by marc on May 15, 2013
Apologies for the long gap since the last post. Apparently, there is a general opinion that blogging about ideas should not displace my real work, which involves processing 3-sentence emails.
Aside from not keeping up this blog, busy people like me become addicted to the flatteringly-named ‘executive summary’. In fact, I’d venture to say that you can define the rise towards leadership by the ability to take decisions based on a greater and greater abstraction (i.e., ignorance of the actual situation). Anyway, someone recently sent me a report from Insecurity Insight. They crunch data on the kidnapping and death of humanitarian workers. Kudos: most of their analysis seems like actual science. Meaning: it reads like a foreign language to me. I’m more at home in a world of authoritatively-delivered opinion dressed as fact.
Knowing I don’t read, the friend who sent me the article copied out the key conclusions. A surprise: their analysis questioned “risk transfer”. This term refers to a vitally important discussion, one we humanitarian organizations need to get right, and one which will require far greater data and analysis than currently available. In short, there is concern that the rising numbers of national staff victims in security incidents may indicate a risk transfer; that we agencies are disproportionately pulling expat staff out of harm’s way, leaving national staff to run programs in situations.
Risk transfer is far from my area of expertise, so allow me to rush forward with a few unsubstantiated opinions. First, this is sensitive stuff. The pressure to keep projects running and the pressure of insecurity upon those projects have never been greater. Second, it is uncomfortable for Western agencies to think of themselves as engaging in a strategy which passes risk from one party who does not wish to shoulder the risk to another party who takes it on. If you don’t recognize that arrangement in another guise, it’s called insurance. In the insurance biz, of course, the insured party pays a premium to the insurer to take on the burden. Insurers do so willingly and knowingly and to great profit. So we good Samaritans squirm at the prospect that the salaries we dispense, so vital to our staff and local partners, may equate to an involuntary premium to absorb risk; a deal they don’t feel empowered to challenge or refuse.
(Clever folk that we are, rationalization allows us to justify risk transfer: we do it for the beneficiaries (of course). Compared to national staff, the impact on programs of the death or kidnapping of an expat is more serious. Western agencies are forced to make greater changes. Perhaps programs will close or scale down across an entire region, and not just with the affected NGO. Or, an even more fishy driver of NGO decisions – funders may pull the plug. And that doesn’t even broach the increasingly likely threat of litigation back home. So it is clear, isn’t it, we need to protect expats in order to save the beneficiaries?).
As I said, murky waters. So you can well imagine the collective sigh of relief at Insecurity Insight’s bold-printed announcement that our guilty fretting over risk transfer may not be necessary at all. Their research announces that the phenomenon is questionable. Busy, I almost stopped reading there. Very glad I didn’t.
However, it is questionable whether this reflects a conscious decision to transfer risk from one category to another. Rather, this pattern more likely reflects an increasing reluctance to place international staff (who may be more exposed than local staff) in danger, as well as considerations regarding the cost and effectiveness of national staff who receive lower salaries and are assumed to have greater local acceptance.
Read it a few times. In the annals of reporting across the sector, that may be the top piece of sophistry I’ve ever spotted. Let me get this straight. Their analysis is that there is no conscious decision to transfer risk to national staff because that is a mere by-product of being reluctant to place expats in danger. Isn’t Insecurity Insight confusing the absence of intention with a get-out-of-jail-free card? Their report suggests a complete abdication of responsibility for the direct and predictable consequences of decisions. Let’s paraphrase: “It is questionable whether Biff’s driving reflects a conscious decision to run over baby prams. Rather, his accidents more likely reflect Biff’s increasing reluctance to drive at slow speed.”
by marc on April 17, 2013
“I didn’t rape because I am angry, but because it gave us a lot of pleasure,” a 22-year-old Congolese soldier told the Guardian. He admits to having raped 53 women, including children of five or six years old. There is something acutely disturbing about the precision of his count. If I didn’t want to see him medievaled, I’d cry for his lost soul.
How demoralized would you have to be not to appreciate the Hague/Jolie media-grabbing joint jaunt to DRC and subsequent press conference at the Summit of G8 Foreign Ministers? The storyline portrays a decisive moment. Pick your pet phrase.
The tide has turned. William Hague: “Governments finally confront this problem . . . historic agreement . . . pledging to work together to end sexual violence in conflict.”
Nowhere to hide. Zainab Hawa Bangura: “sexual violence will not be tolerated . . . pursued by any and all means at our collective disposal.”
