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).

Wow.

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.]

Impartiality’s Forgotten Clause

[The ICRC has launched a new blogsite: Humanitarian Law & Policy.  Very excited to have this opinion piece among their opening day blogs. Thanks to the team there for feedback. Good luck.]

In the words of the UN Secretary General, ‘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” (¶ 72). In the world of humanitarian relief, we leave people behind every day. It isn’t pretty.

On my first mission, as project coordinator in Khartoum way back in 1999, I found myself informing about 250 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Omdurman el-Salaam camp that MSF would be closing its health centre. I explained how the situation in the camp had improved to some degree, that there were other parts of Sudan with greater needs, that MSF was bound by the principle of impartiality to leave, and that this was the same principle that had brought us to Omdurman el-Salaam in the first place.

Naïve, a bit smug in the correctness of my position, I expected some initial grumbling, to be followed by tributes, appreciation for the high-quality services provided and perhaps lunch. I departed about two hours later, frustrated, sad and brimming with self-righteous indignation after having been called a murderer many times over, and told that MSF would carry the blood of their children on its hands.

The World Humanitarian Summit’s Core Commitment to ‘Leave no one behind’ constitutes neither a humanitarian imperative nor an option. In the heart of crisis, needs almost always exceed response, essentially obligating aid agencies to implement painful choices – deciding where to deliver aid includes a decision where not to deliver aid. The principle of impartiality dictates that choice. It even tells us who to leave behind: as Jean Pictet put it, humanitarian action “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.”

Those most in need come first

For half of impartiality, there seems to be good news. Humanitarian agencies treat non-discrimination in aid as a red line at project level, ensuring that services or distributions reach individuals without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, etc. What about the definition’s second half? Impartiality prohibits discrimination and requires aid agencies to identify and prioritize those most in need. Is this impartiality’s forgotten clause – ‘forgotten’ in the sense of being voiced with little regard to its implications for operations?

Critics often call attention to the weakness of impartiality at a global level, highlighting the degree to which aid funding disproportionately follows the political and economic interest of the main donors. At the context level, though, impartiality seems challenged by the evolution of humanitarian practice itself. Too often, needs assessment slips into a logic of finding those with (some) identifiable needs, not those most in need, or finding those with needs corresponding to supply, to the stuff that the agency has to offer. Tellingly, the World Humanitarian Summit consultation process revealed widespread discontent among people affected by crisis – with surveys showing only 27% agreeing that aid received met their primary needs.

Similarly, a number of trends and factors within the humanitarian sector collide with impartiality in ways that raise important yet largely ignored questions. When crisis strikes, how does and how should impartiality relate to program choices for agencies already operating in the country (e.g. doing development work); who already have connections to a specific community or geographic location? If the needs are greater elsewhere, does impartiality not require the organization to shift its relief effort to that place? Or would it make more sense to remain in a location that is familiar, where the agency is trusted and has existing infrastructure? That seems logical from an operational standpoint, but arguably functions to create constituencies of preferred aid recipients, where distribution is not at all based on need alone but depends on a variation of ‘who you know’.

Thorny questions abound. How does agency specialization affect impartiality? As I have discussed before, do agencies looking for the needs of children even see the needs of the elderly? And yet, again, specialization brings with it considerable advantages. Further, as MSF has argued, does the pressure to be successful, whether imposed by donor contracting or simply internal agency dynamics, push the delivery of aid toward easier-to-reach populations, closer to central hubs, and away from the uncertainties inherent in trying to address the needs of the most vulnerable?

Even policies as commonsensical as ‘value for money’ may impact on impartiality, because reaching those with the greatest need will usually incur greater costs. A discussion at an MSF HIV/AIDS project in Zimbabwe illustrates this point. When asked, the team clearly explained that the most urgent cases had to be the HIV-positive street children, whose situation was truly shocking. But the resources necessary to reach them and maintain their participation in the treatment program were deemed prohibitive, because substantially higher numbers would have to be left out of the program. So the program focused elsewhere. A tough lesson: distributive justice does not necessarily align with impartiality.

Impartiality is an aspiration, not an operational principle

In practice, the principle of impartiality plays a dual role for humanitarians, at once a defining characteristic or ethic of the trade and an obligation that shapes crucial decisions. In practice, impartiality constrains the urge to help everyone because capacity constrains the ability to do so. Critically, impartiality is an ideal. Its perfect form exists in lectures and textbooks, not in the messy world of humanitarian crisis. Compromise is therefore unavoidable. To maintain the integrity of the principle, then, we should establish agreed standards or best practice guidelines. Perhaps we can define red lines that should not be crossed in terms of leaving the most urgent cases behind. The point is to ensure these compromises and trade-offs are recognized and deliberate, rather than the unseen by-product of humanitarian decision-making.

