Tag Archives: Independence

Be Careful What You Ask For

The discussion of localization is beginning to deepen. Here (summarized) is an opening salvo from Charles Lwanga-Ntale, director of the Kenya Academy Centre:  localization often seems to resemble ‘deconcentration’, a process whereby the systems and structures of the existing humanitarian sector are exported downwards.  Certainly an interesting reflection to lead off a conference entitled “Localization and Contextualization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) in East Africa”. Hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and the (Kenyan) National Drought Management Authority, the conference mixed government, NGO and academic communities, and placed a particular focus on regional examples of DRRM at the sub-national level, where counties and districts struggle directly with fires, landslides, refugees and drought.

True enough – localization can be many things to many people. Yet the warning on replication was eclipsed as quickly as it was issued. Localization has momentum and it has an engine – from diverse voices a rather uniform set of calls for more capacity building. A palpable hunger for knowledge and learning peppered our two days of discussions. A desire not only for the processes, tools and know-how of the humanitarian sector but also a deep conviction in the power of capacity building to change the behaviour of communities and people.  Have the past five decades of capacity building not curbed our appetite?

I’m not advocating that the global south build a wall (although that argument holds surprising merit), but something needs to keep all these consultants, UN careerists and INGOs busy.  The call seems to aim at training from the very INGOs and agencies that shaped local NGOs into mere implementing partners, and undermined their capacity as autonomous civil society actors. Beyond that, the headlong rush into capacity building raises Trojan Horse concerns. What comes with the sector rebuilding its systems, as Lwanga-Ntale phrased it, “further down the road”?

This much is true. The core of the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies and INGOs elsewhere referred to by many (e.g., me) as an “oligopoly” or “cartel” – has developed an immense amount of experience, know-how and (sadly less publicised) comprehension of what doesn’t work. At the same time, my less optimistic appraisal is that very little about humanitarian action warrants the dash towards replication. It’s not like we are passing on a bandolier full of silver bullets. And that is the good stuff.  What about the bad stuff, which often comes along with the good stuff? Or the bad stuff that we mistakenly think is good stuff?

Take for example the seemingly innocuous technology of the logical framework.  Or the constitution of a humanitarian action upon the foundation of projects. These are exactly the sort of capacity building initiatives the system loves to export. Yet aside from their bureaucratic appeal, they come riddled with proven deficiencies: reducing humanitarian work to tick-box processes and quantifiable targets, output without outcome, short-termism, top-downism, risk aversion, fear of failure, etc.  In the end, a sector full of successful’ projects that leave behind such staggering unmet needs that we needed a Grand Bargain full of transformative ambitions.  Local actors using contextualized logframes? Is that really as far as our ambition travels?

I note that those at the forefront of development thinking (and even a few donors) have embraced the need for Doing Development Differently, exactly by unlogframing it. As agencies scramble to maintain relevance and contracts by delivering capacity building, are we replicating an obsolete and ineffective technology simply because it is so ingrained in our thinking; in how we practice aid?  Isn’t that one of the problems we hope localization and contextualization will solve?

Even beyond the issue of effectiveness, here’s question getting too much focus: What value do does the system want or expect the north to transfer to the south?  Opportunity cost asks a second question: Does that value outweigh a flood of workshops and ‘best practices’ that will bury the south’s opportunity and right to author value for itself? To author a new rather than receiving an old value?

Capacity building strikes me as expedient, but not particularly ambitious. I would think development requires more of localization and contextualization. First and foremost, the space for local actors to respond to problems in their way, and to struggle in the creative process at the same time.  This involves going through frustrations and failures in proximity to communities, to arrive at successes through effort, invention and ownership, not effort, mimicry and dependence. This also involves less of an employment scheme for the existing aristocracy.

Crucially, it is through this struggle that NGOs in the north have built not only their practices, but their institutions as well.  It may be a crap slogan for fast food, but Burger King gets it right, as does Zen Buddhism.  Be your way. Endpoints are less important than pathways. For example, what is the cost of local institutions not developing organically but instead having their financial plumbing supercharged by the global north just so that they can be declared eligible to receive direct grants? Why not change those eligibility standards? This is exactly the sort of mimicry that we should block; a mimicry whereby we reproduce a humanitarian system in which subservience to its business objectives evolved as the dominant structure of the agency, while the operational response to the needs of people became at best secondary, at worst a simple input to a financial transaction.