We’ve turned a corner. Angelina Jolie: “many individuals and NGOs who have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years, but the international political will has been sorely lacking”
The obvious question is this: Why now? It all sounds fine, laudable even. Like progress. Like an important change. Like the powerful nations who control the world are finally going to end this pox. But this is not a new issue. So why now? What does it really mean that the world is supposedly finally getting serious about rape in war?
The cynical answer is that the power relationships underpinning massive rape and massive impunity are pretty much identical to the power relationships underpinning the gender breakdown of the G8 meeting of foreign ministers. Put bluntly, if men’s fundamental human dignity, let alone genitalia, were being regularly violated on account of their gender, it wouldn’t require Brad Pitt’s wife to bring it to your attention.
Implication 1: If you don’t change the determinants of the gender imbalance in the G8 summit, you won’t stop conflict rape.
Implication 2: It takes the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers to affect actual change. Which implies what for the myriad of other causes that do not blip loudly on their radar?
OK. #1 is a cheap shot, though probably true (perhaps a blog topic?). But #2?
Another answer is that Jolie has it wrong when she laments the lack of political will. At least since the war in Bosnia almost two decades ago, the world has done everything it knows how to do, if judged by how we typically address this sort of issue. There has been no shortage of reports, symposiums, declarations, news coverage, NGOs, celebrities etc etc. Even a few prosecutions. Rape in war was elevated to the status of a crime against humanity. Aside from not being the issue du jour of the G8 foreign ministers, what level of attention/action has rape in war not garnered?
How have years of effort been any different from attempts, say, to end modern slavery, protect the rhino, stop child labour or end poverty? Seems to me that this rather typical approach to ending conflict rape well resembles the work (and results) of Western-led efforts on any number of ills, especially those that tend to occur outside of the West. Seems to me we’ve been serious about stopping rape in war for a while now, it’s just that the champagne toasts of success have yet to materialize. Hence Hague and Jolie’s implying that it actually takes the G8.
Implication 3 (deduced from Implication 2): Then what the hell is the worth of all those individuals and groups working tirelessly? Our work (“our”: because I personally and my organization have been busy on this issue for years), one would have to conclude, has been rather ineffective.
Implication 2, reversed: Jolie and Hague have it wrong. Maybe the collective foot stamping “enough is enough” of the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers will prove exactly as effective as the work of the foot stamping of the rest of us. Maybe all our professional hoopla is simply one more illusory exclamation of action to come, one more delusional expression of hope. Maybe, stripped bare, we are looking at the model for (Western) do-gooderism.
1. Talk about it.
2. Do a bunch of stuff.
3. Observe that actions do not live up to either our hopes or our publicity.
4. Praise the effort and proclaim to have learned valuable lessons.
5. Start over again at Step 1, with a ratcheted up version of the same recipe.
That may sound somewhat depressing. The truth may be worse. Maybe the Hague-Joliesque occasional trumpeting of All New! and Improved Efforts, Strategies & Conviction to Act™ functions as its own failure guarantee. Maybe it is the very act of the G8 press conference that takes the wind out of the sails of political urgency. We feel good that the horrible matter is being addressed. The fig-leaf of activity will hide the ineffectiveness of the model. When it comes to conflict rape, perhaps Jolie’s quote could be rewritten: “the international political will has been sorely lacking because so many individuals and NGOs have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years”.
And that, my friends, is why I prefer the simple aspirations of humanitarian action.
by marc on March 11, 2013
Syria today is a killing field. Human bodies stiffen in the rubble and – equally – the lofty ideals of men and women plummet to earth like quail at a shooting party. Human rights? Crashing down in the face of sectarian executions and shuttered schools. Geneva conventions? There they go, felled by indiscriminate shelling and the withholding of aid to civilians. Humanitarian principles? The same. Nose-diving. Full of buckshot and broken trust.
Humanity? It is probably the only principle still intact. The attention to the Syrian population has been strong. We humanitarians are aware of and paying attention to the situation inside Syria. There is immense fear, deprivation, disruption, and then the weight of untreated malnutrition, illness and wounds. Our compassion, however, is starkly contrasted by our absence. Independent operations inside Syria by the multi-billion pound humanitarian system? Almost non-existent.
(Digression alert!) Put differently, our fat compassion is sharply contrasted by our thin skill when it comes to establishing operations inside the wicked (complex), violent contexts of today, as has been the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Over the past year, MSF has been one of just a handful of global humanitarian organizations running direct operations inside rebel-held Syrian territory (as opposed to smaller, diaspora-based interventions). These projects are fragile, geographically limited (predominantly in the north and close to the border), and fall woefully short of the need. As agencies, we have invested heavily in the capacity to communicate about our actions; increasingly we lack the skills and experience necessary to be active, to be humanitarians where it counts. (End of digression).
