Tag Archives: Humanitarian Principles

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 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.

Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

Dear United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,

Millions of people heard you. I heard you.

This is what you said before the World Humanitarian Summit.

Our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately injured and killed. Air strikes rip families apart. … The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits. (UNSG Summit Report ¶ 46)

Flouting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious … We can, and we must, do better. (¶ 48). Remaining silent while serious violations of international law are unfolding is morally unacceptable […] Our common humanity demands that we do everything we can to prevent and end violations and hold perpetrators accountable. (¶ 59).

Whenever serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law occur, Governments, global leaders and other relevant individuals must systematically condemn them. Even where we may not be able to stop violence and suffering immediately, we have a minimum responsibility to speak […] I have asked all United Nations senior officials to do so and I encourage all United Nations staff to act with moral courage in the face of early, serious and large-scale violations. I also exhort all relevant actors and stakeholders to end the double standard of condemning the violations of some but not of others. (¶ 62, emphasis added).

Let us make the Summit in Istanbul the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change (¶ 180).

Wow.

This is what you said after the World Humanitarian Summit:

State, civil society and humanitarian leaders repeatedly stated that international humanitarian and human rights law is more relevant than ever: it is the last protection against barbarity. We therefore must not take the easy way out and declare all civilians collateral damage. (Chair’s Summary p. 3)

There was wide agreement that unless we hold perpetrators to account, there will be no stopping this downward spiral. (Chair’s Summary p. 4). The World Humanitarian Summit has been a wake-up call for action for humanity. It has generated global momentum and political will to move forward on the Agenda for Humanity and the five core responsibilities to deliver better for people across the globe. (p. 7).

The Summit is a point of departure to act, but there must also be a destination … Let us now turn the Agenda for Humanity into an instrument of global transformation. (p. 8)

This is what you did earlier this week. You succumbed to political pressure and erased Saudi Arabia from the UN’s blacklist of those violating the rights of children (due to their often indiscriminate bombing in Yemen).

Here is what others think you did earlier this week (click): Amnesty International, War Child, and Human Rights Watch (and 35 other organizations).  Here is what I think you did earlier this week: I think you gutted the World Humanitarian Summit.  Without a global recommitment to political responsibility, legal obligations and humanitarian ideals, the Summit births nothing more than a broad set of bureaucratic aid system reforms.

I have not yet understood why this move leaves me so sad and so angry. After all, as an example of politics and power trumping the norms and principles of humanity, it seems emblematic of the current state of affairs to the point of banality. It exemplifies well the shortcomings of the United Nations and, more generally, global leadership.  Could it be that your words pierced my cynicism?Touched my humanity?  Could it be that I felt hope? Yes.

If May’s Summit functioned as a “wake-up call” then your actions this week signaled a death knell, clear notice that the most fundamental commitments to humanity were not reaffirmed, nor a new moral courage discovered.  While I was never convinced the Summit was worth staging, I am certain it was not worth killing off so quickly.

Mr. Secretary General, this is the moment, a critical juncture for your World Humanitarian Summit and for your legacy. Stand up now. Put the Saudi-led coalition back on the list.

Yours sincerely.

PS: And Mr. Secretary General, if you happen to run into other world leaders, could you ask why they do not loudly insist you hold the Saudis accountable (even in this small way) for their actions? Sadly, I think we know the answer. Back to business as usual: shared inhumanity, many irresponsible.

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.

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.

Operation Fear, redux

Who remembers Willie Horton? You could make an argument that without Willie Horton, George Bush the senior would not have been elected president, and hence his son would not have risen to power, and so no US attack of Iraq, and so on . . .

Horton

The successful centerpiece of a Bush campaign ad attacking Michael Dukakis (the Democratic candidate), Willie Horton embodied a wild, violent and very black criminality that scared the bejesus out of mainstream (i.e., White) American voters. A first, highly mediatized use of racial fears to win an election? I don’t know. But compare this to what is being termed the “opening salvoes in Operation Fear.” The latter day attack: David Cameron employing fear of migrants to spur opposition to Britain leaving the EU, threatening that France might no longer honor the agreement by which the UK operates its border controls on French territory (which is a key reason the squalid camp lies in France, not the south coast of the UK).

