The Great, Good and Invisible

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.

Say goodbye to the gravy train: Part I, An Inconvenient Truth

Continuing my flirtation with futurology, what about the way aid as a business seems to be acting like aid as an idealistic pursuit?  I mean, why the quasi obsession with perceived threats to our principles and access — Has the “erosion of our space” gone platinum yet? — while largely ignoring the much more potentially ruinous erosion of our market share? Why worry about the inevitable securitization of aid when global warming, the private sector, and non-Western NGOs are going to steal our hallowed seats at the head table? 

Pope Urges Young to Care for Planet – Headline in the IHT, 3 Sept 07, p. 3

Did this rather dull report on the meanderings of Pope Benedict XVI catch your eye?  It should have. The golden age of humanitarianism died that day. When the Pope himself jumps on the environmental bandwagon – when the Holy See decides that spiritual salvation matters less than the carbon footprint of the Popemobile – then it’s not only a bandwagon, it’s the beginning of the end of humanitarianism as we know it.

The Seventies and Eighties marked the golden years of the development industry. A patchwork coalition of Western nations, academics and eager volunteers set out to eliminate starvation, disease and poverty, and generally to make the Earth a better place to live.

It wasn’t working so well (still isn’t), which left the turf (and donor pockets) wide open for the onset of the humanitarian juggernaut.  In a relatively short span of time humanitarians became the new heroes. Forget about trying to establish a private sector agrarian economy in a desert like Burkina Faso. Our message held the sexy promise of immediate gratification:  let’s save lives and alleviate suffering right now!

That was the end of development organizations. Their money dried up. Some NGOs dried up.  Others, simply swapped hats. They began calling themselves humanitarian organizations while running income generation or literacy projects.  The word “humanitarian” itself became synonymous with doing good.

Why blog about this new bandwagon? Because we sit at the precipice, blissfully unaware that over the next ten years the exploding global environmental movement is going to bury humanitarianism. In our focus on the competition among us, nobody seems be thinking about the competition between brands of goodness.  Nobody is talking about an upcoming 25% crash in donations. Or maybe it will only be 15%.  I don’t know. I’m just making this up.  But the bottom line is clear:  People who want to do something good with their money will progressively opt for a different generation of NGOs. Once the money starts, the graduate degree programmes and NGOs will follow. Then the celebrities, politicians and the media. Then the rest of the donors and maybe even Angelina Jolie.  And all that time, the effort and enthusiasm of youth will be siphoned away.

Many “humanitarian” organizations will again change their hats. They will prioritise the war on global warming over the war in Darfur.  They will write reports about the needs of populations in 2050.  Other organizations will resist, retaining focus on saving human lives in the present. Their days are numbered.  Trees may not sound so important, but how do a few thousand lives way over in Congo or Afghanistan compare to our planet? That’s what the people with the money will say as well. As Pope Benedict XVI so aptly put it: We need a decisive ‘yes’ to care for creation. 

So it won’t be the West’s politicisation of aid or the erosion of “humanitarian space” or even the way bureaucracy has pummelled the idea of compassion right out of our work that killed off we humanitarians. In the end, it will be the loss of our market share to the planet.  In the end, it will be Al Gore.

Looking in the 2020 Mirror

Lots of aid pundits out there looking into the future.  Back in May Kate Gilmore (formerly Amnesty Int’l) asked me to write a 2020 scenario for the =mc website. The basic question: What will the international NGO look like in 10 years? I figure I can keep running this piece for another eight years or so (read: I was too lazy this weekend to come up with something new). Here it is. 

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Golden Era of the Western-based global NGO is
grinding to a halt. By 2020 we will either have re-birthed ourselves or
joined the cassette tape, Vanilla Ice and the stegosaurus. While it is
undoubtedly a mistake to treat the Western, global NGO as a
homogenous, static set of entities, extrapolating from the trends of
today yields a few broad-brushed predictions of life in 2020…

Click here for a link to Scenarios for Change, where you can find the full text of my prediction.

Clash in Egypt: A Lesson on Sanctimony?

This past Sunday I put on The Clash. Hadn’t heard them in a while. This morning, “Should I stay or should I go” echoing in my head, I’m listening to the al-Jazeera live feed on the situation in Egypt and it clicks. Makes you wonder if that song lingered for random reasons or not. So Mr. Mubarak, you may have convinced yourself that if you go there will be trouble, but take some advice from Joe Strummer and pals: If you stay there will be double.

There is something wonderful and terrifying in watching a people – a community, a population, a country – rise up against tyranny, oppression, corruption, or plain old mismanagement. My younger days included eyes glued to the TV as “People Power” drove Ferdinand Marcos from office and as the Solidarity trade union shook off the iron embrace of Soviet power in Poland. One lesson from those movements is that they are most frightening to those in power in the early stages, before they are organized, when the raw and often chaotic energy means that, literally, anything can happen. After that: bureaucratization, cooptation, and the long march to becoming part of the establishment (and often to assume the same authoritarian policies and practices that had been so vigorously opposed all those years before). A lesson for MSF as well? That is a separate question.

