Tag Archives: Identity

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Localization

Localization — the agenda formerly intending a shift of humanitarian power?

The Good

The one year anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit’s ‘Grand Bargain’ offers time to take stock of progress.    At a conceptual level, a key goal of the Grand Bargain is to drive the humanitarian sector towards the irrefutable good of contextualizing its work: re-imagining a humanitarian action that departs from top-down, cookie-cutter approaches and empowers programming that is borne in and is effective in meeting the needs of people within a specific context.  It will do so by shifting greater focus and cash to responders, a departure from a system based on the near monopoly of international aid conglomerates. We call this the localization agenda, even though a more neutral perspective would grasp the humanitarian system as already suffering from an over-localization (in the West).

The Bad

Let us imagine this contextualization in full bloom, a localization that moves beyond its current emphasis on the location of the funding recipient and beyond even the crucial focus on meaningful participation/involvement of local communities. To truly embody the shift in power first envisioned by the localization agenda, it should also comprise a locally-driven rethink of how to address people’s needs. How do we build the freedom for that rethink to occur? How do we avoid the seemingly unstoppable bulk transfer of managerial systems, best-practices and standardized (read: homogenized) methodologies that decontextualize humanitarian assistance in the first place?

This ongoing stampede of North-to-South ‘capacity building’ exercises risks producing globalization instead of localization, a kicking of the humanitarian can down bumpy local roads. [link] We already know the contents of this can — dozens of colourful guidelines on the same topic, neatly venned organizational processes and tick-box exercise after tick-box exercise to ensure quality control.  As the NEAR Network has declared: “Local actors have had more than 30 years of supposed capacity building and ‘partnership principles’ which has not resulted in any significant gains.”

This Trojan Horse of sectoral bureaucracy accompanies a more insidious globalization as local responders clamber for direct funding from Western donors. As I have written elsewhere, the prospect of local agencies tethering themselves to the soft power and avowedly self-interested geo-political ambitions of Western donor funding has already proven itself a debilitating experience for the Western INGO.  We must also guard against the globalizing effects of reducing localization to a donor-driven search for cheap labor, a rationale of efficiency gains by which localization reduces transaction costs by decreasing layers.

More deeply, localization must pierce the imposition of our (globalized) world view, and the universalist approach to exporting our truths, even where the underlying values may be universal in nature.  In other words, humanitarian ideals may be universal, but the architecture and processes designed to realize and defend those deals must be seen as a rather localized product of history and geography.  Let’s not confuse universal with sacred cow.

The Ugly

It has taken nine months of discussion to settle simple questions because they came burdened by complex institutional consequences: What is a local responder? What does ‘as directly as possible’ mean? To answer simply requires only an understanding of the catalyst for the localization push – the spectacular North-South power imbalance and inequitable distribution of resources within the humanitarian sector.  As it turns out, local responders were effectively shut out of owning the local response, even though often sub-contracted to deliver it. One stat summed up the embarrassing state of affairs: a mere 0.4% of international humanitarian assistance in 2015 went directly to national and local NGOs, a situation that makes global inequality look relatively tame.

The definitional debate, however, has compromised this clear intent. The accommodation of political and bureaucratic interests means that a local outpost of a billion-dollars-per-year INGO could be considered ‘local’, and that funding funnelled to local responders via the same old rent-extracting Western INGO intermediaries may count towards the Grand Bargain’s target of going 25 percent local (an issue still to be settled).

Proponents of localization take note.  Lesson 1: wealth and power are not so easily captured. Lesson 2: a logic of localization based on effectiveness and efficiency favors the status quo.

Lost in these debates over effectiveness and efficiency, lost in the scramble of trying to establish INGO standards of financial accounting in smaller, differently-developed local organizations, is any notion of localization as an ethical undertaking. The modern humanitarian sector is founded upon the principle of humanity, that a fundamental human dignity resides within each one of us.  There, we should house the right to self-determination and the ability to possess at least some degree of power over the forces affecting one’s life.

