Tag Archives: Humanitarian Protection

The Three Ds of Search and Rescue

A hand stretches from water and another from the side of a boat. A rare moment of purity in humanitarian work.  The hands clasp, and a life is saved. It is far from coincidence that this purity flourishes on the open sea, in a space beyond the borders of states, a no-man’s non-land where, unaided, human survival can be counted in minutes.

rescue-at-sea-pic
Source: AFP

We can be proud that there in the Mediterranean the humanitarian imperative to save lives defeats the savagery and oppression that force millions into a desperate displacement, defeats the policies of democratic nations that eliminate safe and legal alternatives for people to reach Europe and defeats the evil greed of the smugglers (misnomer alert!**). Those victories are, however, short-lived.

Last week search and rescue (SAR) operations pulled over 11,000 people from the sea, from boats so densely packed they recall the slave ships of centuries past. That is a spectacular number of hands. But the purity of search and rescue is a deceptive purity, one that masks costs borne by the humanitarian organizations engaged in SAR, by the fundamental principles and ideals of human rights and by the people pulled from the sea themselves.  Because once that moment of purity has passed we leave the sea for land, where the humanitarian ethos collides with political reality, fear and gutless self-interest.

The image we have of rescue in the Mediterranean is a naïve one, for in fact the human quest for freedom and security and refuge often leads to the not-so-Hollywood ending of low-budget incarceration.  From the sea and into the realm of mankind we might better append three Ds to SAR: Search and Rescue and Delivery into Detention and Deportation.  Official containment policy propels this punitive approach, and research has shown the “highly detrimental impact of detention on the health of migrants and asylum-seekers”, not to mention the degradation (see this article in the excellent June 2016 issue of Refugee Survey Quarterly).  SAR teams deal with consequences; they struggle with their inescapable complicity in the matter (see this analysis of MSF’s difficult and lengthy internal debate). As humanitarians they choose the life of those at sea over DDD, but they do not have to like that choice.

Humanitarian organizations and other activists alike have lifted their voices in protest, against the conditions and policies of detention, against the failure of our ideals and legal obligations to protect people in danger and against the human cost of political leadership’s deliberate failure to establish anything close to a functioning safe and legal alternative to reaching Europe. Those protests have not fallen on deaf ears, but they have fallen on ears that place political survival above principled commitment.  From a different angle: their protest is drowned out by the protest of those more anti-immigration in persuasion. The Aylan Kurdi moments of overwhelming public compassion prove too brief to sustain policy.  And almost cruelly, humanitarians must ponder their role in that as well, for the power of humanitarian purity renders much else invisible.  In this case, the mediatique drama of the rescue at sea obscures both the prologue and the epilogue.

** What does sending thousands of people into the sea on unseaworthy boats have to do with smuggling? What are the smugglers concealing and conveying?  They aren’t even on the boats any longer. This is not smuggling. This is mass murder.

Brexit Now vs UK EU

The Referendum on staying in the EU strikes me not as a “great festival of democracy” but more an invitation for tyranny of the majority. Issues this important and decisions this enduring should be decided on the basis of principles and analysis, not a direct measure of popular sentiment or, worse still, fear-stoked self-interest.  It also strikes me as full of lessons for humanitarians.

The process has almost boiled down UK membership in the EU to the single issue of refugees/migrants (Trumping for many potential economic ruin) – yet another historic chapter in the denigration of an entire category of human beings due to otherness, this time based on a fear of kebab houses, long-bearded men who aren’t hipsters and increased wait times in the Tory-gutted National Health Service.  The tenor of this debate, as that of the more general ‘migrant crisis’, signals well the moribund status of ideals such as humanitarianism.

If that were not enough, then consider the appeal to the EU as a protector of human rights, justice, working class dignity, and democracy itself against the (Tory party’s) British government. Here’s one poster:

eu poster pic

The argument, relatively common, strikes me as too common, too causally passed from podium to populous, its accuracy familiar and suffered like the crappy British summer rather than revolting. There is something fundamentally wrong with governance in Britain if it cannot, on its own, protect its citizens and residents from injustice, overzealous anti-terrorism legislation, and the tyranny of the corporate elite. We humanitarians berate governments in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iraq for similar domestic shortcomings.  We do so with no small hint of frustration and condescension, an angry and smug appeal to the ‘enlightened’ external world – to the universality and binding commitments of international human rights – that has not yet overtaken the primitive internal state. Can it be that in Great Britain, such lustrous ideals and protections similarly depend upon a relatively full panoply of external laws and courts?

