuits.

Leaving no one behind offers us a slogan to rally behind, an ideal towards which we can dedicate ourselves, a direction that taps into funding streams. Without changes to the incentives, drivers, architecture, culture and politics governing aid, Leaving no one behind also risks offering us another old song. Until we recognize and address how and why the design of the ‘system’ often forces humanitarians away from the most vulnerable and most marginalised, we will never be able to place them at the epicenter of our work. That is the lesson to be learned.

And that is all we need for a new tune. We need songs that no longer end with grand visions of what needs changing. We need songs that begin with them, with our longstanding challenges, and then go on to offer an explanation of why they didn’t work and a vision of how we are going to get there this time.

Final note for the record: if the plan boils down to calling for a new political commitment, that is an old song. World leaders possess no lack of political commitment. The problem is a surfeit of competing, contradictory commitments.

Three Songs (2)

[This blog is the second in a 3-blog series . See directly below for the the first part].

Part 2: An Old Song

The starter’s gun has fired on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will pretty much fix the entire world by 2030. Have a look. Like swansongs (see previous blog), these goals are not exactly small stuff. End poverty in all its forms everywhere is SDG goal #1. Like I said, not small stuff. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls is Goal #5. Unlike Moon’s swansong, though, the SDGs are just launching, a vision to be implemented. At least, that is their intention.

ODI recently held a panel discussion entitled ‘Leaving No One Behind’, a launch event for the march towards 2030 and the achievement of the SDGs. In keeping with my unscientific approach to blogging, I thought I might offer some criticism without having attended, listened to or even perused a summary report. My comment is a simple one, based on evidence as insubstantial as this sentence from the on-line description of the event: ‘In order to ensure no one is left behind, we firstly need to identify the most vulnerable and marginalised people’.

Leaving no one behind works fine as a slogan for much of the SDG work to come. Please forgive a statement of the obvious: delivering on the promise may prove more difficult. Take, for example, the UK government, who has itself proudly enshrined Leaving no one behind as an official promise. If it weren’t so tragic, it might seem almost a parody to the refugees and migrants stuck in the brutal mud of Calais. No one gets left behind because no one is allowed to leave? That jibe aside, the lesson is flawless. Achieving change against the tide of hard political realities requires more than a shiny new slogan and more even than a government’s promise.

Governments, though, should be excused if their actions aim to satisfy the conflicting demands of a broad electorate; and they should be predicted to serve the powerful more effectively than the powerless. Well more than one of the would-be refugees and migrants in Calais will be left behind. Faced with fierce opposition to any immigration, that is what governments are designed to do.

Less easy to excuse is the international community that, knowing this, has nonetheless designed a set of goals structurally dependent on states behaving, essentially, contrary to their nature or their political capacity. Note that this is the same international community who will be charged in large part with developing and implementing the policies and programs to ensure no one is left behind. There is a persistent gap here, between rhetoric and reality.

Returning now to that line from the event’s description, this is the aid community that appears, now at least six decades deep in the enterprise of organized, institutionalized development (A) to be proclaiming to have discovered only in 2016 the need to figure out who are the most vulnerable and marginalized, or (B) to be inspiring the coming generation of work by sloganing over the fact that this is exactly what they have reported to have been doing for the past six decades, or (C) to want to convince us that ‘finding the most vulnerable and marginalized people’ somehow defines an ‘all new’ or ‘improved’ product that really will work, without explaining to us what they are going to do differently from the decades of many approaches.

Now, I know this entire blog amounts to a cheap shot, a cavalier reduction of fairly complex thinking and experience to a line in an event description. The cheapness of my opinion, though, does not so easily dismiss the sense that with the same choir and the same melody, we will get the same song. There is a superficial accuracy in A, B and C above. However, they do not explain why such a dedicated, intelligent community repeats itself with such frequency. Why are the choir and melody so old? And how do we manage to produce a different song? Answers A few thoughts in my next post.

Three Songs

[This blog is the first in a 3-part series]

Part 1. A Swansong

At the end of an illustrious career comes the fireworks.  A swan’s mythically mute life, punctuated by a burst of song before expiring – a swansong.  For artists, it is a last great performance. For architects, a final, dazzling skyscraper. For political leaders, a tendency towards big stuff, name-chiseling monuments like a new highway or an airport or a pristine swath of land set aside as a national park.  Or maybe they aim for an entry in the history books of tomorrow with a constitutional amendment or a sweeping reform of education. The key ingredient of a swansong is grandeur.  On that basis, Ban Ki Moon’s World Humanitarian Summit report qualifies as a swansong.

