Category Archives: Critique of Aid

Multilateralism and its Discontents

1.  Did you miss Antonio Donini’s “The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action,” on the IRIN website? Here it is. Donini smacks a lot of nails on the head. We live in an era of decline when it comes to the international agenda for a less violent and oppressive world. Global governance is heading the way of the polar bear, swaying in confusion on the lip of an isolated floe. Even Europe, typically much less unprincipled than my own USA, let alone Russia or South Sudan, has “become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.” The article points the finger, and then examines how the retreat of multilateralism impacts upon humanitarian action. Finally, he asks, “what is the reflecting humanitarian to do?” I have the answer.

No I don’t.  I have one way of looking at it. This retreat of multilateralism rebalances the bargain between humanitarian aid agencies and their major Western donors. It rebalances our bargains with the corporate sector as well, because we humanitarians have long accepted to represent what Donini labels “the smiley face of globalisation.”  This sector we love needs to stop smiling about globalization and it needs to strike a new respect for the principles it enshrines.

On the government side and on the corporate side, some of this is aidwashing (see Point 2 below).  Some of this is soft power. Some of this is market entry.  Some of this is product placement. Some of this is guilt…  The sum of good impact far from counterbalances the sum of those somes, let alone the sum of drone warfare, hyper consumerism and political domination. Nor can it; nor should it. No government can place international interests above self interest as a matter of policy. No corporation can place do-gooderism above profit as a strategic objective.  And no humanitarian organization can afford to ignore these equations.

In other words, no humanitarian organization should continue with the delusion that this headlong rush into ever deeper partnerships with the private sector and dependence on Western donor governments will pave a virtuous path forward for humanitarians.  Of course corporations and entrepreneurs have much to offer. Of course they do good. Of course government aid agencies have much to offer. Of course they do good. But that should begin the discussion, not end it. Faust, at least, traded his soul for knowledge.  Budget relief seems somewhat less noble of a bargaining chip.

The point, as I concluded in a recently published report, is that humanitarian actors “need to decide how far they are willing to become coherent with the policies, players and multilateralism that help produce the crises of displacement, inequality and war in the first place.” Or perhaps Peter Buffett explains it better: Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. 

2.  Earlier this week I tweeted about Boris Johnson. On most days, an easy target. “You gotta love politics” I quipped, in reference to Johnson lambasting the Saudis for bombing Yemen while seemingly oblivious to the irony of the situation given Britain’s arms sales to the Saudis. That “paradox” has been noted before. And yet perhaps we aid industry vets do Yemen a disfavor with that label. Paradox? Perhaps that is only the way we choose to (mis)understand it, as a paradox between this delivering of bombs to the Saudis and relief aid to the bombed. Perhaps the paradox is more about how humanitarians can be so world weary and yet so naively full of our own wishful thinking.

There is no paradox whatsoever. There is enabling, causation and even a coherence of action, like arriving home with flowers on the day you will tell your wife what happened at Jonathan’s bachelor party. Are we really so convinced of our goodness as to ignore how the large humanitarian expenditure in Yemen pays for the arms sales to the Saudis? That is its purpose and that forms, hence, part of the impact that should be owned by us, regardless our less bellicose intentions.

The trouble with labels

The realization that humanitarian action masks political (in)action is an old story, as is our collective lament that blankets, pills and food will not fix an Afghanistan, even if they may prove quite useful to the cold, sick and hungry.  This is the problem of the humanitarian fig-leaf.  The humanitarian sector at times recognizes this effect, and has long echoed former UNHCR High Commissioner Sadako Ogata’s well-quoted wisdom that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” That is certainly true, but tends to be deployed as an alibi for our failures.  We forget to invoke Ogata as a critique of our successes.

In other words, we humanitarians bear responsibility for maintaining the lustre and exclusivity of the humanitarian label, a mode of action that emplaces one set of responses by displacing others. Have we not safeguarded our turf by averting any critique of the its sufficiency; of the effect of humanitarianizing a crisis? Beyond a label that obscures the political and military, it also occupies turf within the aid sector. To label a crisis as “humanitarian” makes us the Big Kahuna, and its calcification into policy and practice – for example, the humanitarian-development divide – has usefully meant that only humanitarian projects could be funded in some contexts.