As I (and many others, no less than the UN Secretary General) have blogged elsewhere, the plug seems to have been pulled on the belief that governments should allow such ideals and commitments to constrain self-interest. This downward spiral lies not just in the behavior of states with long dark track records, but in the strengthening norm among the usual champions of international law, human rights, and multilateral civility. The EU’s decision on migrants seems perfectly emblematic in this regard. It should function as a wake-up buzzer, an indication that humanitarian protection needs a new strategy.

In places like South Sudan, Syria or Central African Republic, humanitarians confront their increasing impotence, an inability to appeal to international commitments and norms that were never fully upheld, but at least held some power. As Ban Ki-moon declared, “our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.” As a practice, humanitarian protection – the duty of humanitarians to move beyond a sterile delivery of material assistance and work towards protection – seems depressingly lost. Experts convene and much more easily describe the abysmal state of affairs than potential ways forward. This report of such a meeting held last June (disclosure, I am one of the authors), for example, identified three potentially useful strategies, but without any delusion that they solve the problem:

[… a] strengthened capacity to leverage political and armed actors resulting from (1) better analysis, of the sort that reveals not only the violations/abuses but also potential tactics towards ending them […]; (2) a deliberate, broader engagement with a wide range of actors external to the humanitarian sector; and, (3) greater humanitarian independence from political power.

Perhaps, as I have come to understand on the eve of the UK’s EU Referendum, there really is something quite wrong with the necessity of appealing to external, supra-sovereign covenants in order to guarantee fundamental human rights.  Such agreements work well enough for technical issues, like patent law or aviation safety, but perhaps we should never have diverted so much effort into the internationalization of our humanity. Instead, we should have focused that energy and effort into its localization, into all the different locals, from the ground up. Perhaps therefore we need to accept the decline of universal norms and official disregard for international covenants, and begin the 25-year march not to their reaffirmation but their replacement at each and every national level.  Local civil society as the centerpiece, rather than us international do-gooders. Because in or out of a common union should affect commerce, travel and cross-border law enforcement, not justice, rights or democracy.

Aesop Visits the Modern World

Once upon a time there was a shepherd boy who cared for the village sheep.  Every day, the boy would take the sheep into the fields to graze.  It was not fun, and the boy had to stay there all by himself, watching over the sheep to make sure the wolves did not come.

Then one day, a wolf broke into the field and began attacking the flock.

The shepherd boy felt a terrible fear. He climbed to the top of the hill and cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help! A wolf is trying to kill my sheep.” When the villagers heard the boy shouting, they left their chores and ran as quickly as they could to help.

The people of the village found that the wolf had killed one of the sheep. The trail led back to its lair in Assuria. The villagers were upset. “This is not a laughing matter,” they declared. They stamped their feet and wagged their fingers at the leaders of Assuria.  “Keep your wolf away from our sheep,” they said.  “Or else!”

Time passed and the villagers went back to town and the shepherd boy returned to the green fields with his sheep.  One quiet afternoon, another wolf strike began. The sheep fled in terror as the wolf’s jaws snapped left and right.  The boy felt a terrible rage. He ran to the top of the hill. “Wolf!” he cried, tears sliding down his cheeks.  “Wolf!”  The wolf did not stop, not even when the boy called the Chief of Freedonia and told him what one of his wolves was doing.

When the villagers arrived they consoled the boy. They helped him gather his flock and tend to the wounded. They felt a deep sorrow as they gazed at the three dead sheep.  “This is not a laughing matter,” they declared even more loudly than the first time. They stamped their feet even more fiercely than the first time, and they wagged their fingers more furiously. They cursed the people of Freedonia. “You’d better stop that wolf from breaking into our field,” they shouted.  “Or else!”  The sheep, for their part, huddled closer together, looking out over the sea.