Enter the humanitarian machine at a time of crisis, wielding its monopoly power over decision-making as to who will live or die. That is an abusive power inhering in its unaccountable decisions as to who will and who will not receive aid.  That is a sovereign power being held by a non-sovereign body. It is time then for a realization that localization may or may not yield either effectiveness or efficiency, but those laudable goals should not be the standards by which it is ultimately judged. The ‘decolonization’ of humanitarian action constitutes an ethical mission, not simply a technocratic one; a transfer of power not merely from international to local agencies but from an alien civilization to a home society. Accepting such a meaningful transformation (read: loss) will not be easy for people like me. But our humanitarian action in their house? Time to admit that we haven’t exactly gotten it right, and the principle of humanity means that they should hold the power to get it wrong.

[7 July 2017.  In response to comments that the original blog misstated certain elements, changes were made to the second paragraph of The Ugly.]

Segregation is in the Air

[Warning: In places I find it hard to understand what I am trying to say! Help appreciated.]

My previous blog makes the (simplistic) argument that the label “refugee” does scant justice to the reality of millions of people forced from their homelands by violence and destruction in which Western governments has played a significant role. The term “refugee” builds too weak a case. It underplays their actual history.

A weak case, however, is not the primary harm to the refugee.  The primary harm lies in the attendant displacement, not the displacement of people but the displacement of disciplines, approaches and paradigms that might have more ably defended these people/refugees.  And it is we in the humanitarian community, or the more specialized community that fights for refugee rights, who have elbowed out these other communities. Would ambulance chasing plaintiff attorneys be able to construct a successful claim for residency as compensation for an Iraqi fleeing war and ISIL?  Or maybe not an attorney at all, but a wheeler-dealer businessman, or a military negotiator, professionals unopposed to horse trading, able to traffic in compromise and the crude use power? Or maybe disruption and violence – a refugee exercise of power to replace their submission to a stacked deck of a legal regime?

It is not so much communities that are displaced by our elbowing, but the paradigms in which they operate. The “refugee” label belongs to a particular set of discourses (professional, personal, political) and to a specific world view. It lives within a particular framework. It offers a home to me and people like me in terms of its thinking and values – progressive, do-gooder, legal, humanist, justice-fighter, not-a-banker-thank-goodness, etc. There is hence a lovely power in that label, allowing me to cultivate a self-image full of virtues.  For that reason alone I am, like many others, well-wired to hold onto it with clenched fists, unconsciously perceiving my world through its lens. Put differently, I work within a structural aversion to recognizing what might have been.  By way of illustration, David Kennedy’s analysis of human rights reaches a parallel conclusion, that it “encourages people to seek emancipation in the vocabularies of reason, rather than faith, in public rather than private life, in law rather than politics, in politics rather than economics.” (David Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue).

It is no coincidence that this displacement ensures my privileged position within the sphere of the refugee. There is no finer feeling than to stand erect in the fight for the downtrodden! We act as their champions, complete with a loud admiration for their drive, resilience and strength. Within this world (and not that one) displacement leaves people like me as the high priests and anointed speakers. That in itself is not a problem. Not knowing, feeling or seeing it is a problem. Certainty of its Truth is another. A less fundamental example of the power of the paradigm, one that has finally been exposed, is the process by which the aid response to migrants, refugees and IDPs became compartmentalized within humanitarian action, rendering invisible needs and aspirations of a long-term or developmental nature, even as camps morphed over decades into lifelong settlements.

One way to look at it is that we rule by the blessing of segregation, in this instance taking the form of compartmentalization. As we bear witness to the transfer of power in the US it strikes me as a good time to think more about this segregation. More dangerous than ever-sharpening global inequality is the degree to which the haves will maintain this inequality through a web of segregations. Segregation of neighborhoods, healthcare, education, cross-border mobility and perhaps soon human genetics; segregation within communities and across nations. A simple litmus test: Does the status quo work in your favor or not? It does pretty damned well by me.

The world of the haves will protect its interests by building Trumpian walls, and has been doing so for generations if not longer. In part, it will drive further inequality via a sanitized segregation, avoiding the horrors of Jim Crow and Apartheid, replacing such racist ugliness with the institutionalized compassion of aid, peacekeeping and 5-pronged fixes after technocratic fixes.  Is it clear to humanitarians that we form part of the haves? Issue by issue we side with them, perhaps as their less wealthy (but living quite comfortably — thank you for your donations) brethren, perhaps as an agent of their business. As in the fight for refugee rights, we will thump our fists and push for change, but will do so while posing no threat to the paradigm, in fact thumping our fists just as urgently to protect it.

