Tag Archives: Development

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.

Three Songs (3)

[This blog is the third of a 3-part series.]

Part 3. Towards a New Song

Adding up the Swansong and An Old Song, here is what you get: a sterling example of oversimplification. Mea culpa. The point is to make a point: the two songs share a foundational error, one emblematic of too many similarly inspiring yet fruitless aid songs.

Both Ban Ki Moon’s compelling World Humanitarian Summit report and the international community’s push to Leave no one behind rest upon a causal logic shaped something like this: by identifying a problem and agreeing to solve it, highly skilled people plus good intentions will fix the problem. This approach works well for repairs, when something is broken, like an engine with a leaky radiator. It works less well when the system itself is flawed, when the problem is generated by the system functioning as it has evolved to function, regardless our collective intentions and commitments to the contrary.

Remember, the same people have come together over and over again to declare that the recipients of aid should participate meaningfully in the process or that humanitarian action must be accountable to local communities. Another example: ask yourself how the proposed ‘Grand Bargain’, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) solution to the woes of humanitarian financing, differs from previous attempts such as the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement.  Does it once again ask the leopard to change its spots? Or does it set forth a plan that will work in spite of the spots?

Such idealism requires an ahistoricism, one that occludes the magnitude of previous efforts dedicated to the same ideal. In our zeal and in our need to believe, humanitarians all too regularly leap past the question of why it didn’t work before. Are we frightened the past might blunt our enthusiasm (or funding) for the future? Would history usher us towards apathy in a world so full of brutal crisis?  Or, in less psychological terms, do ideals obviate the grim need for systemic change given a sector where nobody gets fired for singing an old song?

In Moon’s own words, 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” (One Humanity, ¶ 72). Beautiful. Dead wrong for humanitarians, but beautiful. A goal to be endorsed wholeheartedly for the development community, but the humanitarian imperative instructs that we should leave people behind. It even tells us who: the principle of impartiality instructs that the most urgent of cases are the ones to receive aid first. (All the more reason to hope that development works to build capacity that can address less urgent needs.).

The problem for humanitarians today is not one of leaving people behind, it is one of leaving the wrong people behind. Reaching the most vulnerable imposes political, program and personal costs/risks that have long forced aid away from the most vulnerable (see, e.g., MSF’s Where is Everyone). To begin with, reaching the most needy costs a lot more than reaching the merely needy. Reaching the most marginalized entails far higher risks of delay, insecurity and unforeseen consequences. It requires an aid industry able to embrace the likelihood of failure, not one that must flee the risk of it.

The aid community aspires to aid the most vulnerable, the humanitarian system is largely designed (by evolution, not intelligence) to avoid them. Political pressure ensures that we will not hear USAID or DFID disavow the idea that aid must deliver ‘value for money’ or ‘bang for the buck’. There can be no press release on not building ten clinics for the needy IDPs near Goma, but instead venturing out and building two clinics for the desperate IDPs in the hinterlands (for the same amount of money and with a year of delays). NGOs cannot boast of new programming directions that might not work, complete with promises to learn from mistakes. Taking more risks cannot gain approval from boards governed by concerns for public reputation, future funding or the threat of lawsuits.

Leaving no one behind offers us a slogan to rally behind, an ideal towards which we can dedicate ourselves, a direction that taps into funding streams. Without changes to the incentives, drivers, architecture, culture and politics governing aid, Leaving no one behind also risks offering us another old song. Until we recognize and address how and why the design of the ‘system’ often forces humanitarians away from the most vulnerable and most marginalised, we will never be able to place them at the epicenter of our work. That is the lesson to be learned.

And that is all we need for a new tune. We need songs that no longer end with grand visions of what needs changing. We need songs that begin with them, with our longstanding challenges, and then go on to offer an explanation of why they didn’t work and a vision of how we are going to get there this time.

Final note for the record: if the plan boils down to calling for a new political commitment, that is an old song. World leaders possess no lack of political commitment. The problem is a surfeit of competing, contradictory commitments.

Building Resilience? Turn Crisis into a School

[This is the second in a series of posts aimed at the World Humanitarian Summit.  Along with the previous post (see it at WhyDev as well!), the idea is to suggest how development and humanitarian organizations can work better together.]

Over the past years, the ‘new’ grail of resilience has sparked debate within the aid community (see e.g., here, Dialogue 12). Importantly, few disagree on the ambition of strengthening national and local resilience to crisis, and resilience has been named one of four core themes for the World Humanitarian Summit. The central, somewhat distracting argument seems to pertain to its home.