Independence? Neutrality? The Damascus government has granted the ICRC, several UN agencies, and a few NGOs permission to work in government-held territory. Those with permission must channel assistance through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or other government-authorized organizations. (Read: control). As the New York Times reports, this aid might be doing more for the Syrian regime than for the people. Here is one rebel’s view: “Food supply is the winning card in the hands of the regime.” Or one can work through the other side, through groups of Syrians and aid networks aligned with the opposition. As MSF points out in its recent report, aid is “thereby subject to the political agendas of these actors.” Bottom line for the “humanitarian effort”? Neutrality does not exist. Independence does not exist.
In some ways, that is the “easy” discussion, the obvious-to-everyone compromises on principles. The debate over the military and political impact of aid moving through Damascus-approved channels or rebel networks is necessary. It also obscures consideration of damage to that other grand principle, impartiality (aid should go to those most in need, and cannot be based on ethnicity, religion, clan, etc.). In toxically polarized conflict, local partners or channels are synonymous with ethnic or geographic bias, political agendas and allegiances, co-optation by power brokers and armed groups, and is anything but needs-based. Syria is but the latest example. For instance, in the Pakistan flood response, one major evaluation noted that loads of assistance ended up with those who were the “least vulnerable” but who were “close to feudal landlords or connected through certain political affiliations” (p. 36).
A key element to delivering aid according to need means knowing where the aid ends up. Impartiality is not a matter of intent. It is not the target which counts, but where the arrow lands. You have to see it reach the individual. Sadly, even in good times, NGOs tend towards what David Keen (in his book Complex Emergencies, p. 121) sees as dispatching aid towards targets, “usually with relatively few resources allocated to monitoring the fate of relief”. The resulting situation reinforces local power structures and means that those most in need will fail “to stake a claim to relief for precisely the same reasons that they were exposed to famine and violence in the first place” (Keen again).
That is in good times. In bad times, in bad places where you can’t deliver your aid yourself, aid according to the principle of impartiality (aid based on needs alone) becomes an exercise in blind faith. At what point, though, does it actually become an exercise in suspending belief? When does the aid (and hence the organization) shift from being essentially humanitarian in character to solidarity-based or partisan? We humanitarians need to ask and answer those questions, because an exercise in compassion alone is an exercise in peril.
[Big thanks to KW for help with the research].
by marc on February 22, 2013
Brouhaha. The evil of trading “schools for soldiers”. That was Oxfam’s Max Lawson, firing a bow shot in what became a full day barrage of Downing Street and DFID. World Vision chirped in, as did Christian Aid and Save (though hard to tell which side they were on) and even small fish NGOs who usually keep their mouths shut. Seems that NGOs in the UK have found their bite now that Andrew Mitchell is no longer reminding them of whose hand does the feeding.
The cause. David Cameron’s statement that he would be “very open” to using some of DFID’s aid budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects.
The problem. Once again, and in a loud public voice the UK’s highest authority (OK, realistically DC is probably closer to sixth in terms of influence, after the Queen, Kate Middleton, Boris, Becks and Cara Delevingne, who is poised to change the shape of the British eyebrow) okayed the idea of development money sliding from DFID to fund MOD stabilization projects that deliver on the UK’s national security interests. Loud and clear for the Taleban and al Shabab: aid is for national security. Loud and clear for the communities where we work, planting that unhelpful chestnut of distrust as to NGO motivations.
What he didn’t say. He didn’t say he wanted to buy weapons with aid money, or anything close to it (transcript here). The level of hyperbole in Lawson’s “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” quip makes for great radio. It also makes for a big fat lob pass to all those ready critics of aid, defenders of Tory policy, and friends of Dave (not to mention again aid agencies apparently trying to curry favour by defending the government). Dismiss the point by making the lot of us look like self-serving nags or wrong on our facts. Even MSF over-reacted, publishing a rather straightforward statement under the screechy tag of the aid budget being “hijacked”.
What NGOs didn’t say. Our disclaimer: As a member of the aid community I hereby pledge that we aid agencies are motivated solely by the desire to defend the principle of independent aid. We stamp our collective feet and in a piercing falsetto reject any accusation of there being even a soupçon of self-interest in this sudden vocality. It is pure coincidence that this involves funding for our future programs going to our good friends at MOD.