The people of Freedonia inquired with the wolf.  “It was an accident,” he said. “I thought they were wild sheep.”

“Wild sheep wearing bells and grazing in a field surrounded by fences?” asked the boy.  But the wolf did not reply. His tummy ached from so much fresh lamb.

Time passed and the villagers stopped stamping their feet and wagging their fingers. They went back to their homes to watch Village Idol and take pictures of themselves watching Village Idol.

The boy went back to the field with the rest of his sheep (who wished to go someplace else, but nobody wanted them).

One day, having heard the stories of sheep feasts, an entire wolf pack crawled under the fences and attacked the flock.  The shepherd boy again ran up the hill and cried out. The villagers again came and stamped their feet. They wagged their fingers. They watched as the star of Village Idol denounced the wolf attacks as “Dastardly”.  They cursed the people of Muscovy, whose wolves had done so much killing.  “It wasn’t us,” claimed Mayor Takeout. “It was a Freedonia wolf.” And then he had an even cleverer idea. “They weren’t sheep,” he said. “They were foxes.”

Time passed and the villagers went back to their homes. The boy went back to the field with the last of his sheep.

Now, these sheep were not as dumb as they looked. That afternoon, as they munched the blood-fed grass, they held a meeting. Later, when the shepherd boy gathered them together, the sheep Elder stepped forward.

“We grieve for our fathers and mothers and children who have been wolfed,” he said.  “In our entire history we have never known such wretchedness.”

“I am sorry,” said the boy. “I am so sorry.”

“Do you know what is worse than the grief?” asked the Elder.

The shepherd boy did not.

“It is the fear,” he said. “We know the wolf will come again.  And he will kill again.” The flock stirred.

The boy’s head dropped. “Then I will cry out again, only louder and more forcefully than ever,” he promised.

The Elder shook his head. “Poor shepherd boy. Are you not familiar with Einstein? ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’”

The boy was amazed.  “You know about Einstein?”

“Did you not notice the hair? He was one of us.”

The boy thought about insanity. “But silence kills.”

“True,” said the Elder.  “But what happens when we know words won’t stop it?”

The boy pondered this.

“Do you know what is worse than death and worse even than the constant fear?” asked the Elder.

The boy did not.

“It is realizing that everybody knows but nobody will come. We know this. The wolves know this. That is the worst thing. Knowing that we are just sheep.”

Refugees and Migrants: A New (old) Narrative

Imagine the scene. A desperate mass of stricken, exhausted, frightened people find refuge. Perhaps for the first time in years, they sleep with two eyes shut. Bam! A powerful group wrenches the money, jewels and property from their hands. Highway pillagers? Blood-thirsty criminal gang? Friends of Joseph Kony? Nope, nope, nope. That’s the work of the Government of Denmark and the Government of Switzerland (see e.g., here). In other words, it is the cunning policy of governments obligated by law to protect these very people. Governments, I might add, one does not usually associate with regime thuggery. This doesn’t pass the smell test.

In a related example of erecting clever barriers because a wall seems too crude, Obama’s US government will set up screening centers in Latin America, to “head off migrants . . . before they start traveling to the United States.” And who will be implementing these barriers screening centers? No, not Donald Trump. It’s UNHCR, the UN agency dedicated to defending refugees and the right to seek asylum.

Denmark? Switzerland? Obama? UNHCR? With friends like these … And lest the humanitarian community feel superior, let us remember that the appeals for money to fund programs in Syria have been unmistakably louder than appeals for Western governments to open their doors. A logic reminiscent of George Bush has evolved: if you help us feed/clothe them over there, they won’t come over here.

As Sara Pantuliano and others have astutely argued, it is time to change the narrative. Rather than view migrants as risks (or, for that matter, leeches, criminals and terrorists), she elaborates, the debate needs to be reframed to recognize “the substantial social and economic contribution they can make to their host societies.” Certainly, a more balanced understanding of migrants and refugees is necessary. But will a more accurate, positive spin on the situation work?