The politics of fear is but one aspect of the situation: the degree to which the fear of migrants, foreigners and refugees has eroded the ideals and principles behind safe refuge and the right to seek asylum. More importantly, the degree to which it has muted many of the voices one might expect to champion these very ideals, giving them loud voice in the public sphere (rather than a reticence in defense of institutional public image).

But the more insidious problem can be found in the mechanics underlying these tactics. Willie Horton was a violent, deranged killer. As an individual, he earned our fear. The secret of the ad’s success, though, traded on his face, an archetype of the guy hiding under your childhood bed. I wonder what it would have felt like to African-Americans, not simply to be feared on account of their skin, but to be feared so pervasively and effortlessly that it makes for a useful instrument.

What does it mean to the people in Calais (or those who are not, but might as well be), if they can so easily be used to evoke fears of invasion, of a swarming terror? Cameron’s underlying logic involves trading on the dehumanized foreigner, a meme for the modern bogeyman, usefully deployed to frighten not children but British voters into good behaviour. And so, the call to the humanitarian and human rights community is not simply to defend law and policies or to deliver assistance, but to counter (the principle of) humanity under attack and the equally powerful banalization of the attack. That is where it starts. That is where it always starts.

Thomas Jefferson and the 22nd Century

A New Year and a new baby have sparked my inner Carl Sagan, pondering the next century, musing on the meaning of life. That sort of thinking delivered me rather quickly to Thomas Jefferson.

Speculation about the future remains a dark art. When I was a kid, people imagined life in 2016 would be like The Jetsons (which, btw, takes place in 2062) not Downton Abbey with an internet connection. Extrapolating trends, the pundits prophesied both horrors and nirvanas. We watched 2001, A Space Odyssey and were convinced by its promise. We lamented never seeing a tight-suited Mick Jagger singing about Satisfaction again. Oh, how we were wrong.

Humanitarian crystal balls fare no better than others. When it comes to such predictions, I produced this piece in 2010, looking forward to 2020. Much more serious analysis can be found, for instance, in Randolph Kent’s work with the Humanitarian Futures project (e.g., see here). What about the far future? Not 2020 or 2050. What about a century or two from now? That’s where Jefferson comes in.

It would be difficult to identify a more brilliant politician, philosopher or steadfast champion of democracy, liberty and equality. Enter, stage left, the inconvenient truth that the man who found it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal” also bought and sold men as slaves. Let’s avoid a discussion of the historical and moral context circa 1775. The more pertinent question: When they study the current humanitarian age, what will prove our Jeffersonian blemish? What will leave people in 2116 shaking their heads, outraged at our deep moral and logical flaws? What constitutes our unrecognized racism? One answer: speciesism.

In scores of presentations during my MSF days, I used the slide below (stolen, with thanks, from JAB) to highlight the critical specificity of humanitarian action, distinguishing it from the much broader remit of do-gooderism issuing from a ‘humanitarian’ spirit (development, rights literacy, democracy promotion, gender equality, etc.). As the colored lines appeared, I asked participants whether they thought it a suitable definition of ‘humanitarian.’ Moving left from “doing good for people”, after a few iterations I would then jump out to ‘animal humanitarianism’ for comic relief, perhaps making fun of the (surprisingly successful) organization Donkey Sanctuary. “Has somebody lost the plot?” I would ask. “Is there some confusion over the first five letters of the word ‘humanitarian’?” Hell no doubt reserves a special pitchfork for the sanctimonious.

What is humanitarian action? JAB chart

 

The paramount principle of humanity places the fundamental human dignity of all people at the heart of the humanitarian ethos. This amounts to and is part of a larger exceptionalism – granting to humans a set of protections that are denied to other species. It yields a classification, as did race, onto which we graft great significance, including a conviction in our own superiority. There is too much similarity with racism not to wonder whether a future enlightenment will unfold, one holding that all life merits an equal degree of reverence, or at least conceiving of all life as possessing a magic, a magic so singular and astonishing that it renders irrelevant the differences between all of life’s diverse forms.