What nobody said. Aid agencies are dead right to be critical of this public marriage of aid and national security interests / defence. We need to complain about this more forcefully. But in the real world — Why wouldn’t governments prioritize political interests and military objectives (e.g., winning hearts and minds in hostile territory) over the moral pursuit of foreign aid and development? NGOs, on the other hand, might be expected to conduct themselves differently. And yet the much-decried “blurring of the lines” (between aid and military) is not simply the work of governments/armies.
NGOs have accepted funding from governments to work in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where those very governments have been a belligerent party in the war. Like a Pakistani NGO taking money from al Qaeda to run a clinic in Sussex. Doesn’t look good. Afghanistan also provides a textbook example of NGOs, even while not accepting funds directly from warring parties, simply and without sufficient questioning setting up their aid programs on only one side of war, delivering aid to areas within Western military or Afghan government control. This lopsided aid effort effectively supports the NATO/US/Karzai plan. It aims to build the legitimacy of the Afghan government and popular gratitude to the Western invaders. Bottom line: it doesn’t look like aid to the guys with the guns on the other side of the fence.
What I previously said. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines if it were reporting on this same story elsewhere? What if Robert Mugabe decided to use its own HIV and education budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects? What if President Goodluck Jonathan decided to reassign a DFID grant to Nigeria’s military peacekeeping activities in Mali? Whether or not there is a perfectly acceptable legality to the UK government’s manoeuvring, corruption is the word we’d use if the Tories were African.
What I think. Aid and defence mix well in a political analysis, poorly in a humanitarian one. And we can probably conclude that the hard-boiled world of political opportunism seems like a right stench compared to the perfumed corridors of aid. Then again, so does the whiff of NGO opportunism.
by marc on February 6, 2013
Dog microchips to be compulsory in England. Now there’s a headline we’ve all been waiting for. There’s more: the chips are made of bio-compatible glass that will not be rejected by the dog’s body.
That story triggered a memory, a tad grainy, of one of those ridiculous toy dogs eating the canine version of beef stroganoff from a porcelain bowl at what looked to be a Michelin starred restaurant. The image is of some overly precious breed, like a Pomeranian or a miniature poodle. At the time, I was working in rural Burkina Faso, with the Peace Corps. It was a period of painful drought across the Sahel, and the people in my community were hurting.
The image came from a news item. Somewhere in the south of France – one of those caviar communities like Monaco – there was a restaurant catering to the dogs of the wealthy. Meals were served at Ritz-set tables, full of crystal water bowls and silver candleholders. Dinner for the pooches cost a ridiculous amount, like $200. Honestly, that’s my memory of it.
In the pre-web days of the 80s, that story went about as viral as possible in francophone West Africa. The amount of money to feed one dog one meal equalled the Burkinabé equivalent of, I don’t know, 23 years average GDP, so I guess people were shocked enough to pass it on, like a Youtube video of a fat guy dancing funny.
Everybody seemed to know about that dog restaurant, as if they represented a standard of sorts in the West. I think that news item alone built a truth, one I heard over and over again: “In the West, your dogs eat better than our people.” There was something quite jarring about that idea – personally jarring to my friends that seemed to increase the distance between us. And something quite durable. More than cogent political analysis. More than economic indicators. More than I could imagine, that idea defined how people understood my world and understood themselves. Lower than a dog.
Historical anachronism? A bygone era? Ten days ago, as my wife and I turned from the main road into the Luxor Airport, a billboard caught our eye. First of all, there aren’t many billboards in that part of Egypt. Second of all, there aren’t that many billboards that we could read, anywhere in Egypt. Third, it wasn’t trying to sell us a product. Rather, it had a picture of a horse and brought me back to my employment. This was a charity appeal. Brooke Animal Hospital (they are an international charity, and have been in Egypt since 1934).
The billboard was aimed, literally and directly, at wealthy foreign tourists. After the airport itself, it may constitute their very first impression of Egypt, or of Africa. It was about horses and donkeys. I wonder what Egyptians think. No shortage of human needs there. I wonder if Peter Singer would applaud this as progress.
by marc on February 3, 2013
[Apologies for the absence. Just back from two fascinating weeks -- our anniversary! -- in Egypt.]
Just last week I was climbing the seriously magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut with my wife. Its sheer beauty absorbs one’s attention. Even my peripatetic gaze. At least until a discordant note in the form of a young Polish woman in a micro sleeveless dress descended the stairs from the first courtyard. Her dress was day-glo orange. All of it. And fully radioactive in the noon sun. In my entire life, I don’t think I’d ever seen clothing that color, save for road crew vests. Not even Dennis Rodman in his lunatic prime.