This call is not for reinventing the wheel. This call is for reinventing the imperfect devices of humanitarian action, because local organizations with a relationship to the community and deep knowledge of the context might just invent something entirely glorious.

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.

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

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.

Secret Agent Man, Redux

They won’t start talking until we put all our phones in the refrigerator. Dennis McNamara, of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, talking about sensitive negotiations.

A year or so ago I posted a blog about the risks of being infiltrated by spies.  I seem to have missed the point.  True enough, we humanitarians should do more about stopping NGO penetration by the Felix Leiters and Carrie Mathisons of the world. If we want to safeguard trust in our intentions, trust in our essential harmlessness, then we need to keep the spies out.

But that misses the point driven home, driven right into my breast pocket, by Edward Snowden.  The revelations about NSA spying make it clear, the spy is I.  It is no longer a question of keeping spooks-people out, it is a question of the degree to which they have  transformed us into spooks-people in.  The unwittingness of our role is of no relevance. Ditto for our pure hearts.  It is no longer about deliberately passing information back to spy agencies, it is about their routine extraction of sensitive information from our everyday work.

What to do given the lack of convenient refrigerators?  Negotiating access requires daily contact with armed groups, many of whom have so-called terrorist or similar status.  We must talk to them.  We must phone them to ask if it is safe to travel, safe to deliver care, safe to transport a wounded child.  Who needs a mole when our Nokias and Thurayas provide such an effective set of eyes and ears?

Decades ago I thought (briefly, very briefly) about working for the CIA.  I never thought I would be doing it for free.

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.

Syria: Slippery Slopes for Humanitarian Action

Syria today is a killing field.  Human bodies stiffen in the rubble and – equally – the lofty ideals of men and women plummet to earth like quail at a shooting party.  Human rights?  Crashing down in the face of sectarian executions and shuttered schools.  Geneva conventions?  There they go, felled by indiscriminate shelling and the withholding of aid to civilians.  Humanitarian principles?  The same. Nose-diving. Full of buckshot and broken trust.

Humanity?  It is probably the only principle still intact. The attention to the Syrian population has been strong.  We humanitarians are aware of and paying attention to the situation inside Syria. There is immense fear, deprivation, disruption, and then the weight of untreated malnutrition, illness and wounds.  Our compassion, however, is starkly contrasted by our absence.  Independent operations inside Syria by the multi-billion pound humanitarian system?  Almost non-existent.

(Digression alert!)  Put differently, our fat compassion is sharply contrasted by our thin skill when it comes to establishing operations inside the wicked (complex), violent contexts of today, as has been the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Over the past year, MSF has been one of just a handful of global humanitarian organizations running direct operations inside rebel-held Syrian territory (as opposed to smaller, diaspora-based interventions). These projects are fragile, geographically limited (predominantly in the north and close to the border), and fall woefully short of the need.  As agencies, we have invested heavily in the capacity to communicate about our actions; increasingly we lack the skills and experience necessary to be active, to be humanitarians where it counts. (End of digression).

Independence?  Neutrality?  The Damascus government has granted the ICRC, several UN agencies, and a few NGOs permission to work in government-held territory.  Those with permission must channel assistance through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or other government-authorized organizations.  (Read: control). As the New York Times reports, this aid might be doing more for the Syrian regime than for the people.  Here is one rebel’s view: “Food supply is the winning card in the hands of the regime.”  Or one can work through the other side, through groups of Syrians and aid networks aligned with the opposition.  As MSF points out in its recent report, aid is “thereby subject to the political agendas of these actors.”  Bottom line for the “humanitarian effort”?  Neutrality does not exist.  Independence does not exist.