There is ample criticism of his report (see here, or keep an eye on this space). ODI/HPG’s Christina Bennett rightly highlights some of the reasons we should read it with an open mind before fretting over its inadequacies.  At the very least, it issues a clarion plea for those in power to respect international law, and it does so in UNcharacteristically blunt fashion.  That’s another key ingredient of a swansong. Bluntness. A statement that can be recognized as such.

The third key ingredient of a swansong, and perhaps the most critical, is that it be enduring.  A new stadium fits: grand, bold, lasts for decades.  Enacting a set of gun control laws would qualify (hint to President Obama).  A visionary report, though, stutters. And that is where, even aside from its content, I have concerns for Ban Ki Moon’s swansong.

No matter how grand or blunt, a swansong must be a fait accompli; it must be built, delivered, finito. A vision functions as the epitome of an anti-swansong, because visions mark a beginning, and because visions tend to expire with the visionary. The WHS is designed not as an endpoint, but as a launch. By the time the ink dries on the conclusions reached Summit, Moon will have become a lame duck, and by the end of the year the UN will have a new top swan.

Aesop Visits the Modern World

Once upon a time there was a shepherd boy who cared for the village sheep.  Every day, the boy would take the sheep into the fields to graze.  It was not fun, and the boy had to stay there all by himself, watching over the sheep to make sure the wolves did not come.

Then one day, a wolf broke into the field and began attacking the flock.

The shepherd boy felt a terrible fear. He climbed to the top of the hill and cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help! A wolf is trying to kill my sheep.” When the villagers heard the boy shouting, they left their chores and ran as quickly as they could to help.

The people of the village found that the wolf had killed one of the sheep. The trail led back to its lair in Assuria. The villagers were upset. “This is not a laughing matter,” they declared. They stamped their feet and wagged their fingers at the leaders of Assuria.  “Keep your wolf away from our sheep,” they said.  “Or else!”

Time passed and the villagers went back to town and the shepherd boy returned to the green fields with his sheep.  One quiet afternoon, another wolf strike began. The sheep fled in terror as the wolf’s jaws snapped left and right.  The boy felt a terrible rage. He ran to the top of the hill. “Wolf!” he cried, tears sliding down his cheeks.  “Wolf!”  The wolf did not stop, not even when the boy called the Chief of Freedonia and told him what one of his wolves was doing.

When the villagers arrived they consoled the boy. They helped him gather his flock and tend to the wounded. They felt a deep sorrow as they gazed at the three dead sheep.  “This is not a laughing matter,” they declared even more loudly than the first time. They stamped their feet even more fiercely than the first time, and they wagged their fingers more furiously. They cursed the people of Freedonia. “You’d better stop that wolf from breaking into our field,” they shouted.  “Or else!”  The sheep, for their part, huddled closer together, looking out over the sea.

The people of Freedonia inquired with the wolf.  “It was an accident,” he said. “I thought they were wild sheep.”

“Wild sheep wearing bells and grazing in a field surrounded by fences?” asked the boy.  But the wolf did not reply. His tummy ached from so much fresh lamb.

Time passed and the villagers stopped stamping their feet and wagging their fingers. They went back to their homes to watch Village Idol and take pictures of themselves watching Village Idol.

The boy went back to the field with the rest of his sheep (who wished to go someplace else, but nobody wanted them).

One day, having heard the stories of sheep feasts, an entire wolf pack crawled under the fences and attacked the flock.  The shepherd boy again ran up the hill and cried out. The villagers again came and stamped their feet. They wagged their fingers. They watched as the star of Village Idol denounced the wolf attacks as “Dastardly”.  They cursed the people of Muscovy, whose wolves had done so much killing.  “It wasn’t us,” claimed Mayor Takeout. “It was a Freedonia wolf.” And then he had an even cleverer idea. “They weren’t sheep,” he said. “They were foxes.”

Time passed and the villagers went back to their homes. The boy went back to the field with the last of his sheep.

Now, these sheep were not as dumb as they looked. That afternoon, as they munched the blood-fed grass, they held a meeting. Later, when the shepherd boy gathered them together, the sheep Elder stepped forward.

“We grieve for our fathers and mothers and children who have been wolfed,” he said.  “In our entire history we have never known such wretchedness.”

“I am sorry,” said the boy. “I am so sorry.”

“Do you know what is worse than the grief?” asked the Elder.

The shepherd boy did not.

“It is the fear,” he said. “We know the wolf will come again.  And he will kill again.” The flock stirred.

The boy’s head dropped. “Then I will cry out again, only louder and more forcefully than ever,” he promised.

