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].