Is it humanitarian work to build resilience? Or is it development work, with humanitarian content? My pedigree places me squarely in the latter camp. In crude jargon, humanitarian work is about immediate harm reduction, not building for the future. But this sort of dogmatism breeds argument, not progress (and ignores the degree to which funding streams for resilience work determine its home).

Perhaps it is more useful to consider How? rather than Who?. In broad terms, the humanitarian community lacks the skills, experience and, frankly, patience to effectuate transformation. And what humanitarians do possess – technical knowledge – is the relatively easily transferred part of crisis response. Where resilience in terms of government response capacity is most lacking, improving the responsiveness of national authorities requires long-term planning, facilitation rather than implementation, and commitment on the scale of years rather than a reporting cycle.

Let’s take this example: How does one help a district ministry of health develop the capability to deal with a cholera outbreak in a remote cluster of villages? Well, here is how not to do it: run a workshop for a week, hand over pristine copies of the cholera guidelines, and then wait to see what happens. My years working with MSF left me all too familiar with the workshop approach, and the subsequent bout of accusations of incompetence or unwillingness when MSF had to step in because the ministry failed to respond.

This workshop approach creates piles of paper, heavy expectations and, too often, little more than a virtual response capacity. The obstacle is not technical understanding of cholera. You can download that here or here. Faced with actual cholera — with the requirement to scale up exponentially in a short time – the government health service or local NGO (just like many INGOs) are often more seriously impaired by the pre-planning (preparedness), scaling up, management of ongoing services, and the lack of access to emergency funding. Building that will take persistent effort over time, not a specialty of humanitarians; will take hands on experience, rarely available during workshops; and a commitment to learn from failure.

Let’s return to that example of cholera response. A well-placed INGO specializing in development could start by working with the ministry to develop recognized contingency plans, such as for the creation of a temporary Emergency Response Management Team, or a plan for identified ministry staff to be allocated to the emergency response and for how remaining ministry staff will cover the gaps caused by shifting resources to cholera. All of this would require agreed TORs, and new job descriptions, contracts, training, etc. for staff. (It may also require striking a deal with its donors, one that will allow contractual flexibility to engage in rapid onset emergency response).

The development team should then play a bridging function to the experienced humanitarian NGO (i.e., INGOs such as MSF, that have experience running cholera treatment projects), facilitating agreements that come into force during an actual outbreak, allowing the national/local to shadow and then take on progressively greater responsibilities over time. In other words, cholera outbreaks rather than cholera protocols become the driver of resilience. The development team ensures proper ministry presence, and removes the burden from the emergency INGO (the Ebola outbreak is an exception to the rule that humanitarians cannot take on responsibilities for training others during the height of crisis).

With the ministry, an agreed plan for rotating of national/local personnel (secondments) into the emergency response of the humanitarians. This should happen systematically, over years, and build capacity in all areas of intervention, from medical doctors to supply officers and registration desk staff. The development team might also have to bridge between the various government departments that must agree (inter alia) to the division of responsibilities and provision of resources. It probably also needs to broker financial support to the ministry, and work to develop the administrative capacity to manage and report on the funding.

Under various names, the aid community has been talking for decades about improved resilience in the form of improved national operational responsiveness. There have been successes. As well, grand plans have fallen flat. In my years with MSF, there were often requests for training, but I don’t ever remember anyone asking us to engage in the sort of transformational work described above. Nor would we have been wise to say yes – wrong people and bad timing. Being used as a school is different from having to organize oneself into one.

Effective strengthening national and local response capacity requires the particular skillset of the development community. So forget the details of the example above – another humanitarian’s misguided imagination of how a development NGO would do it. What is not imagined is the opportunity for development NGOs to get resilience right by catching humanitarians in the act, and taking the national authorities from understudy to lead.

Making development work for humanitarian response–and vice versa

[This is the first of a series of posts aimed at the World Humanitarian Summit.  More generally, this post and the next one offer ideas on how development and humanitarian organizations can work better together. Many thanks to WhyDev for their encouragement, editorial help and posting of this blog. Check out their excellent site if you don’t know it. – MD]

How many times have we seen this: a complex emergency with a decade or two of heavy humanitarian intervention (maybe some development organisations and peacekeeping forces as well), scores or even hundreds of millions of dollars spent by aid agencies, legions of expats trafficked through–and yet close to zero planned impact on local economic development or resilience? Sound like Eastern DRC? Haiti? South Sudan?