The Elder shook his head. “Poor shepherd boy. Are you not familiar with Einstein? ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’”

The boy was amazed.  “You know about Einstein?”

“Did you not notice the hair? He was one of us.”

The boy thought about insanity. “But silence kills.”

“True,” said the Elder.  “But what happens when we know words won’t stop it?”

The boy pondered this.

“Do you know what is worse than death and worse even than the constant fear?” asked the Elder.

The boy did not.

“It is realizing that everybody knows but nobody will come. We know this. The wolves know this. That is the worst thing. Knowing that we are just sheep.”

Operation Fear, redux

Who remembers Willie Horton? You could make an argument that without Willie Horton, George Bush the senior would not have been elected president, and hence his son would not have risen to power, and so no US attack of Iraq, and so on . . .


The successful centerpiece of a Bush campaign ad attacking Michael Dukakis (the Democratic candidate), Willie Horton embodied a wild, violent and very black criminality that scared the bejesus out of mainstream (i.e., White) American voters. A first, highly mediatized use of racial fears to win an election? I don’t know. But compare this to what is being termed the “opening salvoes in Operation Fear.” The latter day attack: David Cameron employing fear of migrants to spur opposition to Britain leaving the EU, threatening that France might no longer honor the agreement by which the UK operates its border controls on French territory (which is a key reason the squalid camp lies in France, not the south coast of the UK).

The politics of fear is but one aspect of the situation: the degree to which the fear of migrants, foreigners and refugees has eroded the ideals and principles behind safe refuge and the right to seek asylum. More importantly, the degree to which it has muted many of the voices one might expect to champion these very ideals, giving them loud voice in the public sphere (rather than a reticence in defense of institutional public image).

But the more insidious problem can be found in the mechanics underlying these tactics. Willie Horton was a violent, deranged killer. As an individual, he earned our fear. The secret of the ad’s success, though, traded on his face, an archetype of the guy hiding under your childhood bed. I wonder what it would have felt like to African-Americans, not simply to be feared on account of their skin, but to be feared so pervasively and effortlessly that it makes for a useful instrument.

What does it mean to the people in Calais (or those who are not, but might as well be), if they can so easily be used to evoke fears of invasion, of a swarming terror? Cameron’s underlying logic involves trading on the dehumanized foreigner, a meme for the modern bogeyman, usefully deployed to frighten not children but British voters into good behaviour. And so, the call to the humanitarian and human rights community is not simply to defend law and policies or to deliver assistance, but to counter (the principle of) humanity under attack and the equally powerful banalization of the attack. That is where it starts. That is where it always starts.

Refugees and Migrants: A New (old) Narrative

Imagine the scene. A desperate mass of stricken, exhausted, frightened people find refuge. Perhaps for the first time in years, they sleep with two eyes shut. Bam! A powerful group wrenches the money, jewels and property from their hands. Highway pillagers? Blood-thirsty criminal gang? Friends of Joseph Kony? Nope, nope, nope. That’s the work of the Government of Denmark and the Government of Switzerland (see e.g., here). In other words, it is the cunning policy of governments obligated by law to protect these very people. Governments, I might add, one does not usually associate with regime thuggery. This doesn’t pass the smell test.

In a related example of erecting clever barriers because a wall seems too crude, Obama’s US government will set up screening centers in Latin America, to “head off migrants . . . before they start traveling to the United States.” And who will be implementing these barriers screening centers? No, not Donald Trump. It’s UNHCR, the UN agency dedicated to defending refugees and the right to seek asylum.

Denmark? Switzerland? Obama? UNHCR? With friends like these … And lest the humanitarian community feel superior, let us remember that the appeals for money to fund programs in Syria have been unmistakably louder than appeals for Western governments to open their doors. A logic reminiscent of George Bush has evolved: if you help us feed/clothe them over there, they won’t come over here.

As Sara Pantuliano and others have astutely argued, it is time to change the narrative. Rather than view migrants as risks (or, for that matter, leeches, criminals and terrorists), she elaborates, the debate needs to be reframed to recognize “the substantial social and economic contribution they can make to their host societies.” Certainly, a more balanced understanding of migrants and refugees is necessary. But will a more accurate, positive spin on the situation work?

I have my doubts. Once a public debate is permeated by fear, once politicians seize upon those fears to gain power, once a gaping us-them divide blocks humanizing discourses . . . Well, let’s just say it becomes extremely difficult to engage in the sort of discussion where facts possess the power of persuasion. Look at the gun control debate in the US, or the past decade of immigration debates that have cropped up in much of Europe.  People become fact-resistant, positions entrenched, opinions shouted at the other side. In the situation we have today, facts don’t matter as much as we would like to believe.