In some ways, that is the “easy” discussion, the obvious-to-everyone compromises on principles.  The debate over the military and political impact of aid moving through Damascus-approved channels or rebel networks is necessary.  It also obscures consideration of damage to that other grand principle, impartiality (aid should go to those most in need, and cannot be based on ethnicity, religion, clan, etc.).  In toxically polarized conflict, local partners or channels are synonymous with ethnic or geographic bias, political agendas and allegiances, co-optation by power brokers and armed groups, and is anything but needs-based.   Syria is but the latest example.  For instance, in the Pakistan flood response, one major evaluation noted that loads of assistance ended up with those who were the “least vulnerable” but who were “close to feudal landlords or connected through certain political affiliations” (p. 36).

A key element to delivering aid according to need means knowing where the aid ends up. Impartiality is not a matter of intent.  It is not the target which counts, but where the arrow lands.  You have to see it reach the individual.  Sadly, even in good times, NGOs tend towards what David Keen (in his book Complex Emergencies, p. 121) sees as dispatching aid towards targets, “usually with relatively few resources allocated to monitoring the fate of relief”.  The resulting situation reinforces local power structures and means that those most in need will fail “to stake a claim to relief for precisely the same reasons that they were exposed to famine and violence in the first place” (Keen again).

That is in good times. In bad times, in bad places where you can’t deliver your aid yourself, aid according to the principle of impartiality (aid based on needs alone) becomes an exercise in blind faith.  At what point, though, does it actually become an exercise in suspending belief?  When does the aid (and hence the organization) shift from being essentially humanitarian in character to solidarity-based or partisan? We humanitarians need to ask and answer those questions, because an exercise in compassion alone is an exercise in peril.

[Big thanks to KW for help with the research].

The Ugly Marriage of Moral Responsibility and National Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development vs. Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Independence Day South Sudan

You have to admire a Prime Minister whose jobs strategy is, essentially, telling people to go and look for work overseas.  That was Portugal’s PM, refreshing for a politician in his apparent disregard for popularity, not to mention his honesty about not having one shred of a plan.

It reminded me of the recent declaration by Salva Kiir – the leader of the world’s youngest nation and easily the President with the most intriguing taste in hats – that South Sudan would introduce stern austerity measures.  Say what?  That’s like, well, I can’t really think of an analogy.  Victoria Beckham announcing she’s going to start dressing up when she appears in public?

One might have thought the very concept of austerity included limits; theoretical boundaries beyond which the term becomes inapplicable.  Austerityofficial action by a government to reduce the amount of money it spends, or the amount of money that people in a country spend.

See what I mean?  The concept seems to imply that government actually spends money on services, and that people aren’t foraging for bugs and leaves for dinner.  Other definitions suggest a particular inappropriateness:  austerity = reduced availability of luxuries and consumer goods, esp when brought about by government policy.

Well, one country’s healthcare, education and roads are another country’s caviar, Gucci and Maserati.   Happy Birthday South Sudan!

Of course, we must recognize the difference between government budget and spending on services.  South Sudan may be the first place on Earth, and certainly the first democracy, with an absence of functioning services on which to impose austerity measures even though there has been fairly whopping government expenditure.  That’s because $4 billion sent to the various ministries ended up in Swiss bank accounts.  That’s not me being cynical, that’s the President himself, in a May letter promising amnesty and anonymity to his government officials if they would please please return the missing cash.

In fairness, though, it is hard to disagree with the need for some sort of financial austerity, so I should get off my high horse.  I mean, South Sudan has been getting reamed by the mothership of Bashir’s Sudan, so it’s perfectly logical that President Kiir would announce the cessation of all oil shipments for the next few years (the only way for the oil to get to market is through Sudan).  True, that declaration of independence has caused some side effects for the economy, perhaps because oil exports amount to every penny the government owns (98% of state revenue)?  Sort of like collateral damage,  no? Or cutting off your face to spite your nose.

So austerity is the price the government will pay for independence.  Here:  watch this 30 sec clip and sub in the word “austerity” every time you hear the word “probation”.  Makes you wonder if governments don’t have limits to what they are allowed to do in the name of independence.  At what point does one have to accept a little reaming?

You could argue humanitarian organizations should ask themselves the same question every time the principle of independence blocks the provision of aid.  Shouldn’t we swallow a small dose of Marsellus Wallace?  Of course, neither government nor NGO will pay the price at all.  Perhaps our moralizations amount to this: a modern twist on Patrick Henry:  “Give me liberty or give you death”.