Foreign aid policy and practice have failed to view humanitarian crisis as an opportunity for development. This gap highlights a missed potential to capitalise on the presence of such a well-resourced foreign enterprise as humanitarian intervention.

A house divided

The aid community has improved its performance these past years by learning that, particularly in complex emergencies, contexts cannot be shoehorned into one end or the other of a false continuum, designated as either “humanitarian” or “development”, with one-size-fits-all implications for the aid response. Nonetheless, this divide is deeply ingrained, reinforced by the two-pronged architecture of the aid system, from funding streams to academic departments to organigrams of agencies and governmental ministries.

This divide has given rise to a fair amount of acrimony, and to a blind spot when it comes to opportunity. It is good–but not good enough–to comprehend that humanitarian crisis and developmental needs lie side by side. We must take the next step and see long-term development opportunities as residing within crisis. It’s time for development agencies to seize the presence of the humanitarian machine, by exploiting its potential as a source for financially sustainable (small) businesses. It’s time to make friends with the enemy.

Mind the gap

We understand almost intuitively how humanitarian crisis, whether conflict, flows of refugees or natural disaster, generates destruction, including damage to the local economy. Yet crisis often means that business is booming for the humanitarian endeavour. Viewed through an entrepreneurial lens, humanitarian response, particularly those stereotypical Western-led interventions in long-standing emergencies, resembles a pretty fat cash cow.

In crisis contexts, INGOs possess relatively massive resources, and they often represent the biggest fish in the pond. In line with these resources, humanitarian NGOs also have needs–many of which could be met locally. Why is it, then, that an organisation like MSF/Doctors without Borders works in Goma for decades, and still expends resources on importing and servicing its own vehicles? Or why in Nyala were there so few restaurants where an expat could go out to eat, even at the height of the Darfur response?

With a large, wealthy and needy humanitarian community present for decades, why do we still find development NGOs teaching women to make soap? Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There is nothing wrong with soap. The point is that many income-generating efforts are not successful, in part because of the lack of people willing or able to buy. But the humanitarian industry and the expats it employs are willing and able – so why aren’t development NGOs helping local people meet this demand?

In places like Port-au-Prince and Goma and Nyala, there are, of course, some local businesses and people who take advantage of the presence of foreign NGOs and expats alike, such as landlords, nightclubs and security services. Typically, though, the untapped demand is much larger, particularly for in-house service at NGOs; and, these businesses are either ad-hoc or pre-existing (especially in the early stages of a humanitarian response). Importantly, they are not the result of development agencies capitalising on opportunity, and so do not by design benefit the community, contribute to self-reliance or help establish an entrepreneurial culture.

The major humanitarian NGOs (and the UN) continue to be the managers and providers of an internal set of non-humanitarian services, which is inefficient. Here, one could talk of NGOs that hire and manage staff to clean their offices or residences, rather than having a development NGO work with a local group to create a cleaning service business. Ditto for vehicle maintenance, transport, catering, many aspects of supply and other functions that typically remain in-house to the INGO. And what of demand for highly-skilled counselling or consulting services (why do Westerners get so many of those contracts?), outsourced not necessarily due to a lack of local expertise, but because the local expertise lacks the know-how to package and market itself effectively?

Closing the gap

There needs to be a convergence of policy and practice aimed at the progressive outsourcing of services from within the foreign humanitarian community to local NGOs and businesses. The first step requires a teaming of development NGOs with their humanitarian cousins to delineate the concept. What services already exist? What services and businesses might comprise “easy wins”? What are the no-go areas (where humanitarian NGOs should retain direct control)? In what contexts would outsourcing be most likely to work? How can the development actors reduce the risks of negative impact when the humanitarians go home?

Next, the development agency must negotiate with national and local authorities, humanitarian NGOs and institutional donors to establish coordinated action and goals. NGOs will need to progressively cede control over important components of their activities. Donors may need to nudge them towards compliance, and national governments may be able to encourage change through regulation.

Most importantly, NGOs will have to work in the local community to build the actual businesses and services. This requires working in tandem with humanitarian organisations to ensure that needs are met and the quality of services is sufficient. The point is to create sustainable local capacity–businesses, services, NGOs, etc.–that can fill gaps or replace existing services that are owned or managed by humanitarians themselves.

Even to the extent that the activities proposed here already exist, they remain exceptions, haphazard in their genesis and limited in their impact. They do not reflect policy choices aimed at exploiting large-scale, protracted humanitarian interventions for the benefit of local development. Can we not imagine increasing local businesses’ support and service to the humanitarian community, to the point where it becomes a successful core component of development aid?