I have my doubts. Once a public debate is permeated by fear, once politicians seize upon those fears to gain power, once a gaping us-them divide blocks humanizing discourses . . . Well, let’s just say it becomes extremely difficult to engage in the sort of discussion where facts possess the power of persuasion. Look at the gun control debate in the US, or the past decade of immigration debates that have cropped up in much of Europe.  People become fact-resistant, positions entrenched, opinions shouted at the other side. In the situation we have today, facts don’t matter as much as we would like to believe.

More importantly, arguing the facts, arguing the other side of the coin, does not reframe the debate, it reinforces it. By accepting those terms for the discussion – the pros and cons of refugees – one undercuts the idea that asylum and refugee decisions should be based on principles, on the law, on an ethic of compassion. To reframe the debate, we need to discuss what is right and what is human, regardless the consequences. We need to avoid the a policy discourse of self-interest: asylum cannot depend on whether or not the safe haven needs you. Is Germany’s open door a more moral approach than other nations? Or a more enlightened understanding of domestic needs and migrant potential? I hope the former, I fear the latter.

If we want to salvage the sinking ship formerly known as the right to seek asylum, if we want to defend the 21 million refugees in the world, facts may be useful, but principles must be foremost. Not because loudly proclaiming what is right will win the argument, but because it is the argument most worthy of losing.

Lessons From Charlie Hebdo

What do David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have in common? Well, probably lots of things. Here’s one you weren’t thinking of: All of them attended Sunday’s massive Charlie Hebdo rallies in Paris, and did not make any such powerful protest when the Taliban murdered 132 children in Peshawar. A number of articles (see here or here), comments and tweets have contrasted the West’s reaction to the murder of twelve satirists with the case of those Pakistani children, or Boko Haram’s abduction and enslavement of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls.

There is a sad futility in making such comparisons. First, it is not a comparison of like to like. Would the Charlie Hebdo attack have created such a global outpouring without the video footage of the gunmen making their escape? Are the Taliban not the old story, half as sexy as the Islamic State? Bottom line: lots of factors explain Sunday’s extraordinary political and emotional outpouring as 3.6 million people pinned Je Suis Charlie to their hearts.

Beyond that, though, is the misplaced anger of these accusations. It is OK to feel a greater kinship to those closer to us than to those far away. This form of tribalism may even be hardwired into us as human beings. We can still exercise the core humanitarian principle that we share an equal kinship with all humanity. So I can admit to feeling closer to editor Stephane Charbonnier or cartoonist Jean Cabut than to teacher Sofia Amjad or pupil Asad Aziz (even while imagining the school children to be ‘more innocent’ – apologies for that, but you get what I mean). The mistake is not in experiencing the bias of our own very human emotions. The mistake is to allow that bias to go unrecognized, so that it fails to be overruled.

The even larger mistake is in failing to see that the source of those biased feelings is not solely kinship. These biases – our different reactions to Charlie Hebdo versus Peshawar’s massacre – are produced by the same relations of power and privilege that nourish the Western NGO and produce biased approaches, strategies and activities. These prejudicial factors range widely, from the North-South bias in media coverage to the effective valuation of some human lives over others to the difference between the West’s position towards the right to free speech versus the right to an education. Sadly, recognition of these biases will remain spotty without genuinely more global decision makers at the top of our nominally-global aid agencies.

Lesson 2: The sense of senseless

Do not succumb to the reactive view that these killings are senseless, outbursts of psychotic madness, the work of a purely bloodthirsty fanaticism. On display are undoubtedly a purpose and a logic and the capacity of this attack to advance the personal and strategic interests of the murderers. There is a cruel win-win at play – do nothing and the Kouachi brothers’ actions will look heroic, having cowed the West into a fearful submission. Have a mass rally and, well, their actions will look heroic. After all, we were not the message audience. We are more likely its vector in the quest to “sharpen contradictions.”

I wish I were in France myself. I would have marched. But I would have known that the rally plays into the hands of the militants – adding glory to the deeds in the same way an arsonist purrs as his blaze nets a five-alarm response. And my concerns would have been with my colleagues around the world, because international NGOs continue to be seen by many as symbols of Western blasphemy. Targets.