Compromise, though, implies acknowledging what is at stake to begin with. Yet far more discussion and analysis focuses on the independence and neutrality of the sector than on its impartiality. Always highly touted as an ethical foundation and inviolable principle, impartiality takes on even greater importance today as people affected by crisis progressively insist that aid should do a better job of meeting their needs. That mounting shift may prove to be one of the defining dynamics of the next decade of humanitarian aid. With that in mind, we need to ensure that Leave no on behind remains a moral principle, an aspiration, not an operational principle and certainly not an excuse to treat everyone’s needs as of equal urgency.

 

Blurring the humanitarian – development divide

[This post can be found here, on The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals web pages. Thanks to the GDPN team for their work.]

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which announced last week it is pulling out of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), is not the only organisation to feel anxiety about the event. When the summit launched, it promised to transform humanitarian action. Now it seems more likely the summit will confuse it to death.

Number four of the five core responsibilities set out for WHS, in UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, was that we should tear down the divisions between humanitarian and development work. He proposes merging the two, aligning humanitarian action behind the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and shifting its objective from delivering aid to ending need.

To most ears, I imagine that sounds pretty good. Inspirational, even; as thoughtful and as grand a dream as one can have. To my humanitarian ears, well, I hear alarm bells going off. And so did MSF.

The WHS misjudges the extent to which the distinctions between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ form the lifeblood of the humanitarian endeavour. Making the SDGs the common overall results and accountability framework amounts to making over the ultimate goal of humanitarian action. Would you want ambulance teams to aim at strengthening the hospital system or improving nutrition? No. Should humanitarians be held accountable for ending hunger? No. They should be held accountable for feeding people who are starving.

To be fair, the UN secretary general’s diagnosis of the problem strikes a depressingly accurate chord. The humanitarian/development divide imposes institutional divisions onto the real world of people in crisis. The urgency of food, water, healthcare or shelter needs in Syria or eastern DRC displaces but does not diminish the longer-term hopes and aspirations of people in terms of wanting economic progress, a functioning healthcare system or political empowerment. Short-term and long-term problems intermingle, perhaps especially in crisis situations and complex emergencies.

The aid system, for its part, functions in what research shows to be well-anchored structural, financial and cultural silos. Each are convinced of their own moral superiority and effectiveness, and the two sides do not talk to each other, often not even within the same organisation. Slap the label of “humanitarian crisis” on a situation and it becomes difficult to undertake development work. This has a particularly pernicious effect in protracted crises such as in South Sudan or eastern DRC, where humanitarian work resembles a 20-year series of one-year projects. The UN secretary general is right in thinking the system can and should do better. He is wrong in proposing convergence as the answer.

The humanitarian imperative is defined by the principle of humanity. In simple terms, its purpose is to fix the human being, not the system. Humanitarian action is thus defined as addressing the immediate needs of people caught up in crisis, by delivering relief aid and delivering it in accordance to the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. Ultimately, development and other long-term goods may be more important but to humanitarians they must remain goals of secondary value.

Why is this humanitarian specificity so important? Because the overwhelming majority of humanitarian needs are generated by war (the UN secretary general’s report puts the figure at over 80%) and war makes access tricky. To reach people in conflict, humanitarians have but one power, the power of trust. The people with the guns and bombs must be convinced that you seek to fix humans full stop. Distrust will flare if you come with an agenda to address the causes of their suffering, reinforce national authorities or stabilise fragile states. Building clinics for the Afghan government might support the SDGs, but the Taliban see it as part of a military and political strategy. That means not being able to reach millions of Afghans. Tragically, the perversity of war means that laudable goals on one side place humanitarians in the crosshairs on the other.

From dramatically different goals come dramatically different methods and approaches. In simple terms, maintaining neutrality and independence drives humanitarian actors towards “state avoidance” while development requires much more of a partnership approach.

Everyone should be frustrated with the travesty of humanitarian solutions being applied to protracted problems. A camp for displaced persons is a good place to find shelter, nutrition and (hopefully) safety; it is a terrible place to call home and raise your children. Similarly, it is unacceptable that in long-running crises like South Sudan or eastern DRC, decades of humanitarian response have left people no closer to functioning national services. But in the absence of those services, in the absence of development and peace and justice, humanitarian action is what keeps people alive.

The sensible solution is to let humanitarians deliver on the immediate needs, empower others to end those needs in the first place and ensure the two work better together. Folding humanitarian action into development, as WHS aims to do, is not the answer.

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.

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).