This opportunity may prove infeasible in some contexts, or it may be counter-productive to become dependent on cash cows whose presence is temporary. But, there is significant potentially successful development work in transforming existing functions into sound, income-generating local businesses.

Holiday Jeer

Painlessly short ideas for your holiday pleasure…

1. Development aid is like a kid getting a pair of goldfish for her birthday. In those first days, you can spend hours looking at the tank, watching the fish go about their business. Not much happens.  You can even talk to them, or tap on the glass.  Still, not much happens. Take a pinch of food flakes and toss it onto the surface of the water.  The fish dart to the surface and begin inhaling the flakes from underneath.  Press your forehead against the glass.  That’s better than Jacques Cousteau.

The next day your mother catches you feeding the fish again.  She warns against over feeding. But you can’t quite hold back.  You wait for your mother to disappear and then show friends how it works.  This is the thrill of your hand at work.  This is the reward and psychological satisfaction of causation.  And pretty soon your fish are belly up.

2. Good to see more awareness of the alarming persecution of homosexuality in places like Uganda, South Africa and Jamaica (e.g., here or here).  Typical reaction here is to think of that anti-gay violence as barbaric, as inherent in “their” lack of civilization.  Well, it is barbaric.  But is it something so comfortably foreign? On the news today I learned that the Queen used the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to issue a posthumous pardon for a 1952 conviction for homosexuality. British war hero (codebreaking) and mathematician Alan Turing was punished by chemical castration. Why does such a pardon require an act of mercy?  There is nothing merciful about it.  And why does it require 51 years?  As human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell opines: “I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offence are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon.”

3.  Nice piece of journalism in yesterday’s Guardian (some interesting comments as well). Title: The State that Fell Apart in a Week.  Plenty of chatter in the twittersphere on the suddenness of the collapse. My own rather sarky take on it:  If it falls apart in a week, it wasn’t a state.  I’m not sure how to build a state, but you can cross ethically [oops, I meant “ethnically”] fuelled civil war off the list.  Ditto for destroying your oil industry and an outbreak of atrocities.

Without trying to sound either uncaring or self-absorbed, there is something quite telling and terrible about the impact of this emerging catastrophe on the international community.  Lots of international blood, sweat and tears, not to mention dollars, have poured into South Sudan.  It is fine to expect that the humanitarian community must once again muster a Herculean effort to feed the hungry, shelter the displaced, and set up a healthcare system; or that international militaries must enforce peace between the warring parties.  But let’s not begin with the World-has-failed-the-people-of-SouthSudan line of self-flagellation. The South Sudanese have failed themselves. And they’ve laid to waste an awful lot of hard work.

4. And because self-flagellation (or, at least, self-reflection) is often a valuable commodity … The international community constructed South Sudan’s house of cards nationhood through an almost comprehensive “partnership”.  Many will opine that the fickle finger of fault should be pointed in the direction of everyone from the UN to the US Government to all the big NGOs to George Clooney.  Many will opine that we must draw lessons and do it better in the future.  But I would go back to the goldfish story above before jumping onto the bandwagon of building a better South Sudanese state (or Somali, or Afghan, etc).

Happy Holidays

Friday shorts: Syria, sixpacks and status

Today, a treat for the reader.  Instead of my meandering approach, I’ll spare you the long-winded digressions and the spectacle of my beating a dead horse.  Here, a few short(er) posts.

1.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In a land with only one horse, even a lame nag looks like Secretariat.  And so the political leadership of the world piles human hope and diplomatic muscle into a Geneva conference on Syria.  I certainly wish Kerry and Lavrov well.  In the realm of impossibility, even a half-baked solution seems like E=MC2.

The reality is that the Syrian conflict poses an existential threat.  Seems to me that the rush to self-destruction challenges the value of liberty, or freedom or democracy.  Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” makes for a great battle cry.  It sounds profoundly noble.  But at what point should either Assad or the Syrian opposition surrender?  Not militarily defeated but a recognition that the price of victory is too high.  That is not, obviously, a question for me to answer.

Yet I am reminded of King Solomon (in the Koran, Sulayman), a wise man for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  When faced with two women each claiming to be the mother of an infant, he threatened to cut the child in two.  The true mother, who loves her child, cries out that she would rather see it pass to the other than perish at the sword.

