The “New” Humanitarian Fig Leaf

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.

2 thoughts on “The “New” Humanitarian Fig Leaf”

  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts! This was a great post (as are all of them) and now I’m going to have to read your paper on the same topic.

    As a current student hoping to work in the humanitarian field one day (ideally MSF), I myself wonder were the line is drawn. When so many of the world’s problems are political, how/when does aid move from simply being a band-aid to pressing for more sustainable and long-term solutions? I suppose that breaches into the realm of international relations/UN/etc. but clearly, those are ineffective more than 75% of the time it seems and are far too often blinded by their own national interests to actually make positive change.

    So I suppose what I am asking is, do you see humanitarian aid shifting someday from treating the symptoms to treating the disease/parasite itself (politics)? I know there is really no answer for this since none of us have a crystal ball, but I am just curious to hear your own thoughts.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Karen Kilberg

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think you know the answer to the question you ask. In dogmatic terms, when humanitarian aid switches to focus on the root causes it ceases to be humanitarian, and probably moves into the realm of politics, governance, development, etc. Nothing wrong with that.

      Of course, that’s far too simplistic. What about treating cholera and using the evidence therefrom — all those patient numbers — to lobby successfully for a new sewage system? Or to use civilian casualties to press for an end to indiscriminate shelling?

      So humanitarian action does include some action towards solutions. And then there are all those contexts where emergency needs and developmental work like side by side. Good luck with your studies.

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