More importantly, arguing the facts, arguing the other side of the coin, does not reframe the debate, it reinforces it. By accepting those terms for the discussion – the pros and cons of refugees – one undercuts the idea that asylum and refugee decisions should be based on principles, on the law, on an ethic of compassion. To reframe the debate, we need to discuss what is right and what is human, regardless the consequences. We need to avoid the a policy discourse of self-interest: asylum cannot depend on whether or not the safe haven needs you. Is Germany’s open door a more moral approach than other nations? Or a more enlightened understanding of domestic needs and migrant potential? I hope the former, I fear the latter.

If we want to salvage the sinking ship formerly known as the right to seek asylum, if we want to defend the 21 million refugees in the world, facts may be useful, but principles must be foremost. Not because loudly proclaiming what is right will win the argument, but because it is the argument most worthy of losing.

Thomas Jefferson and the 22nd Century

A New Year and a new baby have sparked my inner Carl Sagan, pondering the next century, musing on the meaning of life. That sort of thinking delivered me rather quickly to Thomas Jefferson.

Speculation about the future remains a dark art. When I was a kid, people imagined life in 2016 would be like The Jetsons (which, btw, takes place in 2062) not Downton Abbey with an internet connection. Extrapolating trends, the pundits prophesied both horrors and nirvanas. We watched 2001, A Space Odyssey and were convinced by its promise. We lamented never seeing a tight-suited Mick Jagger singing about Satisfaction again. Oh, how we were wrong.

Humanitarian crystal balls fare no better than others. When it comes to such predictions, I produced this piece in 2010, looking forward to 2020. Much more serious analysis can be found, for instance, in Randolph Kent’s work with the Humanitarian Futures project (e.g., see here). What about the far future? Not 2020 or 2050. What about a century or two from now? That’s where Jefferson comes in.

It would be difficult to identify a more brilliant politician, philosopher or steadfast champion of democracy, liberty and equality. Enter, stage left, the inconvenient truth that the man who found it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal” also bought and sold men as slaves. Let’s avoid a discussion of the historical and moral context circa 1775. The more pertinent question: When they study the current humanitarian age, what will prove our Jeffersonian blemish? What will leave people in 2116 shaking their heads, outraged at our deep moral and logical flaws? What constitutes our unrecognized racism? One answer: speciesism.

In scores of presentations during my MSF days, I used the slide below (stolen, with thanks, from JAB) to highlight the critical specificity of humanitarian action, distinguishing it from the much broader remit of do-gooderism issuing from a ‘humanitarian’ spirit (development, rights literacy, democracy promotion, gender equality, etc.). As the colored lines appeared, I asked participants whether they thought it a suitable definition of ‘humanitarian.’ Moving left from “doing good for people”, after a few iterations I would then jump out to ‘animal humanitarianism’ for comic relief, perhaps making fun of the (surprisingly successful) organization Donkey Sanctuary. “Has somebody lost the plot?” I would ask. “Is there some confusion over the first five letters of the word ‘humanitarian’?” Hell no doubt reserves a special pitchfork for the sanctimonious.

What is humanitarian action? JAB chart


The paramount principle of humanity places the fundamental human dignity of all people at the heart of the humanitarian ethos. This amounts to and is part of a larger exceptionalism – granting to humans a set of protections that are denied to other species. It yields a classification, as did race, onto which we graft great significance, including a conviction in our own superiority. There is too much similarity with racism not to wonder whether a future enlightenment will unfold, one holding that all life merits an equal degree of reverence, or at least conceiving of all life as possessing a magic, a magic so singular and astonishing that it renders irrelevant the differences between all of life’s diverse forms.

Right now, there are six boneless chicken thigh filets marinating in my fridge. In other words, I have not yet gone off the animal rights deep end, nor have I adopted dubious New Age philosophies such as Why I Identify as a Mammal. It seems almost inevitable that the proud leaders of humanitarian action today will have their names sandblasted off memorials in the future, with 22nd Century students protesting our virulent speciesism and moral decrepitude (i.e., when we become history, we are not likely to become the heroes we secretly yearn to be).

The import of speciesism to humanitarians is to consider whether the most powerful way to protect humanity would be to stop pushing human exceptionalism. Why does humanitarian action neither embrace nor deploy a reverence for life itself, and does this deficit undercut respect for its central message that family, clan, tribe, race, gender and nationality must be subordinate to the single family of humanity? Perhaps all exceptionalism warrants condemnation because exceptionalism, be it that of Joseph Kony or the US government, inexorably yields atrocity. The Jeffersonian problem, of course, is that we may have to live another hundred years of tomorrows to recognize the atrocities of today.