2.  A lot of magazines dealing with the NGO/charity sector cross my desk.  The recent cover of Charity Times holds the title “Measuring Impact”.  That is the not-for-profit sector’s equivalent of “Twenty Days to Sixpack Abs”.  I mean, is there even one issue of any health journal that does not include an article about how to get better abs?  Is it really possible that there are literally thousands of ways to say exercise regularly and eat less?  Apparently, there are.  I vote for a new research agenda:  Measuring the impact of articles on measuring impact.

3.  NGO. It is as much a title as an acronym; as much a declaration as a status.  What does it mean in a world where those bearing the NGO label are massively funded by governments?  And where governments  dictate so many of the terms of engagement?  I mean, if 75% of your field expenditure is financed by the likes of DFID, ECHO and USAID, the label of NGO seems deceptive.  Ditto where half of your management team used to work for the government.

NGO is an anachronism, a mark of distinction from days gone by, created by the UN to distinguish state actors/bodies from citizen groups.  Those distinctions are now hopelessly blurred.

Defining oneself through negation is a tricky business.  (If I had paid better attention at university, I might even remember what Sartre had to say about it).  Lots of organizations are non-governmental.  Technically, the Mara gangs and the International Fan Club of Rihanna would qualify as NGOs (probably more NG than CARE or even MSF).  But for many organizations that are not governmental there is no necessity or identity to be found in distinction from government.  No confusion between the Mara Salvatrucha and a delegation of foreign ministers (I know, I know, between the Mara and typical governments there is an identical imposition of a monopoly of violence to further economic interests, but that’s another blog, one which includes digressions).  So it raises the question of whether times have changed.  Do we now need additional acronymed credentials?

In honor of the tectonic shift towards social entrepreneurship – the transformation of the development NGO into a patron of the free market system – and marking the recently well-promoted “collaboration” between Glaxo SmithKline and Save the Children, I hereby initiate NCO.  Non-corporate organization.  To create distinction from organizations promoting corporate interests.  And for places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and (soon enough) Syria, how about NMO?  Non-military organizations.  To create distinction from organizations that are directed via belligerent funding to achieve “soft” military targets (talk about a gap re measuring impact!).  A bit clunky on the tongue — “As an NGO/NCO/NMO, we believe…”  — but the distinctions are vital.

The Ugly Marriage of Moral Responsibility and National Security

Brouhaha.  The evil of trading “schools for soldiers”.  That was Oxfam’s Max Lawson, firing  a bow shot in what became a full day barrage of Downing Street and DFID.  World Vision chirped in, as did Christian Aid and Save (though hard to tell which side they were on) and even small fish NGOs who usually keep their mouths shut.  Seems that NGOs in the UK have found their bite now that Andrew Mitchell is no longer reminding them of whose hand does the feeding.

The cause.  David Cameron’s statement that he would be “very open” to using some of DFID’s aid budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects.

The problem. Once again, and in a loud public voice the UK’s highest authority (OK, realistically DC is probably closer to sixth in terms of influence, after the Queen, Kate Middleton, Boris, Becks and Cara Delevingne, who is poised to change the shape of the British eyebrow) okayed the idea of development money sliding from DFID to fund MOD stabilization projects that deliver on the UK’s national security interests.  Loud and clear for the Taleban and al Shabab:  aid is for national security. Loud and clear for the communities where we work, planting that unhelpful chestnut of distrust as to NGO motivations.

What he didn’t say.  He didn’t say he wanted to buy weapons with aid money, or anything close to it (transcript here).  The level of hyperbole in Lawson’s “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” quip makes for great radio.  It also makes for a big fat lob pass to all those ready critics of aid, defenders of Tory policy, and friends of Dave (not to mention again aid agencies apparently trying to curry favour by defending the government).  Dismiss the point by making the lot of us look like self-serving nags or wrong on our facts.  Even MSF over-reacted, publishing a rather straightforward statement under the screechy tag of the aid budget being “hijacked”.

What NGOs didn’t say.  Our disclaimer: As a member of the aid community I hereby pledge that we aid agencies are motivated solely by the desire to defend the principle of independent aid.  We stamp our collective feet and in a piercing falsetto reject any accusation of there being even a soupçon of self-interest in this sudden vocality. It is pure coincidence that this involves funding for our future programs going to our good friends at MOD.

What nobody said.  Aid agencies are dead right to be critical of this public marriage of aid and national security interests / defence.  We need to complain about this more forcefully.  But in the real world  — Why wouldn’t governments prioritize political interests and military objectives (e.g., winning hearts and minds in hostile territory) over the moral pursuit of foreign aid and development?  NGOs, on the other hand, might be expected to conduct themselves differently.  And yet the much-decried “blurring of the lines” (between aid and military) is not simply the work of governments/armies.