[Note:  Twelve hours after the original posting I made several changes in wording. For better or worse, substance remains the same.]

The trouble with labels

The realization that humanitarian action masks political (in)action is an old story, as is our collective lament that blankets, pills and food will not fix an Afghanistan, even if they may prove quite useful to the cold, sick and hungry.  This is the problem of the humanitarian fig-leaf.  The humanitarian sector at times recognizes this effect, and has long echoed former UNHCR High Commissioner Sadako Ogata’s well-quoted wisdom that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” That is certainly true, but tends to be deployed as an alibi for our failures.  We forget to invoke Ogata as a critique of our successes.

In other words, we humanitarians bear responsibility for maintaining the lustre and exclusivity of the humanitarian label, a mode of action that emplaces one set of responses by displacing others. Have we not safeguarded our turf by averting any critique of the its sufficiency; of the effect of humanitarianizing a crisis? Beyond a label that obscures the political and military, it also occupies turf within the aid sector. To label a crisis as “humanitarian” makes us the Big Kahuna, and its calcification into policy and practice – for example, the humanitarian-development divide – has usefully meant that only humanitarian projects could be funded in some contexts.

The price of the label hence falls upon people. To wit, using blankets and pills to fix war, rescue at sea to fix killer migration, or the incongruity of responding to decades of crisis in places like DRC or South Sudan through projects aimed at addressing people’s immediate needs.  As I write in a forthcoming report, the “urgency of [humanitarian] needs eclipses but in no way lessens a greater spectrum of human aspirations – to secure livelihoods, education for their children or to live in peace.”  The degree to which such short-term approaches to long-term problems have been particularly damaging in refugee settings, addressing neither the causes of flight nor the protracted nature of being in flight.

So let us begin. Let us begin by tossing out Ogata, as a necessary but insufficient realization.  As Tom Scott-Smith cleverly concludes, the problem is not with the humanitarian solutions being inadequate, but ‘humanitarian problems’.  In his words: Framing an issue as a distinctly humanitarian one necessarily limits the responses available. Seeing inescapably political issues as humanitarian ones, in other words, can seriously curtail the possibilities for reducing suffering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the recent migration crisis. 

So let us begin in earnest by a moratorium on humanitarian tagging. The situation in DRC is not a humanitarian crisis. The situation in Haiti is not a humanitarian crisis. And the situation in the Mediterranean is not a humanitarian crisis.  The world should not sleep better knowing that humanitarians have responded to a humanitarian crisis.

And if it does not seem to be in our institutional interest to remove our label? Take heed! What goes around comes around. Look no further than the ‘crisis’ of refugees and migrants in Europe or the Ebola response. It will not be long before the security label more completely paints over the humanitarian one, replacing victims with problems, aid with self-protection and compassion with fear; replacing one Big Kahuna with another.

The Hammers and Nails of Ebola

“MSF made a big mistake.” Not a small admission from Claudia Evers, MSF’s Emergency Coordinator in Guinea. Think how much more effective international aid might be if more aid organizations publicized rather than buried such opinion. But that is another blog.

The issue is basic. In its early stages and as the Ebola outbreak mounted, MSF placed almost all its apples in the treatment basket. Fueled by the twinning of high transmission levels and the sloth-paced scaling up of treatment (MSF aside), the virus far outpaced the intervention. Evers concludes: “Instead of asking for more beds we should have been asking for more sensitization activities.”

But did MSF make a mistake? Or is this more of a design flaw in the system? Treatment is what MSF does. Treatment is what MSF is designed to do. When it comes to outbreaks like cholera, or diseases like malaria, or even ‘epidemics’ in some places like maternal mortality, MSF is a hammer of treatment. Nobody, and not even MSF, should be surprised that it sees a world of nails – people who first and foremost need treatment.

To simplify: A good buddy of mine is a cardiologist. His brother is a cardiac surgeon. They disagree bitterly on how best to deal with their aging mother’s heart problems. The former wants to manage it through drugs, diet and exercise. The latter wants to cut. The lesson is that identity determines perception.