A second lesson from the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, one perhaps more pertinent to humanitarian action, is the sheer power of the people to take control of their destiny, of their lives. A desperate and rather unimportant Tunisian self-immolates and the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak teeters on the precipice. Amazing! That power didn’t come from the guns or bombs or billions of US (military) aid. It didn’t depend on charismatic leadership à la Benigno Aquino or Lech Walesa. These moments of emancipation didn’t spontaneously combust out of the sort of everyday insurrections we see being carried out by thug-led rebel groups across our work. And these transformations certainly didn’t come from us in the West (unless you calculate in the negative sense, of how Western political and economic policies propped up dictators, impoverished the masses …). They came from the people themselves.

 To be more specific, they came from power which the people have always possessed yet failed to exercise. To the humanitarian, the question should come to mind: Where are the victims? Where are the populations whose suffering compels the presence of us Western saviours? Is it time we question the way our advocacy activities (“humanitarian protection”!) require a blameless, passive school of jellyfish-humans, swept up in the tide of bad guy behaviour? What happened to those millions of people in Darfur who we loudly declared to have been delivered to the brink of catastrophe when 13 international NGOs were shut down and expelled in March 2009? Where are those helpless masses of humanity upon whom our funding, our activities, and our identity are dependent? Turns out they aren’t as helpless as we thought.

Opening Salvo: Ask the poorest for funding

How does one inaugurate a blog?  If I wait for that deep inspiration, some 3 paragraph reflection that cuts to the bone of the humanitarian aid industry … Well, now you understand why I didn’t get this going last year.  The other strategy is to opt for a more simple debut by just starting.  

Forget DFID (oops: UKaid).  Forget USAID.  Forget even CIDA and SIDA.  Humanitarian aid agencies should start seeking funds from the foreign offices in the countries where they work.  Need money for a cholera treatment centre in Zimbabwe?  Why not ask Botswana, Congo and Ivory Coast for funding?  Need to mount a measles vaccination campaign in Nigeria?  Why not ask the government in Sudan for funding. 

Well, one rather obvious answer would be the unlikelihood of actually getting any money.  And we all know it’s all about the money.   One can only imagine the confused faces of Zambian bureaucrats when a billion per year INGO rep asks for money to run its projects in Bangladesh.   But one other answer, and the answer you’ll likely receive from these governments and INGO HQs themselves, is fundamentally wrong.   The poorest in the world will have turned an important corner when we all get rid of the answer:  “Because we are poor.”

Did anyone notice the news last week that South Africa will launch its own development aid agency?  (See the IRIN article here:   http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportID=91651).  South Africa joins emerging powerhouses such as India, China and Brazil as recipients of aid who are now entering the hallowed ranks of the aid business.  Whether a ploy to boost the standing of the country, part of a strategic investment in foreign relations, or, contrary to that rash of cynicism, the governmental embodiment of compassion for those in need, I think it deserves a couple of thumbs up.

In other blogs, I’d like to examine this as part of salutary trend towards ending the Western hegemony of what we refer to as aid.  The Western donor-INGO duet could use a little competition.  But I’d like to focus on something else.  The act of standing up.  In the IRIN article, Ivor Jenkins, of the non-profit Democracy for Africa (IDASA), has this to say about the SA announcement:  “I do think it’s important for us as a country to start to have a sense of responsibility, and giving and not only receiving as we have for many years.’”  

Sense of responsibility.  That just about nails it on the head.  Western aid agencies have been taking increasingly damaging and certainly well-earned straight rights to the chin on their neo-colonial and/or neo-imperial attitude.  {I’ll be writing about that in future blogs).  We swagger through other people’s homelands, delivering the aid to the victims of the state’s own failure towards its people.  States don’t mind the aid, but aren’t quite as keen on the swagger.  Imagine that.  But some governments have had an easy time of playing it both ways, finger-pointing at neo-colonialism while hiding too easily behind neo-colonyism, the international relations equivalent of a Stepin Fetchit routine.  Poor countries as beggars who must shuffle through the corridors of the rich nations, whose economic and historic superiority impose an expectation of  moral duty to ship their money South.

The stereotype creates an existential split.  Not between wealthy countries and poor countries, as if those categories determined who should and should not give aid.  Certainly not between nations actually capable of sending aid to other nations and those incapable (Should Ireland be sending its cash anywhere?).  No, this is a split between those nations assuming the role of beggars or victims and those who assume the position of lord and savior.  More than acknowledging a sense of responsibility, SA’s move is a declaration that poverty is no excuse for the incapacity to help nations, just as wealth is hardly a guarantee for either compassion or generosity.

So future kudos to the first aid agencies that stop reinforcing the existential victimhood of governments in the developing world.  Let’s treat every government as sharing in the responsibility to come to the aid of people in crisis, both within and without their territory.  Let’s stop acting neo-colonial and ask governments to stop acting like neo-colonies. 

And kudos to the government of South Africa for embracing a lesson already being taught by poor people the world over.  If you look closely in places like Haiti, Darfur and Eastern DRC, you’ll find not places where the Western aid enterprise has saved helpless masses of people, but where the WFP convoy-sized gap in aid (2200 kcals per day!) is filled by the countless invisible acts of kindness between families, neighbours and strangers, all part of the same community of the abject poor.

Welcome

Please excuse our appearances.  We’re still in development and I am mostly computer illiterate.  Hopefully, some great stuff to come, including photos of me with bad haircuts from the field.  So visit again.

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