Lesson 3: Who are we kidding?

Been asked to throw away a pot of yogurt by airport security lately? Plenty of brave talk. Lots of people tweeting Voltaire. But who are we trying to fool? Much of the West is particularly and increasingly risk-averse (see e.g. this blog or this one), and we have seen the degree to which even remote threats of harm have elicited ineffective or expensive overreactions. The Ebola panic comes to mind. So let us not be surprised if standing up for free speech quickly gives way to risk management, threat aversion, and a substantial chilling of the exercise of the right to say whatever the fuck one wants.

Lesson 4: The humanitarian culture of offense

The right to offend. The right to talk back to a parent, denounce a President, or criticize a government. The right to “speak truth to power” as so many have suggested. Freedom of speech is one of the core universal human rights. And it is one of the rights that runs most contrary to the common sense, laws, limits of accepted behavior or culture of many societies.

We know that many challenge this absolutist approach to freedom of speech. We need to look no further than our universities, where academics have found themselves policed for advancing unpopular ideas, or the growth of political correctness as muzzle. And that is in the West, the supposed champion of free speech. How does it play in the corners of the world that do not believe in such public airing of opinions or insults? Where maintaining ‘face’ holds enormous cultural currency? Where the values and needs of society trump those of the individual?

Nothing justifies murder. But what of the many places in the world where nothing justifies offensive speech? We fall easily into the rationale that it is a universal right. That is elsewhere a legal technicality, not a shared ideal. More specifically to humanitarian work, what of the many places where we regularly assert this right to offend through our public reports, our exposure of the violence and abuse of civilians in a place like Darfur or Congo?

I remember a Japanese MSF doctor, thoroughly opposed to our advocacy campaign. He had no disagreement with the facts of it, yet he felt ashamed by the public airing. Neither our insistence on universality, nor our conviction that public advocacy forms a necessary component of humanitarian action, obviate the offense of our speech. And causing offense will strike many as un-humanitarian, an act of aggression and an exercise of power no different from inking a blasphemous cartoon.

EF Inhumanity

Let me start off with a good old American colloquialism: It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.  Well, in terms of my career with MSF, the fat lady is warming up her voice.  After 15 years, today is my last day.  Question I am asking myself:  So, Mr. Ex-Director, what words of wisdom after all that time?  What is the big message?  What is the meaning of our MSF/humanitarian life?  Answer I keep coming to: Beats me.

Every time I feel on the verge of grasping it, waves of emails and interruptions tumble me back to the starting line.  More pertinently, waves of challenges from, well, reality.  I cannot understand why MSF was forced to withdraw from Somalia. Why a multi-billion-dollar aid industry struggles to provide a meaningful response to crisis in South Sudan. Or why easily preventable diseases tear through children in so many parts of the world.  Humanitarian action is complex.  No duh.

But there is a message. I have seen the light.  Specifically, I saw the light a few months ago, cycling to work on yet another cold, damp day in London.  I saw a pair of legs.

The owner of these legs was weaving in and out of the traffic (in this town where last year more cyclists have died than British military personnel in Afghanistan), those boxy black letters his well-inked press release about the power and peril to his left, right and rear.  It was a message for MSF, for all of us.

Let us begin with HUMANITY, since that is the simple imperative where humanitarian action itself should begin.  At once compassion for those who suffer and a declaration of our fundamental sameness.  We are one family, the family of human beings, all so very different at first glance and yet blessed with an identical, universal dignity.  The humanitarian imperative commands a bond with those who do not look or sound like us, believe in what we believe, or watch the same edition of Big Brother that we watch.  The imperative propels us towards those who suffer not out of duty to kin, friends or clan, not out of affinity to those who share our religion or nationality, but because the suffering of one affects the whole and touches us as individuals.  Because in responding to the stranger, we build our own place in the family of humanity.