NGOs have accepted funding from governments to work in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where those very governments have been a belligerent party in the war.  Like a Pakistani NGO taking money from al Qaeda to run a clinic in Sussex.  Doesn’t look good.  Afghanistan also provides a textbook example of NGOs, even while not accepting funds directly from warring parties, simply and without sufficient questioning setting up their aid programs on only one side of war, delivering aid to areas within Western military or Afghan government control.  This lopsided aid effort effectively supports the NATO/US/Karzai plan.  It aims to build the legitimacy of the Afghan government and popular gratitude to the Western invaders.  Bottom line:  it doesn’t look like aid to the guys with the guns on the other side of the fence.

What I previously said. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines if it were reporting on this same story elsewhere?  What if Robert Mugabe decided to use its own HIV and education budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects?  What if President Goodluck Jonathan decided to reassign a DFID grant to Nigeria’s military peacekeeping activities in Mali?  Whether or not there is a perfectly acceptable legality to the UK government’s manoeuvring, corruption is the word we’d use if the Tories were African.

What I think. Aid and defence mix well in a political analysis, poorly in a humanitarian one.  And we can probably conclude that the hard-boiled world of political opportunism seems like a right stench compared to the perfumed corridors of aid.  Then again, so does the whiff of NGO opportunism.

The Myth of Impartiality

Some time over the holidays, perhaps even on the 25th as I groaned at the thought of not being able to find room for a fourth helping of turkey, it struck me that Christmas is a moment when the pillar of humanitarianism magically appears, like presents under the tree.  Yes, out from the chimneys of our subconscious comes the experience of thinking about humanity.  Christmas (rule:  OK to write about it as long as the tree is still dropping needles in the living room) is a time of indulgence for many, but the bonhomie of the season also triggers a reflex to think about others, and plenty of sermons remind us to do so.

Humanity — the principle that our compassion for those who suffer should stretch beyond kin, clan, tribe, or nation and stir us to action even for strangers living on the far side of the globe – is a radical enough idea.  (See my earlier blog on the topic).  The principle turns on that other humanitarian pillar, impartiality.  Impartiality, essentially, is a non-discrimination clause.  If we humanitarian agencies aren’t allowed to use religion or race or gender to determine who gets our aid, it leaves us with an obligation to base our decisions – to apportion our assistance – according to needs alone.  As I’ve blogged, there are challenges to that within the way humanitarians think, and in the obstacles kicked up by life in the real world (who will Pakistani militants shoot this week?).  But I’ve never considered the idea that impartiality itself may be undesirable; or that it may be impossible.  Say what?

In a piece that reminded me why I didn’t’ become a philosopher (answer: not smart enough), Stephen Asma argues that people aren’t emotionally designed to achieve “an equal and impartial concern for all human beings”.  Read the article.  He takes on the theories of Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin (thankfully, I won’t attempt a summary) – and makes a very strong case that “all people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties”.

Asma would see it as both normal and positive that we care about kin or tribe first.  It is an act of the mind, a thought process, which convinces us to do otherwise.  Emotionally and morally, though, we are beholden to the gravitational pull of close relations rather than being free to embrace “cosmic love”.   If faced with the ultimatum, why shouldn’t I kick both humanity and utilitarianism in the teeth and choose saving my mother over saving ten mothers in Bolivia?  As many Brits now say about the international aid budget:  “What about us first!”

Asma further argues that empathy (the compassion at the root of our precious “humanity”) “is not a concept, but a natural biological event —an activity, a process.”  So it has limits that are physical, like doing chin-ups. Impartiality, then, is not what you might call a sustainable technology.

It’s also not really an appropriate technology.  About 25 years ago I wrote a paper (oh my, just the sound of that is frightening) proposing that corruption in the “Third World”, seen as a massive obstacle to development, was really the result of our Western way of doing things making a mess there, in the developing world (see also my post on anti-corruption fanaticism).  My youthful writing wasn’t about tools or machines or approaches. My focus was on civil service and the structure of government, perhaps the West’s least-questioned exports.