In the late morning of November 17, 1997 a different sort of scene unfolded on the terrace of that very same temple. Armed with automatic weapons, six Islamic militants aligned with Al-Gama’a al-Islamyya massacred 62 people, mostly Western tourists. They unleashed a Breivik-esque melee, for example hacking and dismembering a few honeymooning Japanese couples. (Tangent alert: Doesn’t it seem less than coincidental that the attack took place at the temple of the first woman pharaoh?).
Those militants understood the enormous value of tourism to Egypt. It seems they also despised the equally enormous Westernizing impact of tourism on the predominantly Muslim country. Today, even with an elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood, more stringent Islamic groups in Egypt still take aim at tourism. The people earning filoos kateer (gobs of money) from Egypt’s tourism, not to mention the people scraping by on its leftovers, simply curse this kind of thinking. The government, for its part, have put in place greater security. The question for me: Why the hell was day glo orange slinking down those steps in the first place?
The point is not at all that women wearing mini-skirts are legit targets for attack. The point is not to suggest an actual justification for their actions (i.e., women who dress provocatively aren’t “asking for it”). The point is that some behaviour – disrespectful, abusive, neo-colonial, whatever – creates a justification in their minds. Gimme a reason! You got one.
The message was consistent in all the tourist books, and in the advice we received: show respect. To do that in Egypt, dress and behave conservatively: women and men should cover flesh, don’t walk around the streets snogging, boozing, etc etc. (In one café that served beer, they asked us not to sit near the door – essentially a tactic of not rubbing the public’s nose in alcohol). But those with the most to lose in the long run seem the least concerned in the here and now.
The Red Sea resort tour companies offering blitzkriegs of Luxor or the Pyramids seem to be the worst offenders if measured by the sheer volume of people being disgorged from their buses who don’t give a shit. The scene: sunburn-glowing Poles, Germans and Brits, dressed for an appearance on Baywatch, mobbing past Egyptian families dressed in galabiyahs. In close second place were the fat Nile cruise boats, moored along Aswan’s corniche, gleaming white hulls matching the jellified flesh prancing around the pool deck. In third place, as a matter of unscientific impression, were the French, cloaked as always in the self-assurance of being French.
The point is that Little Miss Day Glo wasn’t just an insensitive tourist. She became a recruitment poster, fiery sermon topic and a rallying cry all rolled into one. To anybody with an anti-Western agenda, she’s ammo. So if I were those tour operators, I’d be making sure people who got on the bus weren’t dressed to insult. Not because it will matter to the militant. You can’t stop the militant. But you can stop ordinary people from listening to the militant. You can stop people from joining the militant, or having sympathy for his cause. You can stop making the militant’s job easy. In the end, there is something fundamentally wrong with the everyday Egyptian left cringing, clutching the family closer, one hand across their children’s eyes.
But I’m not a tour operator. I work for a humanitarian organization. And yet I ask the same questions and reach the same answer: What about our behaviour as aid workers? We need to stop wearing the day glo orange. We need to stop making it easy.
by marc on January 9, 2013
Some time over the holidays, perhaps even on the 25th as I groaned at the thought of not being able to find room for a fourth helping of turkey, it struck me that Christmas is a moment when the pillar of humanitarianism magically appears, like presents under the tree. Yes, out from the chimneys of our subconscious comes the experience of thinking about humanity. Christmas (rule: OK to write about it as long as the tree is still dropping needles in the living room) is a time of indulgence for many, but the bonhomie of the season also triggers a reflex to think about others, and plenty of sermons remind us to do so.
Humanity — the principle that our compassion for those who suffer should stretch beyond kin, clan, tribe, or nation and stir us to action even for strangers living on the far side of the globe – is a radical enough idea. (See my earlier blog on the topic). The principle turns on that other humanitarian pillar, impartiality. Impartiality, essentially, is a non-discrimination clause. If we humanitarian agencies aren’t allowed to use religion or race or gender to determine who gets our aid, it leaves us with an obligation to base our decisions – to apportion our assistance – according to needs alone. As I’ve blogged, there are challenges to that within the way humanitarians think, and in the obstacles kicked up by life in the real world (who will Pakistani militants shoot this week?). But I’ve never considered the idea that impartiality itself may be undesirable; or that it may be impossible. Say what?
In a piece that reminded me why I didn’t’ become a philosopher (answer: not smart enough), Stephen Asma argues that people aren’t emotionally designed to achieve “an equal and impartial concern for all human beings”. Read the article. He takes on the theories of Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin (thankfully, I won’t attempt a summary) – and makes a very strong case that “all people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties”.