On top of that, humanity has propelled me to crisis – to this career – because humanity itself is at the root of crisis.  To be sick or injured and have no access to care is bad enough.  All the worse when it is caused by or paired with violence, abuse, exclusion, oppression.  Or greed, power, hatred. Or staggering, structural poverty.  There is something compelling, challenging and sinister about that combination – of responding to crisis because something bad happened to people (e.g., rains didn’t fall) and because something wrong was perpetrated against them (e.g., displaced onto marginal lands).  Compelling because that is where MSF finds those most in need.  Challenging because being humanitarian requires more than therapeutic action.  Sinister because it transforms medical action into an act of protest against the human origins of the harm.  MSF’s very engagement levies an accusation against those who reject humanity.

And that means some people won’t like us.  And that means some won’t let us do our work.  So, MSF (not to mention the rest of the humanitarian system):  What are you going to do?  As the proficiency, ambition and impact of our medical action becomes ever greater, what will become of our commitment and courage as an organization of protest?  As governments around the world become ever more cynical and capable in their manipulation/control of humanitarian aid, as they insist that we shut our neo-colonial mouths, what course will we steer?  What choices will we make?  Establishment aid agency or rebel humanitarian?  Fractious silos of ego and power or collective voice of dissent?  Muted opinion?  Round after round of risk-averse calculation? Or “Fuck Taxis,” because that is the voice of a piece of humanity bearing witness to powerful pieces of its antithesis.  Fuck inhumanity.

Well, MSFers?  I’m leaving.  So what are you going to do? The trend may be clear, but on this key question of humanitarian identity, the fat lady has yet to sing.

[I will leave MSF but Humanicontrarian will live on for a few weeks, then take a break, and then come back fresher than ever.  I hope.]

Altered States

Ever heard of Piltdown man?  He would have stood four feet tall and was the talk of the scientific town 100 years ago.  If you are an evolutionary biologist, you probably know exactly who I am talking about; otherwise, you’ve no idea.  That is, unless you are a creationist Christian who believes the Bible is a literal interpretation of the word of God; hence unless you are somebody who believes that mankind dates back only several thousands of years that that the stunning paleo-biological history of humans is false.  If you believe that, if you deny Darwin, Australopithecus and the concept of evolution itself, then the Piltdown man is, well, he is your man.

The story is fairly simple:  a seminal scientific discovery turned out to be a hoax. If you read creationist literature, that example is trafficked over and over and over again to dismiss the entire body of evidence called the fossil record and the credibility of scientific thinking.  To the believer in Adam and his rib, that one hoax is enough to negate every bone in the ground, every trilobite’s age, every Lucy.

It may be an indication of my mental state, but I choked up with pride when MSF launched its bombshell press release that there had been a devastating chemical weapon attack in Syria, with 3600 treated and 355 killed.  I could well imagine the risks of going public with such témoignage, and could well imagine the difficult discussions and calculations that went into the message.  I could not imagine, of course, that that I’d misconstrued the press release so badly.

MSF’s témoignage is why I joined MSF.  It stems from the idea that an humanitarian response to crisis cannot limit itself the delivery of assistance, but must also take into account the protection and dignity of people;  and is rooted in that special relationship between medical carer and patient, where seeing the wounds of violence prompts a responsibility to act.  The doctor does not treat a child for rape and keep his/her mouth zipped.

Témoignage is further refined in MSF, an organization that must make sage use of what it knows.  Illness, wounds, and voices will tell you a great deal about the bad things some people are doing to others.  So there are times where we engage in advocacy about what we see, what our medical data reveals, in the hopes that exposure and pressure can play a role in stopping the crimes, or pushing others to stop them.  The foundation of all this activity is the word témoignage itself, its implication that we have – directly – seen something through our medical work and our presence amidst people in danger.  Bearing witness is the closest English.

I have had to defend the use of our voice to angry authorities many times. Very often they believe we are being naïve, being used, being fed messages that we then transmit. Me to Sudanese security guy: “We know that village was burned down because our mobile clinic team, including two expats, went there while it was still smouldering.” His response: surprise (“You went there?” – “Yes”) then quiet. Acting as a spokesperson for what others have said happened is not the same thing as bearing witness to it ourselves.