The price of the label hence falls upon people. To wit, using blankets and pills to fix war, rescue at sea to fix killer migration, or the incongruity of responding to decades of crisis in places like DRC or South Sudan through projects aimed at addressing people’s immediate needs.  As I write in a forthcoming report, the “urgency of [humanitarian] needs eclipses but in no way lessens a greater spectrum of human aspirations – to secure livelihoods, education for their children or to live in peace.”  The degree to which such short-term approaches to long-term problems have been particularly damaging in refugee settings, addressing neither the causes of flight nor the protracted nature of being in flight.

So let us begin. Let us begin by tossing out Ogata, as a necessary but insufficient realization.  As Tom Scott-Smith cleverly concludes, the problem is not with the humanitarian solutions being inadequate, but ‘humanitarian problems’.  In his words: Framing an issue as a distinctly humanitarian one necessarily limits the responses available. Seeing inescapably political issues as humanitarian ones, in other words, can seriously curtail the possibilities for reducing suffering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the recent migration crisis. 

So let us begin in earnest by a moratorium on humanitarian tagging. The situation in DRC is not a humanitarian crisis. The situation in Haiti is not a humanitarian crisis. And the situation in the Mediterranean is not a humanitarian crisis.  The world should not sleep better knowing that humanitarians have responded to a humanitarian crisis.

And if it does not seem to be in our institutional interest to remove our label? Take heed! What goes around comes around. Look no further than the ‘crisis’ of refugees and migrants in Europe or the Ebola response. It will not be long before the security label more completely paints over the humanitarian one, replacing victims with problems, aid with self-protection and compassion with fear; replacing one Big Kahuna with another.

The Complex Politics of Compassion

The politics of compassion. That was the theme for this past weekend’s XVIII Humanitarian Congress Berlin.  An aptly complex topic for today’s aid workers because compassion may not always prove a force for humanitarian good.

Compassion lies at the heart of humanitarian action. Unoriginal pun intended. The principle of humanity, which sets the purpose of humanitarian action, functions as a two-sided coin, at once the family of all human beings as well as the sentiment we feel for fellow human beings in pain. That constitutes humanitarian action as a rather radical enterprise, whereby compassion calls us to respond to the suffering of humans simply because they are human, not because we share the bonds of family, clan, tribe or nation. And it is a response that comes from within, not from external interest or motivation (political gain, military advantage etc.).

So much for the theory. Mind you, I believe in the theory. Yet I am also concerned about the power of compassion to lead humanitarians astray. For instance, the label of compassion is too easily slapped on the sort of pity and paternalism that degrade humanity, reducing people to beneficiaries, patients, victims and generally helpless masses who lack any agency in their lives.

Or, as I last blogged (see October 10th), compassion drives our attention as individuals, societies and organizations. Compassion brings aid. Good. But responding to crisis thus entails a distribution of our attention and compassion. When our compassion draws us towards Syria, Hurricane Matthew and hopefully soon to Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin it betrays the Central African Republic (yet again invisible), Myanmar or, (thinking back) the people in the Lake Chad/Nigeria region these past two years. Put differently, compassion may comprise one element of the principle of humanity but it has consequences for the principle of impartiality.

In reverse, attention can spark our compassion. So the vagaries of media interest – the profitability of some victims – help determine where we respond, or don’t. Witness a speaker on Friday who noted that at least one government in Europe tried to block publication of images of child refugees.

A parallel thread ran through Friday’s panel debate of medical care under fire. There, the sensational shielded the everyday, as the discussion remained tied to the US military bombing of MSF’s Kunduz hospital and the deliberate destruction of healthcare in Syria. It is precisely the shocking quality of such carnage that draws our compassion and condemnation. But it is perhaps also true that our greater concern, attention and action should be devoted to the banality of violent attacks on medical care, to the attacks against healthcare workers and points of care across the world, in exotic locations as well as in our home communities. Perhaps the everyday poses a far greater threat than the spectacular; it certainly poses a different problem, and not one so beyond our control as the abuse of violence by world superpowers.

The point is not to question compassion as a key characteristic (the motivation) of humanitarian action. The point is to question blind faith in our compassion, in its authenticity as well as its impact. It means that we must follow our hearts and at the same time seek out the blind spots, the unseen or unattended crises and the deception of our emotions.

That said, we must not abandon compassion for the sterility of formulaic needs assessments or automated ‘humanitarian’ action. At a fundamental level, the politics of compassion is the antidote to our self-inflicted politics of humanitarian universalism. Compassion grounds our action in the human being, rather than in the framework of multilateral abstractions we have erected to define humanitarianism; a massified, globalized set of principles and legal obligations that are proving ever more ineffective in speaking to people, let alone to the governments and belligerents most responsible for crisis.