Asma would see it as both normal and positive that we care about kin or tribe first. It is an act of the mind, a thought process, which convinces us to do otherwise. Emotionally and morally, though, we are beholden to the gravitational pull of close relations rather than being free to embrace “cosmic love”. If faced with the ultimatum, why shouldn’t I kick both humanity and utilitarianism in the teeth and choose saving my mother over saving ten mothers in Bolivia? As many Brits now say about the international aid budget: “What about us first!”
Asma further argues that empathy (the compassion at the root of our precious “humanity”) “is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.” So it has limits that are physical, like doing chin-ups. Impartiality, then, is not what you might call a sustainable technology.
It’s also not really an appropriate technology. About 25 years ago I wrote a paper (oh my, just the sound of that is frightening) proposing that corruption in the “Third World”, seen as a massive obstacle to development, was really the result of our Western way of doing things making a mess there, in the developing world (see also my post on anti-corruption fanaticism). My youthful writing wasn’t about tools or machines or approaches. My focus was on civil service and the structure of government, perhaps the West’s least-questioned exports.
Looked at with a fairly open mind, the problem with corruption isn’t a problem with the moral fibre of, say, politicians. On the contrary, a minister building a hospital in his ethnic home area is an act that conforms to the dominant ethical system of the context. Saying no to a clansman might entail more of a wrong. The problem is the imposition of a technology – government administrative process – that is wholly dependent on a cold, disconnected unbiased civil service. The cherished fairness of Western administration is dependent on the reduction of our set of social bonds and obligations to the nuclear family. (Disclosure: As a bartender I passed more than a few free beers to my friends, but it’s not like I would hire any of them to construct a dam.).
The bedrock of the Western state: (almost) everybody not living in your house is a stranger and can be told no (or even screwed) without remorse. So development becomes the process by which societies develop an increasingly self-centred populace, well capable for example of stuffing its aging parents into dank and distant nursing homes, but who will free state functions from clan affiliation, religious favouritism and ethnic bias (good old fashioned bribes, of course, will remain).
In a place where kin and clan run prominently through the social, cultural and moral fibre of the nation and of individuals, why base the state on such a stunningly inhuman idea as impartiality? Why not design systems that depend on nepotism, rather than are damaged by it? Why not build a civil service and government bureaucracy through the existing clan/tribe/religious structure? So much for my old ideas.
Now, what about humanitarian action? Should we redesign humanitarianism around Cicero (quoted by Asma), who said, “society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.” To some extent, compromises on impartiality are common, such as Turkish Red Crescent’s 2011 response to Somali famine being thought of as coming to the aid of “our Muslim brothers”. And let’s be clear, it’s not like impartiality is a story that plays well. Would you trust somebody – a foreigner no less – who knocked on your door and said he wanted to clean the kitchen floor for free? What? No political affiliation? No hidden agenda? Not a religious duty and no proselytizing? Zero financial gain? Do you take me for an idiot?
If Asma is right, then humanity cannot be our family. So is the act of jumping humanitarian action through the hoop of impartiality a lost cause? Maybe there is a better question. If we are designed to care more about those close to us, and if our body fatigues at fighting the heart (telling us to care more about strangers is like telling us not to have the double chocolate brownie with whipped cream), what is it that actually motivates and guides humanitarians? What fills in for the pureness of empathy? Thrill seeking? Exoticism? Escape? Cynicism? Feeling good about ourselves? All of the above.
Maybe, then, Asma isn’t relevant. We humanitarians are capable of maintaining impartiality not because it is a nice idea that captures our imagination, not because we all hold a hidden Ghandi within, but because impartiality is Santa Claus. The niceness of the idea allows us to hide the truth of our gift, which in the case of impartiality is the selfishness of our compassion for humanity. Humanitarianism is saved! Because our limbic system may tire from our caring for the plight of strangers, but we’ll never get tired of caring for ourselves.
by marc on December 22, 2012
The world did not end yesterday. At least, not for you. Not for me. Yet in places like Syria, Pakistan, and South Africa, individual worlds = came to an end. The culprits? Not the dreaded riders of the Apocalypse, but well familiar stalwarts like hatred, greed and violence.
Earlier this week the United Nations launched its largest appeal ever, for nearly £1 billion, to address the crisis caused by the war in Syria. The months of fighting have provoked supply shortages, mass migrations and huge numbers of wounded against a background of intensifying cold, grief and devastation. And what will the UN do with that money? The multi-billion dollar international humanitarian industry is virtually locked out of Syria. It simply does possess the skills and capacity to work effectively in what can only be described as a very modern humanitarian crisis: security risks, lack of authorisation from the government, and an insufficient ability to negotiate and maintain access in such circumstances.