Yesterday evening, along the shores of Lake Kivu, I was catching up on my inbox and realized that MSF had not treated anyone for chemical weapon attack, nor had MSF seen the results of the attack.  I was confused, furious; calling up the press release to read it again.  In fact, I had missed its clear declaration: the report of the chemical weapon attack came from doctors whom we support with supplies, not from MSF.

I guess a first lesson is how the brain simplifies: I had missed sentences worth of disclaimer. Rather predictably (intentionally?), this distinction also seems to have been lost on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who swiftly stoked the USG’s neocon reaction to events in Syria with the credibility of MSF (no chance of another WMD moment embarrassment, we have MSF’s word!).  Such distinctions and disclaimers are hard to maintain, and don’t live on very long in the media, where speculation that, e.g., there “could be as many as 200,000 refugees” quickly hardens into fact.

There is nothing easy or formulaic about the development of, in particular, public messaging around témoignage (which can, of course, remain at the diplomatic level). I hate to find myself as the defender of orthodoxy, that we do not talk about it if we haven’t seen it, even (or especially!) when the news is so shocking, so aching to be released from our lungs. Such orthodoxy clashes with a world, and even an MSF, that are evolving.  For example, we are increasingly working through partners, and will have built relationships of trust – of faith – with doctors such as these brave Syrians, struggling heroically to care for the wounded in such a brutal war.

They are not MSF, and yet they are not strangers.  On the other hand, we know that this is a highly polarized war, that operating via partners involves compromise (see e.g., this post), and we certainly understand the massive investment on both sides of this conflict in the war for global hearts and minds, with propaganda at the fore. As an organization, can we afford to believe them? Me, I do not think we can afford staking so much of value on such imperfect calculations.  But as humans, can we afford not to believe? I don’t know.  I am uncomfortable with the path of conservatism, and fear it harbors dogmatism.  In the end, though, I prefer “you have to see it to believe it”, because credibility is like being pregnant, you either have it or you don’t, and in the hands of our enemies, one misplaced bone wipes out a veritable record of truth.

The Bad Colonel

A throng of gunmen haul a 69-year-old man through the dusty street. His chest lays bare, face bloodied. He is beaten and sodomized and shot.

What kind of person does not feel compassion? Well, me, the kind who understood the victim was Saddam Osama Gaddafy.

For an humanitarian, compassion isn’t just a nice thing, like a day without dust in Khartoum or stroopwafels in a care package. Stripped to its essential principles, compassion is humanitarianism’s driver. Not money and not adventurism and not do gooderism or altruism or charity and certainly not the twin devils of winning hearts and minds or building the legitimacy of the state. Compassion is what moves us to address the suffering of others, no matter that they are foreign to your family, village, clan, or nation. They are humans.  Compassion is also that common ground between the Christian ethos of Western missionaries and the humanist ethos of Western INGO staff on mission. Jesus would have felt compassion for the Colonel, no?

Compassion became a second victim of October 20th, Gaddafy’s final bad hair day. Like that sentence’s finish, an ambivalence allows acceptance of the inappropriate (Hillary’s laugh), the uncivil (meat locker visitation hour) and the illegal (his killing). It later struck me that I didn’t feel compassion, my heart too easily counterweighted the final half hour of abuse with his forty years of torture, violence and egomania.

While an individual manages to excuse himself for such an emotional, vengeful reaction, I find the official silence of the humanitarian community rather loud. Maybe not on Gaddafy’s death, because we don’t usually report on such singular events, but on the entire Arab Spring. We portray ourselves as defenders of law and of what is right and of fairness. Yet in these historic times we show the lack of compass so evidently present in our cousins, the human rights organizations. They’ve had this right all along. They’ve steadfastly and no doubt unpopularly and no doubt unlucratively documented and denounced the violations committed by the West’s very champions.  Maybe it is easier for them: their mandates force them look at what the law says and look at what the actors are doing.  For us, compassion and pragmatism often dictate when we exercise that part of our mandates to raise our voice.

Here, our compassion, like our neutrality, follows rather a rather lopsided set of mainstream Western mores.  In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya we humanitarians have seen victor’s justice; the treatment accorded to those on the side of the dictators by those who have raised their fists for freedom and democracy. We have seen the violent abuse of black Africans trapped inside Libya, condemned by the color of their skin to the accusation of mercenary. We’ve seen doctors not wanting to treat “them”. And we’ve seen those jumpy mobile phone videos of a wretched man dragged out of a drainage ditch. We’ve seen a great deal. We haven’t said much.