The trouble with refugee summits

[Apologies for the long absence – I have been working on two large projects and distracted from my usual flow of sideways thinking.]

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

The UN Refugee Summit – all hype and no substance? A typically good read from IRIN. The question we have to ask as a sector, and I think within the framework of research rather than accusation, is whether the emptiness of hype constitutes the full extent of the damage. Do summits, conferences and other grand ‘change change change’ plus ‘build back better’ moments actually produce more negative than positive outcomes? Specifically – and I’ve blogged on this before, in the aftermath of Angelina Jolie and William Hague’s 2013 proclamation of a ‘historic moment’ in ending rape in conflict – do these well-hyped declarations actually function to diminish the likelihood of positive change? Did Bill Clinton’s ‘build back better’ speech help doom Haiti to the not-so-built-back future it would soon discover?

Mechanisms? The obvious question is whether the well-reported declarations of world leaders take the winds out of the sails of public pressure? Will people across the West now sleep better, knowing that the refugee problem is being dealt with by no less than Barack Obama and the entire United Nations?  More important than public urgency, what about pressure from within the sector? Do these global launches generate too much of an opportunity for the aid system to capture momentum, political will and (surprise surprise) funding, only to transform it into conferences, evaluations, policy discussions, guidelines, and the unproductive yet satisfying busy-ness of saving the world? One might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

The Viet Nam war produced the incongruous situation whereby young black American males were removed from the civil rights struggle and shipped off to fight in Viet Nam. A journalist/historian named Wallace Terry interviewed these soldiers. As I listened to this fascinating BBC program on Terry’s work, one moment caught my ear. One of the soldiers interviewed talked excitedly about the Black Panthers, justifying their violence because blacks had to fear the police and fear the KKK, so it would be a positive and fair change if white people also had something to fear.  I couldn’t help wondering if that same logic hasn’t fused with jihadi anger against the US or Europe.  Which prompts the strategic question of how to get rid of their fear?

3. Respond to the fear (and to the suffering, loss, hopelessness, anxiety…), not just the violence

And while I am on the topic, the news from the US when it comes to inner city gun violence will be one of the great producers of phd theses a hundred years from now. It defies comprehension. Here’s a recent headline: In Chicago’s Deadliest Day Of 2016, 9 People Killed In Shootings On Monday. Get that? On a Monday.

In a timely BBC piece, the journalist attaches himself to a local rapper to penetrate one of the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. The report quickly transports. I slipped into voyeurism, appalled and yet enthralled by the combination of youth, energy, guns and lurid deaths. The entertainment ended at 12:53, when our tour guide broke through to my human side. Worth the watch.

Parts of Chicago must surely define a humanitarian crisis. I say that less because of the violence than because of the pain, the unfathomable grief, anxiety, powerlessness and waste that produce urban landscapes seemingly imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Trauma wounds may be dealt with at the hospital, but where is MSF with its psycho-social programming for the tens of thousands of victims? Because ‘this shit will fuck you up’ and because you know that the US healthcare system isn’t offering mental health care? Where is Save the Children with its ‘Child Friendly Spaces’? Or, more simply, how do we respond to these Americans who desperately need to ‘get out’ of a place that ‘ain’t normal’?

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

Tired of the gloom? Here is a rather devastating take on humanitarian action, cleverly disguised as a restaurant review. “It’s the good intentions that sink vegetative restaurants. They are selling the goodness of their intentions in the hope that you’re more interested in filling the karma bank than your stomach. The explanations of the ingredients are always longer than the recipes. Vegetarian places are to restaurants what the Big Issue is to journalism… It’s a commitment to niceness and oneness and caring and nurturing. The Big Issue is vegetarian journalism.”  That’s the brilliant AA Gill’s Table Talk review of Tiny Leaf restaurant (Sunday Times Magazine 21 February 2016). By the way, he gave the restaurant two out of five stars.

 

Be Careful of What You Wish For

My summer series of posts is on the way. Isn’t it time we cast a more critical gaze upon the various panaceas being trafficked in humanitarian circles? For example, the localization agenda. Or innovation. Or the idea that if people in crisis only had internet access it would make everything better.

The first has already been published by IRIN.  Here’s a sample: A funding model that has already gutted the independence and effectiveness of international NGOs is not best-suited to empower local organisations within their own nations and communities.  Thanks IRIN for the post.

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.