Ebola: Lessons not learned

[Thanks to Aid Leap for publishing this on their website. Check it out here, along with lots of excellent thinking on aid.]

Tomorrow will mark 42 days since the last new case of Ebola in Sierra Leone, meaning the country will join Liberia in being declared Ebola-free. That brings the world one step closer to a victory over Ebola the killer.

But Ebola has another identity – messenger. We listened. It told us that many aspects of the international aid system are not fit for purpose. Many – too many – of the problems the outbreak revealed are depressingly familiar to us.

Pre-Ebola health systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were quickly overwhelmed and lacked even basic capacity to cope with the outbreak. The World Health Organisation (WHO) failed to recognise the epidemic and lead the response, and international action was late. Early messaging around the disease was ineffective and counterproductive. There was a profound lack of community engagement, particularly early on. Trained personnel were scarce, humanitarian logistics capacity was insufficient and UN coordination and leadership were poor.

The lessons learned should also come as no surprise: rebuild health systems and invest in a ‘Marshall Plan’ for development; make the WHO a truly robust transnational health agency and improve early warning systems; release funds earlier and make contracts more flexible; highlight what communities can do, and engage with them earlier. Except these lessons learned haven’t really been learned at all: they are lessonsidentified repeatedly over the past decades, but not learned. 

Why is the system almost perfectly impervious to certain lessons despite everyone’s good intentions? The short answer: these lessons are too simplistic. They pretend that the problem is an oversight, a mistake to be corrected, when in fact the system is working as it is ‘designed’ to work.  The long answer: what is it about the politics, architecture and culture driving the aid system that stops these lessons from becoming reality?

Take a simple idea, like reconstituting the WHO as an intragovernmental agency with a robust mandate to safeguard global public health, and the power to stop an outbreak like Ebola. Sounds great, but not new. So it also sounds like wishful thinking. It does not address the inherent tension between sovereignty and transnational institutions.

Think of it this way: the more robust an institution, the more of a threat it poses to the individual states that are its members, and hence the greater incentive for those states to set limits to its power. WHO was ‘designed’ not to ruffle feathers.

A robust WHO? Can you imagine the WHO ordering the US or UK governments to end counterproductive measures such as quarantining returned Ebola health workers or banning airline flights to stricken countries? It will never happen.

Here is the true lesson to be learned: at a time of public fear and insecurity, it would be political suicide for any government to allow such external interference. The problem isn’t the institution, it only looks like it is; the problem is the governments that comprise it. That is not to say that WHO cannot and should not be improved. It is to say that the solution proposed cannot address the fundamental problem.

Or take a complex idea, such as community engagement. Our Ebola research found that the ‘early stages of the surge did not prioritise such engagement or capitalise on affected communities as a resource’, a serious omission that ultimately contributed to the spread of the disease, and hence a key lesson learned (see e.g., this Oxfam article).

Disturbingly, this is a lesson with a long history. Here, for example, is what the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) found in evaluating the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The relevance, virtually word for word, to the situation in West Africa speaks for itself:

The international humanitarian community – with the exception of the organisations already established in Haiti for some time – did not adequately engage with national organizations, civil society, and local authorities. These critically-important partners were therefore not included in strategizing on the response operation, and international actors could not benefit from their extensive capacities, local knowledge, and cultural understanding … This is not a new observation. Exclusion of parts of the population in one way or another from relief activities is mentioned in numerous reports and evaluations.

Why is this lesson so often repeated and so often not learned? Does the answer lie in an aid culture where ‘taking the time to stop and think – to comprehend via dialogue, engagement and sociological research – runs counter to the humanitarian impulse to act’? Our report also discusses a greater concern: the degree to which people in West Africa were treated ‘as a problem – a security risk, culture-bound, unscientific – to be overcome’. 

The ‘oversight’ is hardly an oversight: people in stricken communities ‘were stereotyped as irrational, fearful, violent and primitive; too ignorant to change; victims of their own culture, in need of saving by outsiders’. Perhaps that clash of cultures highlights why we should not expect community engagement to spontaneously break out simply because the problem has been recognised.

Powerful forces work against aid actors engaging with the community during an emergency, leaving us with a lesson that has not been learned even after years of anguished ‘never again’ promises to do better.

Lessons learned are where our analysis of the power dynamics and culture of the international aid system should begin, not where it ends.

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