What Sudan and Who-ville Have in Common

Forget about Linda Polman.  We humanitarians need to listen more to Lt. General Omar el-Bashir.  Of course, we do care about Ms. Polman’s crucifixion of the aid business.  After all, she’s hitting us in the gut and in the wallet.  She’s on the same airwaves as many of our donors, telling everybody that aid doesn’t work.  Ouch.  But Bashir doesn’t mince his words either, and he’s on the same airwaves as the people who control our access.

A little over two years ago I was sitting in Khartoum, helping our teams deal with their non-expulsion after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the general.  Motivated, I am sure, by nothing other than a desire to shed light on the role of INGOs in Sudan, he let loose with a series of accusations.  He called us thieves, adding that we take “99 percent of the budget for humanitarian work themselves, giving the people of Darfur 1 percent”.  He called us spies in the employ of foreign regimes, interfering well beyond the remit of aid work.  And then there’s the charge that humanitarian NGOs essentially worked for the ICC.  Apparently fed up with the likes of us, Bashir spoke of “Sudanizing” voluntary work in Sudan (both humanitarian and development).  He politely suggested a new and improved model for international cooperation:   “If they want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at the airport and Sudanese NGOs can distribute the relief.”

Neither NGO nor international community blinked.  Instead, we countered with legions of arm flapping, demanding to be unexpelled.  Then we shielded ourselves from even 10 seconds cogitation on his accusations with the unquestioned logic that he was a mad dictator and war criminal and simply poking back at the West for the ICC having ruined his vacation plans in Las Vegas.

It is rare, and somewhat disconcerting, to find myself possessing an ear not entirely unfavorable to the ideas expressed by President Bashir.   Even if we discount a former girlfriend’s accusation that I’m a self-hating critical bastard, it’s not difficult to suppose that if I can find some good sense in Bashir’s rants, he will have the ear of whole nations of people.

 Thieving?  Strong claim.  We’ve pushed the message that humanitarians saved Darfur.  If you consider fundraising initiatives based on a “help save Darfur” motif, communication/exposure, and just plain old reinforcement of the image of humanitarians as rescuer-champions, it’s easy to see how Darfur saved the humanitarians.  And from all that money that came in on the back of Darfur, how much of it made it past our headquarters, past our expat-driven approaches, past our expensive lifestyle in capitals, past our project teams and directly into the hands of Darfurians? 

ICC mole?  We know that NGOs passed mounds of info to the ICC.  The only question is whether humanitarian NGOs cooperated so directly.  Or maybe this is not even an issue at ground level, because how many armed groups in a place like Darfur could distinguish between the human rights crowd and the humanitarian crowd?  Add to that the impact of our well-publicized “protection” activities, our so-called advocacy reports.  Seems to me “violence”, “attacks”, and “rape”, are words more closely associated to the humanitarian voice emanating from Darfur than “nutrition,” “shelter,” and “healthcare.”   Against this accusation we may be teflon in our own minds, but we’re more like flypaper out there where it counts.

Sudanization?  There is a strong element of Sudanese pride in all of this mess.   We radiated our superiority in Darfur – the virtuous provider of aid to the helpless victims of an evil regime.  You can’t spend years treating Sudanese officialdom as perpetrators of violence and obstruction and still expect them to love us.  There’s equally a major dose of sovereignty.  You can’t humiliate a people without sparking a drive to shake off the yolk of the West, to build Sudanese spirit and independence into the sort of state that does not require the largest exercise of humanitarian charity in the world. 

 In that non-Western mind, to whom Bashir spoke, we humanitarians were not simply the enemies of the state, we were a blight upon its pride.  Do we hear this message? Any of these messages?  My advice to NGOs:  Make like Horton and listen to the citizens of Who-ville, even if they aren’t all fluffy and cute.

Clash in Egypt: A Lesson on Sanctimony?

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

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

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

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