Looked at with a fairly open mind, the problem with corruption isn’t a problem with the moral fibre of, say, politicians.  On the contrary, a minister building a hospital in his ethnic home area is an act that conforms to the dominant ethical system of the context.  Saying no to a clansman might entail more of a wrong.  The problem is the imposition of a technology – government administrative process – that is wholly dependent on a cold, disconnected unbiased civil service.  The cherished fairness of Western administration is dependent on the reduction of our set of social bonds and obligations to the nuclear family.  (Disclosure:  As a bartender I passed more than a few free beers to my friends, but it’s not like I would hire any of them to construct a dam.).

The bedrock of the Western state:  (almost) everybody not living in your house is a stranger and can be told no (or even screwed) without remorse.  So development becomes the process by which societies develop an increasingly self-centred populace, well capable for example of stuffing its aging parents into dank and distant nursing homes, but who will free state functions from clan affiliation, religious favouritism and ethnic bias (good old fashioned bribes, of course, will remain).

In a place where kin and clan run prominently through the social, cultural and moral fibre of the nation and of individuals, why base the state on such a stunningly inhuman idea as impartiality?  Why not design systems that depend on nepotism, rather than are damaged by it?  Why not build a civil service and government bureaucracy through the existing clan/tribe/religious structure?  So much for my old ideas.

Now, what about humanitarian action?  Should we redesign humanitarianism around Cicero (quoted by Asma), who said, “society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.”  To some extent, compromises on impartiality are common, such as Turkish Red Crescent’s 2011 response to Somali famine being thought of as coming to the aid of “our Muslim brothers”.  And let’s be clear, it’s not like impartiality is a story that plays well.  Would you trust somebody – a foreigner no less – who knocked on your door and said he wanted to clean the kitchen floor for free?  What?  No political affiliation?  No hidden agenda?  Not a religious duty and no proselytizing? Zero financial gain?  Do you take me for an idiot?

If Asma is right, then humanity cannot be our family.  So is the act of jumping humanitarian action through the hoop of impartiality a lost cause?  Maybe there is a better question.  If we are designed to care more about those close to us, and if our body fatigues at fighting the heart (telling us to care more about strangers is like telling us not to have the double chocolate brownie with whipped cream), what is it that actually motivates and guides humanitarians?  What fills in for the pureness of empathy?  Thrill seeking?  Exoticism?  Escape? Cynicism? Feeling good about ourselves?  All of the above.

Maybe, then, Asma isn’t relevant.  We humanitarians are capable of maintaining impartiality not because it is a nice idea that captures our imagination, not because we all hold a hidden Ghandi within, but because impartiality is Santa Claus.  The niceness of the idea allows us to hide the truth of our gift, which in the case of impartiality is the selfishness of our compassion for humanity.  Humanitarianism is saved!  Because our limbic system may tire from our caring for the plight of strangers, but we’ll never get tired of caring for ourselves.

Development vs. Independence

When a pseudonymous filmmaker put out the laughable, execrable Innocence of the Muslims, did anybody foresee a KFC getting torched?  Not to mention a Hardees.  (Which begs the question:  When was the last time anybody outside of Tennessee even noticed a Hardees?).   Apparently, these heart disease outlets are symbols of the USA, a nation that is being held responsible for Sam Bacile’s vile film.  Just yesterday on BBC, a British military expert referred to it as “the U.S. film,” as if it were an official product of the State Department.  Funny that sort of attribution.  Seems unfair.  Like holding the entire Muslim world responsible for 9/11.

There is no link from bad fast food to American foreign policy (let’s not quibble about U.S. Govt efforts to help U.S. corporations establish overseas markets).  Yet the perceived link is as real to rioters on Lebanon’s “Arab Street” as salt in a Big Mac, isn’t it?

That’s the lesson for independence in humanitarian circles:  we NGOs can’t fully control perceptions; we can only improve our chances.  Independence is factual:  being able to make decisions and then implement programs in such a way as to ensure impartiality trumps political opportunism (i.e., that aid goes to those most in need).  And independence is about what people think.  What does KFC have to do with the American government?  And what does the American government have to do with Bacile’s film (“Sam Bacile” and “Imbecile”:  curiously close!)?  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

ALNAP’s recently released State of the Humanitarian System report raises the concern of a growing split between “traditionalist” actors, like MSF and the ICRC, and multi-mandate organizations, like Oxfam or World Vision. (Scroll down on ALNAP’s site if you want to see a video of yours truly in action).  Tellingly, it concludes that “many humanitarian organizations have themselves also willingly compromised a principled approach in their own conduct through close alignment with political and military actors” (SOHS p. 79). Bingo.  That’s your first step to a burned down chicken shack.   But what does this compromise look like up close?