So the problem was not MSF calling for a massive, rapid increase in beds and treatment capacity. The problem was that MSF the hammer’s voice stood virtually alone. The problem, in other words, was the absence of other tools in the kit. Where were the wrenches, NGOs that specialize in grassroots mobilization, and who would have seen its potential and pressed for it? Where were the screwdrivers who would have championed decentralized models of care? Where was the diversity of discourse?

Even as sensitization activities scaled up, local communities seem to have been viewed more as targets than as actors. One concern is that the authorities (foreign and international) installed centralized structures for the dissemination of information, rather than capitalizing on local capacities. Another claim is that messages were too simplistic: being told what not to do with a sick child does not provide an actionable solution for a mother with no access to a treatment center. What should she do?

It seems there is an emerging consensus that local communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were sidelined in the rush to contain Ebola, treated more as an obstacle due to their distrust and ‘primitive’ behavior (see, e.g., here). Treated then as a vector for the disease, to be contained rather than sought out as a potential partner in defeating it; not understood to be necessary to generating solutions and disseminating the word. In the end, it seems providential that they did not remain contained, and many communities took the fight against transmission into their own hands (see, e.g., here).

To recap: the Ebola outbreak response reduced communities to a combination of victim, vector, and potential security threat. Otherwise, the aid response and media coverage of it rendered these communities invisible. That invisibility comes because the entire international community – the Western governmental and NGO aid response – is deeply, messianically self-referential. That is the hammer of being a savior, and it blinds us to anything but the nail of victimhood; to the reality that many people, given the shortcomings of international aid, need to know how to save themselves. That is the hammer of being largely Western/foreign, and seeing the nail of disarray, primitivity and ignorance.

One step further: consider this piece from Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring on his recent encounters in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In a few simple paragraphs he conveys the “suffering, bravery and stoicism” of the people. Yet such narratives always fall short. Be it Syrian refugees or civilians in Central African republic or the survivors of Ebola, the sheer scale of grief, social/livelihood devastation and grinding anxiety over life itself evade our comprehension.

For all our efforts, this tremendous suffering remains beyond our ability to fathom with clarity. And it lies beyond our ability to mend. As humanitarian organizations, we find it much easier to be the hammer of crisis response, seeing the nail as the problem called hunger or shelterlessness or, in this case, outbreak. As important as it is to contain and defeat this outbreak, I wonder if we are preconditioned to see the virus, sick people to be mended, and not the millions of people who need something altogether different than the hammers of Western pity, charity, or aid.

The Perils of Blind Faith

It would be difficult to imagine a person who better combines passion with sanctimony than Bernard Kouchner. He is not self-effacing. Then again, it is his ego and talent that gave birth in part to MSF, and in part to the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds (“droit d’ingerence”), later more or less codified as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This entertaining interview on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head program, quite heated in parts, brings out the full Kouchner. He is insufferable and yet also bold, for instance producing an unqualified YES when asked if France should have apologized for its role in the Rwandan genocide. You don’t hear many politicians being as candid.

It’s worth watching just to see the grilling he gets, but also for his unwavering commitment to the idea of humanitarian militarism, of going in to stop the killing. Over and over, Kouchner champions the idea that when people are being killed, doing something is better than doing nothing. His belief seems unshakable, even in the face of examples like the West’s 2011 intervention in Libya, whose humanitarian cloak quickly slipped to reveal an agenda of regime change; an intervention that put Libya on the path to the unqualified violent mess of Libya today and nourished a brutal insurrection in Mali. Humanitarian? More lives lost than saved? Kouchner doesn’t just dodge that question, he seems to view it as irrelevant.

Kouchner accepts no responsibility for the negative outcomes of Western intervention. He deems interfering, even through military means, better than letting people get butchered. Is it good enough, as one of the panelists suggests, to dismiss bad outcomes on the grounds that the intent was pure? That everything else – the messes of the West’s failed state-building in Iraq or Afghanistan – is simply the law of unintended consequences? He seems equally impervious to arguments that the promise of R2P is chimerical, an attractive doctrine that works only in theory because in the real world it has and always will be used to justify self-interested political and military intervention by big powers into the affairs of little powers.