Even MSF has struggled enormously to open hospitals inside Syria, vitally important to those reached and yet insignificant compared to the larger needs. Put simply, in the midst of such epic crisis, and despite Herculean efforts of Syrian doctors and nurses, ordinary Syrians have preciously poor access to drugs or medical care.
It’s not the obvious cases of civilians in war – old people, women, children, and even babies –wounded in bombings and shrapnel injuries. Or the psychological trauma. It’s the slow fade that shocks me, the banality of chronic conditions: diabetics who run out of medication, children with asthma, and women who need caesareans. Where would I get my resupply of statins in a place like that? I’d have to give up sausages.
Earlier this week in Pakistan, polio immunisation campaigners were assassinated in a series of targeted attacks. No medical work can be carried out effectively in the atmosphere of mistrust caused by years of deliberate misinformation, rumours, or such a blatant abuse of the medical act as having spies pose as doctors (see my earlier blog on the good doctor Afridi or humanitarians as spies).
Humanitarians can’t shoot their way into town. If you headed an NGO, would you be able to ask people to go out and vaccinate? Where a nurse “armed” with nothing more than a syringe might end up between the crosshairs of a weapon? The pursuit of political and military objectives erodes trust in healthcare itself, and children fall ill and die of diseases – diseases for which prevention is simple in theory, but dangerous in practice.
And far from the week’s headlines, in places like Uzbekistan, Swaziland and South Africa, highly virulent strains of tuberculosis (TB) spread. Increasingly resistant to treatment, TB causes people pain, suffering and debilitation until death liberates them. Those who are “lucky” enough to access treatment are administered a highly toxic drug regimen that lags on for years – and given an only per cent chance of cure.
Syria, Pakistan and South Africa lie far apart on the map. The common denominator of much suffering in these nations, as in so many others, is the space between people who need care and people who can provide it. This lack of access – and the deaths that result – is as preventable as polio; it is not the doing of cosmic forces beyond human control. No, I’m afraid the world does not end in one big bang – it blinks out in the bits and pieces of human lives.
[I drafted the original version of this blog as a letter to the editor but it didn't get picked up. P and S from the office contributed a great deal to the editing. Thanks]
by marc on December 14, 2012
You can’t stop a genocide with pills, food and blankets. That simple truth can, however, become camouflaged by those very same pills, food and blankets. In short, that old humanitarian bugbear, the fig leaf problem: governments toss the hustle and bustle of relief efforts at a situation as a mask for political inaction. In the churn of that virtuous activity, we all sleep in the comfort of our well-publicized “doing something about it”. In the face of complex issues and hard decisions, politicians find an easy out.
It’s not a useless “out”, of course, but helps only in a limited way because the real problem isn’t displacement, hunger or illness, those are the symptoms. Remember, humanitarians aren’t supposed to fix war or poverty, but we should cut the fig leaf effect by being loud about the need for a fix by those with the power to do so.
But is that the end of our fig leafiness? In terms of its goodness, when you think of Switzerland, what do you think of? I think of it as one of those relatively congenial nations, mostly full of fairness, benevolence and good chocolate. The political neutrality of the Swiss probably goes a long way to this relatively benign impression of a state. Thinking harder, the role of Swiss banking darkens the picture – wealth on the back of drug cartel and dictator loot. But somehow an image of peace and tranquillity – literally, of bucolic mountain vistas – prevails.
A recent editorial in The Guardian commented on the seedy side, even of Swiss chocolate. Child labor, dirty dealings in commodities like oil and sugar, and even noting that Darth Vader’s helmet has Swiss origins. Then again, there’s always the Red Cross, one of the great, good things in the world. The picture brightens.
I am used to the idea that our organizational activities might act as a fig leaf, veiling the real story behind staggering inaction to such diverse crises as the genocide in Rwanda, the earthquake in Haiti and AIDS (yes, even there, throwing medicines at a socio-political disease). I am not as used to or comfortable with the notion that we agencies ourselves function as a fig leaf for the venal politics of nations. It’s a fig leaf not so much as mask but as counterweight; PEPFAR funding as a balance against drone assassinations. Does the former enable the latter, the way a mafia boss buys acceptance through a host of charitable donations?
Now we have China, Kuwait, Turkey and India all trying to join the humanitarian system. I thought such “Western-style” charity functioned as a Louis Vuitton bag of statehood and success. Conspicuous consumption of “have” status. Now I wonder if they coveted something more than arrivée cred. Now I wonder if they seek to be humanitarians as ballast for dirty deeds and bloody hands that come with BRIC power.