There is the obvious acceptance of funding for programs, especially for work in war zones, from Western governments that are one of the belligerents.  Most international NGOs really struggle with those decisions, attempting an impossible calculation between benefits of the program versus negative consequences for the NGO.  Will “they” shoot at us if we take U.S. Govt money?  Will “they” give us access?

Less obvious for some reason are the ways in which agencies go further than accept government funding.  Responding to the recent Cabinet shuffle in the UK, here’s what Christian Aid had to say about the departing head of Department for International Development (DFID):  “Andrew Mitchell can leave [DFID] with his head held high. He has been a passionate defender of the need for the UK to help people living in poverty around the world.”   That sort of asskissing is so commonplace many NGOs no longer even register its existence.  Here’s Save the Children’s UK CEO, saying that he “completely” trusted David Cameron’s Conservative government on aid and development.

In an astute blog, Jonathan Glennie casually concludes that “Pandering to power is an inevitable part of being a large international charity or research organisation these days; it’s where much of the money comes from.”  Say what?  Inevitable?  Like death and taxes?

The issue goes beyond money.  It goes to achieving organization objectives.  And the relationships go much deeper than offering public praise (which, btw, DFID strongly “encourages” for NGOs receiving funding).   This is not self-promotion, this is partnership.  Many large NGOs must actively cultivate a public, political relationship with a government.  In 2009, Save UK hosted the Conservative Party’s launch of its aid policy.  Right now, Save is preparing to host the Labour Party’s annual conference on int’l development.   Another example:  Islamic Relief co-hosted a Ramadan dinner with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (that’s not the aid bunch, that’s the politicos).

Beyond partnership, there is the co-mingling of staff.  Lots of NGOs hire directors from the ranks of the political world.  This is a matter of hiring skilled, connected leaders.  Positive impact?  Loads.  Negative impact?  Hard to measure, but a full 30 years after Bernard Kouchner left MSF, the organization still had to issue press releases to distance itself from his actions as French foreign minister.

Let’s get something straight.  I’m not being critical.  Really.  Well, sort of.  This “partnering” has become a policy, not just a practice.  In other words, one NGO’s pandering is another NGO’s advocacy strategy.  Check out journo Peter Gill in his excellent Famine and Foreigners: ‘The intimacy between Oxfam and the Labour government was defended on both sides […] An impressive national consensus was built in Britain around the merits of aid which after decades of [Conservative party] scepticism was endorsed by […]David Cameron.”  (pp. 179 – 180).  Gill was critical of the relationships, but he’s right to realize that they proved an effective vehicle for change.  And lest the sanctimonious pretend they are different, here’s MSF showing some love for none other than the heavyweight champ of drone missile diplomacy, pushing the agenda for HIV/AIDS funding.

The problem lies in the multi-mandate status of most large humanitarian NGOs.  When it comes to development programs and policy campaign objectives, creating a close and public relationship with key governments is crucial to ensuring success (e.g., adequate aid flows, effective policy).  The cosier the better – politics makes for mundane bedfellows as well – even if their new best friends also happen to be shooting up a few war zones.  Put simply, there is little imperative for a development organization to safeguard the perception of independence. The oops factor comes from the fact that development is only half the story of some NGOs.

In the end, the difficulty for big charities to demarcate and safeguard their independence from government blots out the NG in NGO.  In the UK, carrying the Minister’s bag means carrying the bag of the man who said “Using the UK’s aid budget to secure progress in Afghanistan will be my number one priority … Well-spent aid is in our national interest. Nowhere in the world is this case clearer than in Afghanistan.” (UK Minister for Int’l Development Andrew Mitchell, July 2010).

That sort of co-mingling has an effect.  Look, not even people in the same country will trust your motives.  When Save recently highlighted the problem of hunger in Britain, people uncomfortable with that message undermined it by suggesting there was a rat loose.  As reported in the illustrious Daily Mail, “Conservative MP Brian Binley told civilsociety.co.uk he had general concerns as Justin Forsyth […] had worked for the last Labour government”, and suggesting that the report’s alarm over hunger in the UK was part of a “political agenda”.   Turn now to people in foreign lands.  With guns.  Or a sick child.  As I have written before, in the midst of humanitarian crisis, independence goes to the heart of aid, to its integrity.

Which brings us back to KFC.  Bad enough that independent Western NGOs may be targeted as a way of venting anti-American or anti-Western suspicions and anger.  What happens when it turns out that these NGOs actually helped fry the fowl?