Much of this would be no more than thought-provoking for us humanitarians were it not for the fact of R2P and MSF sharing the same birthplace. Fraternal twins? Once fans of the idea, nowadays most humanitarians I know regard R2P with healthy skepticism. We are quick to recognize the political intent or neo-imperial posturing when the world powers decide to intervene somewhere, especially when based on a humanitarian imperative. And we are quick to note the hypocrisy of so many decisions to look the other way.

Contrast this with our less skeptical approach on calling for more humanitarian aid, as if it were unrelated to the right to interfere politically or militarily. On the level of and connection to power, the similarities of R2P to humanitarian action remain largely invisible to us, despite their sharing (literally, one could argue) the same DNA.

It seems right to me, unshakably right to me, that humans cannot allow other humans to be killed, to die, or to suffer without doing something. Am I as blind as is Kouchner on R2P? Why dismiss military intervention as mistaken given real politik while compassionate aid is necessitated because of real politik? Of course there are negative consequences. They do not shake our faith in the moral imperative to come to the aid of people in crisis; and in the heat of action are easy to ignore or dismiss.

Is it enough to press for more effective anticipation, monitoring and correction of negative consequences: better context analysis, a more piercing focus on the role of aid within the economy of war and openness about mistakes? All good. (Done poorly or half-heartedly, though, these control measures may even serve more to ease our doubts than to correct problems.). What about the deeper level, touching upon the model for humanitarian action, and the web of power relationships in which it rests? We humanitarians possess a profound need to feel good about our work, one that is well-insulated from challenge. What’s hiding in there?

The interview with Kouchner presents a vision of blind belief. For me, it brings these doubts to a head at about the 38 minute mark, leaving me to ponder an exchange between Kouchner and a member of the audience.

Question (from a young Kenyan woman): “…MSF’s actions are often followed by French troops. How would you react when people ask you is MSF just another engine [NGO? The word she uses is unclear] that protects French commercial interests?”

Kouchner: “You are partly right…”.

That is more than a casual sharing of DNA.

Ebola: Three Ideas You (hopefully) Haven’t Read

[Originally posted September 26 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]

Part 1. The Ebola crisis is in part the self-fulfilling prophesy of the way we think about Africa.

The Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea consumes no shortage of attention in mainstream Western media. Other African crises like CAR, Libya or Sudan, let alone success stories, should be so lucky. Then again, maybe attention isn’t such a good thing after all. Some of it quite responsible, much of it still trades in outworn stereotypes of a continent awash in warlords, loin cloths and killer microbes.

Hooray for resistance to sloppy Ebola storytelling, for example Dionne and Seay’s nailing Newsweek‘s sensationalist cover story. Or earlier this week Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah skewering the way lopsided Ebola reporting reinforces the role of Africa as a foil, as a continent whose dismal failure reaffirms our superior Western civilization.

But why dump all the blame on the media? NGOs and the UN – the foreign aid establishment – surely merit some credit for perpetuating the popular notion that Africa is a cauldron of tribal brutality, a crucible of scary diseases and a reservoir of primitivism, all rolled into one waiting-for-a-savior basket. (Not to mention the rather stock idea that Africa is a country. On that geographical malapropism, see this great blog.). The point is firstly one of principle: NGOs should be truthful in their communications. Easier said than done. They appear locked into an audience (the home society public) that demands such a stereotype in order to feel compelled to donate (see e.g., my previous blog on this).

We’ve heard criticism of this stereotyping before, often from within the aid and Western media communities. Is there hope? Importantly, Beah published in the Washington Post, bringing his views to Western eyes. If only for a moment, his piece shakes our monopoly over the narrative. As I’ve written before, these stereotypes will come under increasing pressure as internet media expand access to Western debate and discussion. The question: Is the aid industry simply (!) a promoter of the distortion, or an addict as well? But that is for another blog.

The main point here is that the degree to which the monotonous, stereotyped portrayal of Africa gives rise to the conditions in which Ebola outbreaks occur. Persistent underdevelopment, bureaucratic inertia, low foreign investment, unresponsive government, the cycle of waiting for crisis rather than building systems, dependence on the foreign aid community, etc. These ills are all either caused and/or reinforced by the inaccurate portrait of a continent, in this latest episode with a virus as the star in a long line of unabated indigenous catastrophes. NGO action may be vital in combating Ebola, but aid agencies themselves helped weave the very “basketcase” to which they would nowadays respond.