So now I wonder about we agencies, proud emissaries and flagbearers for the generosity of our patron states. Who in this business thinks of Oxfam and Save as the Swiss chocolate of the British? Ditto for CARE and World vision in the US and MSF in France or Belgium. Who knew that humanitarian action wasn’t simply a fig leaf for the inaction of politicians – it’s a fig leaf for action as well.
[So much for originality. I already published a paper by more or less the same title as this blog, looking at how "humanitarian protection" acts as a fig leaf.]
Ready for some viewing? Here are two humorous (and old) takes on aid, plus two links to some great work by BBC Four that aired last week.
1. The Onion’s send off of the Save Darfur movement.
2. Ricky Gervais’ Africa appeal. Hilarious.
3. The Trouble With Aid. Piercing documentary by BBC Four on the limits of aid in a messy world. And then the panel dabate featuring yours truly afterwards. For now, unfortunately, they’re s only available if you’re in the UK.
by marc on November 25, 2012
Somewhere in the early 80s, hence more or less at the fringes of memory, I was sitting in Benjamin Couilbaly’s dusty courtyard, sharing a meal and some laughs. His wife served a delicious meat and sauce dish, which we scooped with handfuls of tô, the millet-based paste eaten throughout much of Burkina Faso. When I asked, he said the meat was “chat sauvage”. Wild cat. Fascinating. Some sort of local lynx or bobcat? I’d figured all manner of wild cats had long been displaced or hunted out. Then he explained. A wild cat refers to your neighbor’s cat, when it wanders into your back yard. Love that logic: In a community where hunter-gatherer behaviour is still threaded through the cultural norm, it makes little sense to heap as much adulation on domesticated animals as we Westerners do.
Some interesting cyberdiscussion on the issue of corruption. The big question being asked: Does corruption undercut development/growth to the extent of warranting such a broken record of Westerners banging on about it? The provocative Chris Blattman even asks if corruption isn’t an “Anglo-American fetish” (see also some of his posts this week). ODI research jumps into the analytical fray – What are the effects of corruption, and what are the “inconvenient truths”?
The authors seem to miss an important boat as to why “Third World” corruption sparks such inflamed feelings. Is it really only a belief that corruption is crippling poor economies? Or the concerns of a politician like David Cameron, who worries about public backlash against the entire aid budget?
Now, allow me to bang on a bit. Isn’t it also about the heroic myth we’ve created around aid itself – that it is formed in equal parts out of the virtue and action of us (Western) saviours, delivering the agencyless victims from certain doom? Hence, theft of aid becomes murder of sorts, with children dying at the hand of the thief; and it becomes an act which blocks aid givers from reaping the rewards of their charitable action (on that, see my previous blog on the selfishness of giving, or in this first person account of overlooking corruption in order to preserve that reward). Corruption is wrong, but it gets bucked up to the level of immorality incarnate. And underneath all of that, corruption becomes a convenient, powerful, facile enabler of our own feelings of superiority.
To underline the Us/Them divide, corruption must also become deceptively unambiguous from a moral perspective. There are probably lots of ways in which the term “corruption” is problematic. But even thoughtful commentators seem to suggest that “theft is theft”. Is it? Is there any reader who doesn’t anger upon reading that some African politician accepted a boatload of cash to grant a political favour? That’s corruption, right? Theft. Clear as day.
In much of the West, of course, being more developed nations, a certain sophistication leads to obfuscation. Essentially, we’ve created legal or normalized channels to replace many forms of corruption, stripping away the ugliness to allow theft under a different name. For instance, the web of election contribution rules which transform the immoral/illegal/corrupt purchase of a politician into a perfectly mundane act of election funding, or even free speech.
And in humanitarian circles? Is theft always theft? I think we’re back to the cat: As the saying goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” As I’ve posted earlier, an expat using the agency’s white SUV to buy Danone yogurt at the swanky suburban mall is no less an act of aid diversion than when a member of the national staff pinches a bottle of paracetamol. Guess who gets fired for it? Guess who returns home to proud parents?
What about when a supersized chunk of the $5.2 billion donated for the Haitian earthquake ends up nowhere near Haitians themselves? When it disappears into the maw of the saviours? You know, all that housing, flights, conferences, consultancies and, of course, yogurt? Into what black hole did that aid money disappear? Mugabe’s Swiss bank accounts? Or my British one?
Yes, I do think we have a fetish with the corruption of others. But that’s really a fetish with self-preservation, because with less biased analysis, humanitarian scrutiny of corruption may not travel so far afield.
[Wanted to react on this topic. Back to the analysis of humanitarian principles in the next blog]