Right now, there are six boneless chicken thigh filets marinating in my fridge. In other words, I have not yet gone off the animal rights deep end, nor have I adopted dubious New Age philosophies such as Why I Identify as a Mammal. It seems almost inevitable that the proud leaders of humanitarian action today will have their names sandblasted off memorials in the future, with 22nd Century students protesting our virulent speciesism and moral decrepitude (i.e., when we become history, we are not likely to become the heroes we secretly yearn to be).

The import of speciesism to humanitarians is to consider whether the most powerful way to protect humanity would be to stop pushing human exceptionalism. Why does humanitarian action neither embrace nor deploy a reverence for life itself, and does this deficit undercut respect for its central message that family, clan, tribe, race, gender and nationality must be subordinate to the single family of humanity? Perhaps all exceptionalism warrants condemnation because exceptionalism, be it that of Joseph Kony or the US government, inexorably yields atrocity. The Jeffersonian problem, of course, is that we may have to live another hundred years of tomorrows to recognize the atrocities of today.

Called Out

Story 1. The Daily Mail’s recent investigation revealed that charity fundraising agents employ aggressive techniques, harassing everyone, even people with dementia in order to score a donation. The DM trumpets a revolting story of how one lovely old woman, 92-year-old Olivia Cooke, was killed by cold calling.

Story 2. All these charities have ‘robust’ measures in place, none of these charities ‘tolerate’ unethical call practices, all these charities have elaborate systems to ensure their telephone fundraising agents comply with the ‘highest standards’ of practice, none of them knew what was going on, all of them are ‘outraged’ and will get to the bottom of this… (see here, for example)

Point 1: Something does not quite add up.

Question 1: Which conclusion is worse? That charities all know exactly how cold-call fundraising campaigns function, and yet make a calculated compromise? That it is largely the charities who dictate a game in which call agencies must deliver the greatest bang for the buck – an equation doomed to sideline ethical concerns? Or that nobody knew the path that was being taken in their names (conveniently, in that case, all we need to do is change paths by hiring a different agency)?

Answer 1: No answer to those questions gets rid of the queasy feeling that more of the public now thinks of us in terms usually reserved for celebrities who get caught cheating on their spouses.

Point 2.  We are all in this together. Trust is the primary precondition for the aid world.

Story 3: The aftermath has been predictable. Now, the industry trots out sincere handwringing, apologies and pledges for investigations/change. Now, announcements to stop using cold call tactics and a new supporter pledge to behave better. Now, the politicians, fundraising industry and aid business have jumped on the bandwagon of salvation.  Tough measures will be taken! Abuse will be stamped out! A new morality will rule the day because it turns out humanitarians – like the politicians and bankers in opposition to whom we routinely define our goodness – need a new morality.

Question 2. The question isn’t whether NGOs should wean themselves from cold calling or establish confidence-building supporter pledges. The question is why supporter promises, a relatively ancient, tried-and-true practice, were not in place long ago. The question is why cold calling is ever used to raise money for humanitarian ends.

Answer 2 (literal version): Decisions were taken not to make a supporter promise.  Decisions were taken to ignore the ethical concerns around cold calling in order to deliver on cash.

Answer 2 (simple version):  We have large headquarters and we have massive needs to fulfill – a globe of human suffering no less –and that costs money.

Answer 2 (complex version): The incentives in a supply-driven aid system emphasize financial bottom lines over operational effectiveness.

Answer 2 (deep version): Across many dimensions of our work, the humanitarian has a vested interest in believing that ends justify means.

Main Point: The Daily Mail – and we should expect as much – almost defines the “shark kills surfer” school of journalism.  Shock sells news.  Little old ladies with Alzheimer’s became the story. So little old ladies become the problem and then drive the solution.  In whipping up the lurid tale of our fallen humanitarian nobility, the media buried the greater imperative. A focus on the extremities of harassment veils the banality of aid’s hard-fought principles being eroded by the business of self-interest.

Story 4:  Where have we heard this saga of disenchantment before? Just about everywhere.