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.]

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.

Corruption in Aid: Meat or Poison?

Somewhere in the early 80s, hence more or less at the fringes of memory, I was sitting in Benjamin Couilbaly’s dusty courtyard, sharing a meal and some laughs.  His wife served a delicious meat and sauce dish, which we scooped with handfuls of tô, the millet-based paste eaten throughout much of Burkina Faso.  When I asked, he said the meat was “chat sauvage”.  Wild cat.  Fascinating. Some sort of local lynx or bobcat?  I’d figured all manner of wild cats had long been displaced or hunted out.  Then he explained.  A wild cat refers to your neighbor’s cat, when it wanders into your back yard.  Love that logic:  In a community where hunter-gatherer behaviour is still threaded through the cultural norm, it makes little sense to heap as much adulation on domesticated animals as we Westerners do.

Some interesting cyberdiscussion on the issue of corruption.  The big question being asked:  Does corruption undercut development/growth to the extent of warranting such a broken record of Westerners banging on about it?  The provocative Chris Blattman even asks if corruption isn’t an “Anglo-American fetish” (see also some of his posts this week).  ODI research jumps into the analytical fray – What are the effects of corruption, and what are the “inconvenient truths”?

The authors seem to miss an important boat as to why “Third World” corruption sparks such inflamed feelings.  Is it really only a belief that corruption is crippling poor economies?  Or the concerns of a politician like David Cameron, who worries about public backlash against the entire aid budget?

Now, allow me to bang on a bit.  Isn’t it also about the heroic myth we’ve created around aid itself – that it is formed in equal parts out of the virtue and action of us (Western) saviours, delivering the agencyless victims from certain doom?  Hence, theft of aid becomes murder of sorts, with children dying at the hand of the thief; and it becomes an act which blocks aid givers from reaping the rewards of their charitable action (on that, see my previous blog on the selfishness of giving, or in this first person account of overlooking corruption in order to preserve that reward).  Corruption is wrong, but it gets bucked up to the level of immorality incarnate.  And underneath all of that, corruption becomes a convenient, powerful, facile enabler of our own feelings of superiority.

To underline the Us/Them divide, corruption must also become deceptively unambiguous from a moral perspective.  There are probably lots of ways in which the term “corruption” is problematic.  But even thoughtful commentators seem to suggest that “theft is theft”.  Is it?   Is there any reader who doesn’t anger upon reading that some African politician accepted a boatload of cash to grant a political favour?  That’s corruption, right?  Theft.  Clear as day.

In much of the West, of course, being more developed nations, a certain sophistication leads to obfuscation.  Essentially, we’ve created legal or normalized channels to replace many forms of corruption, stripping away the ugliness to allow theft under a different name.  For instance, the web of election contribution rules which transform the immoral/illegal/corrupt purchase of a politician into a perfectly mundane act of election funding, or even free speech.

And in humanitarian circles?   Is theft always theft?  I think we’re back to the cat:  As the saying goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”  As I’ve posted earlier, an expat using the agency’s white SUV to buy Danone yogurt at the swanky suburban mall is no less an act of aid diversion than when a member of the national staff pinches a bottle of paracetamol.  Guess who gets fired for it?  Guess who returns home to proud parents?

What about when a supersized chunk of the $5.2 billion donated for the Haitian earthquake ends up nowhere near Haitians themselves?  When it disappears into the maw of the saviours?  You know, all that housing, flights, conferences, consultancies and, of course, yogurt?  Into what black hole did that aid money disappear?  Mugabe’s Swiss bank accounts?  Or my British one?

Yes, I do think we have a fetish with the corruption of others.  But that’s really a fetish with self-preservation, because with less biased analysis, humanitarian scrutiny of corruption may not travel so far afield.

[Wanted to react on this topic.  Back to the analysis of humanitarian principles in the next blog]

What’s a Little Aid Between Friends?

[Apologies for the gap!  Been too busy.]

Whenever I open the internet the same vital message greets:  “Medical Aid Where it is Needed Most – Independent, Neutral, Impartial.”  That’s the top of MSF-UK’s web page.  Here’s the current headline:  Hurricane Sandy  MSF Teams in New York to Help Those Hardest hit by Sandy.  It has been a top story on the website for over a week.

