History is being written in the streets of the Middle East and where are the globalt is good and great? Where are these global political actors who hang out at DAVOS and in the corridors of the UN? I see Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in the headlines. Where are the humanitarians? Checking websites:
• Oxfam issued a press release yesterday, three bland paragraphs re Libya
• Save wants to end child poverty.
• CARE calls our attention to its activities re International Women’s Day
• World Vision shows concern about the draught in the Horn of Africa.
• MSF was running a Malawi HIV story, replaced yesterday afternoon by a press release on the Middle East situation.
• IRC. Crisis Watch list includes Haiti, Ivory Coast, South Sudan and Pakistan.
Talk about irrelevance! And we seem to be going out of our way to advertise the fact. Our operational irrelevance is an interesting discussion, but I’d like to look at potential consequences of our silence. The reason for this silence is, of course, the fact that we aren’t on the ground running programmes. There are very understandable reasons for that as well, ranging from the quality of healthcare available in places like Bahrain, to visa issues, to the relative wealth of urban Tunisia, etc. The reasons for our invisibility, though, aren’t necessarily that obvious to anybody outside of our humanitarian bubble. At best, I think we’ve missed an opportunity to explain humanitarian action to communities who don’t get it (or see it as part of a broader Western agenda) and who need to get it because our access is met with hostility. At worst, it leaves our invisibility open to the unfriendly misinterpretation of others, with repercussions on the Arab Street or in the mountainous caves.
Do people understand why Amnesty and HRW are so loudly denouncing the violence but not other humanitarian organization? Do they read our lack of denunciation against the backdrop of our well-advertized policies of protecting people through advocacy and speaking out? Don’t we have a consistent track record of vocal denunciations of violence in places like Darfur, DRC, etc etc? Don’t most people out there believe that humanitarianism includes the defense of democracy, free speech, family values and fluffy pets? Why wouldn’t some quadrants in the anti-Western world conclude or exploit the misperception that we don’t care about Arab lives? Why wouldn’t they conclude that we, mirroring the western governments of our homelands, are torn between principles and interests, hence noticeably turning a blind eye towards the violence of friendly despots, and then rather predictably finding voice when Gaddafi starts his tumble? Why wouldn’t they suspect the Jewish lobby has us by the balls?
Security theory is pretty clear. The concept and practice of passive acceptance is dead. It doesn’t work. Just doing our work isn’t good enough. There are hostile discourses circulating, and we must actively build acceptance through negotiated access, meaningful programming, and communication to explain who we are and what we do. This implies also talking about who we are not and what we don’t do. We must create distinction. The point is the perception of others in a world where we are required to position ourselves proactively and strategically, lest we find that others do not accept our presence.
If you don’t believe me, check out the ICRC’s website. Two early news releases on Egypt, Libya (yesterday), and one on Tunisia. They say very little. It isn’t about news, it’s about strategy.