The last few blogs have looked at the core humanitarian principles.  Not about how they come under attack by those opposed to our brand of goodness – badboy militia groups, depraved dictators and Western leaders who want aid to do their bidding – but how it these lofty values have Savile-ized by us, humanitarians who enshrine these principles in the Ark of their very being.

Impartiality is a particularly directive principle.  It instructs that humanitarian aid doesn’t go to your friends and neighbours just because they are needy; decisions can’t be based on religion, ethnicity or relationship to the country’s finance minister.  That leaves only one legitimate basis for decision-making:  need. And it implies finding those most in need rather than simply needs per se (i.e., go to DRC and everybody has needs, but where are they greatest?).  As Mark Bradbury concludesAssistance that is policy-driven, rather than provided on the basis of need, is no longer humanitarian.

In theory, impartiality works pretty easily in a health clinic – take the malnourished infant with malaria before the pregnant woman with a broken finger.  It gets harder as the distance grows.  Behind Door #1 Syria: violence and displacement and war-wounded. Behind Door #2 Chad: pockets of malnutrition, measles and very poor health services or infrastructure.  How do you compare suffering?

It’s no secret (actually, sadly, it is) that the major aid agencies have bent their principles in self interest, or because means were deemed less important than ends (see “Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed” for an MSF compendium of compromise).  Home society operations like those in NYC lie at the crossroads of humanitarian action and institutional needs.  It’s only a few years ago that MSF was running operations in Luxembourg, for chrissake.  GDP is over $106,000 per person. If there, then emergency botox in Beverly Hills makes sense.

Questions have always surrounded the medical impact of these missions, which can appear almost frivolous when juxtaposed against the massive needs in places like DRC or Sudan.  Normally, though, the organization admits a certain degree of self-interest in mounting these missions, a certain acknowledged violation of impartiality.  The rationalization comes later: these activities are, after all, comparatively insignificant.

But what happens when we no longer acknowledge the compromise?  What happens when we claim to be justified in these interventions, on the basis that we have responsibilities as a civil society actor?  No doubt whatsoever that Sandy has provoked health needs in the NY/NJ area (although far greater ones in Haiti, like the increased cholera to which MSF is responding, though in comparative obscurity judging by our own websites).   But if there had been no MSF in the US, would the organization have sent in the troops?  No way.   So what does that mean for impartiality?

As MSF sections in Greece and Spain look in their own back yards, they too find health needs: health systems making drastic cutbacks under economic austerity measures that offer succor to banks and pain to people.  I understand the push in headquarters, the outrage of our Greek staff and donors,  the push from the local community, and the pressure of expectation.  A little compromise is fine, isn’t it?  I mean, it’s just between us.  How to explain to the Greeks who are living this mess that their MSF can’t respond to their crisis?

Well, we do that sort of explanation all the time in countries where there are greater needs though, of course, less affiliation.  There, we are a global actor, magnanimous to offer assistance and hence privileged to deny it.  There, we sometimes go home, as has been done in the face of stunningly bad, though “developmental”, health needs:  closed programs in places like Angola, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

The key point here is that a humanitarian organization must maintain its legitimacy precisely through its refusal to be a civil society actor; through a clarion refusal to privilege localized constituencies over the only constituency that we possess – the whole of humanity. Impartiality operates from the starting point that all human life is inherently (and equally) precious. The idea of preferential treatment should be anathema to humanitarian action, and we must fight the urge to privilege the needs of people who are, literally, close to home.

Why send doctors to Brooklyn?  Well one reason is that there are people there in crisis.  But what level of unmet medical needs in the wealthiest nation on earth?  So it is also because decisions are driven by television, by a social and political proximity to the victims.

As Nick Stockton has put it:  “‘[T]raditional’ humanitarian assistance is concerned first and foremost with the task of saving lives in imminent danger, the notion of a moral or political ‘triage’ that somehow separates the deserving from the undeserving beneficiary, is for many humanitarians ethically repugnant.” Acting upon a supposed responsibility as a civil society actor equals political triage. In the end, there is something fundamentally contrary to humanitarian action and to impartiality if we intervene on the basis that some victims are more deserving than others because of their relationship to us.