Tag Archives: Middle East

The trouble with refugee summits

[Apologies for the long absence – I have been working on two large projects and distracted from my usual flow of sideways thinking.]

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

The UN Refugee Summit – all hype and no substance? A typically good read from IRIN. The question we have to ask as a sector, and I think within the framework of research rather than accusation, is whether the emptiness of hype constitutes the full extent of the damage. Do summits, conferences and other grand ‘change change change’ plus ‘build back better’ moments actually produce more negative than positive outcomes? Specifically – and I’ve blogged on this before, in the aftermath of Angelina Jolie and William Hague’s 2013 proclamation of a ‘historic moment’ in ending rape in conflict – do these well-hyped declarations actually function to diminish the likelihood of positive change? Did Bill Clinton’s ‘build back better’ speech help doom Haiti to the not-so-built-back future it would soon discover?

Mechanisms? The obvious question is whether the well-reported declarations of world leaders take the winds out of the sails of public pressure? Will people across the West now sleep better, knowing that the refugee problem is being dealt with by no less than Barack Obama and the entire United Nations?  More important than public urgency, what about pressure from within the sector? Do these global launches generate too much of an opportunity for the aid system to capture momentum, political will and (surprise surprise) funding, only to transform it into conferences, evaluations, policy discussions, guidelines, and the unproductive yet satisfying busy-ness of saving the world? One might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

The Viet Nam war produced the incongruous situation whereby young black American males were removed from the civil rights struggle and shipped off to fight in Viet Nam. A journalist/historian named Wallace Terry interviewed these soldiers. As I listened to this fascinating BBC program on Terry’s work, one moment caught my ear. One of the soldiers interviewed talked excitedly about the Black Panthers, justifying their violence because blacks had to fear the police and fear the KKK, so it would be a positive and fair change if white people also had something to fear.  I couldn’t help wondering if that same logic hasn’t fused with jihadi anger against the US or Europe.  Which prompts the strategic question of how to get rid of their fear?

3. Respond to the fear (and to the suffering, loss, hopelessness, anxiety…), not just the violence

And while I am on the topic, the news from the US when it comes to inner city gun violence will be one of the great producers of phd theses a hundred years from now. It defies comprehension. Here’s a recent headline: In Chicago’s Deadliest Day Of 2016, 9 People Killed In Shootings On Monday. Get that? On a Monday.

In a timely BBC piece, the journalist attaches himself to a local rapper to penetrate one of the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. The report quickly transports. I slipped into voyeurism, appalled and yet enthralled by the combination of youth, energy, guns and lurid deaths. The entertainment ended at 12:53, when our tour guide broke through to my human side. Worth the watch.

Parts of Chicago must surely define a humanitarian crisis. I say that less because of the violence than because of the pain, the unfathomable grief, anxiety, powerlessness and waste that produce urban landscapes seemingly imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Trauma wounds may be dealt with at the hospital, but where is MSF with its psycho-social programming for the tens of thousands of victims? Because ‘this shit will fuck you up’ and because you know that the US healthcare system isn’t offering mental health care? Where is Save the Children with its ‘Child Friendly Spaces’? Or, more simply, how do we respond to these Americans who desperately need to ‘get out’ of a place that ‘ain’t normal’?

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

Tired of the gloom? Here is a rather devastating take on humanitarian action, cleverly disguised as a restaurant review. “It’s the good intentions that sink vegetative restaurants. They are selling the goodness of their intentions in the hope that you’re more interested in filling the karma bank than your stomach. The explanations of the ingredients are always longer than the recipes. Vegetarian places are to restaurants what the Big Issue is to journalism… It’s a commitment to niceness and oneness and caring and nurturing. The Big Issue is vegetarian journalism.”  That’s the brilliant AA Gill’s Table Talk review of Tiny Leaf restaurant (Sunday Times Magazine 21 February 2016). By the way, he gave the restaurant two out of five stars.


2013: Goodbye to an Ominous Year

I have posted a rather depressing rumination on 2013.  See the Huffington Post UK site.  Here’s a teaser:

Though certainly depressing, the observation that 2013 was a bad year is fairly unimportant. More worrisome is the prospect that 2013 signals a dangerous trend, even while experts tell us there has never been so much peace in the world. I see a mounting number of places that have reached a critical mass of disrespect for international law and universal ideals, or their outright rejection; and where rudimentary compliance is no longer deemed useful.


Having swapped his political fez for the humanitarian beret of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband is calling world attention to the spectre of polio outbreak in Syria. He has seized on a tragic development.  Rising polio numbers play out like a dead canary in a coal mine. At once powerfully symbolic of the calamity of Syria today and a frightening omen of Syria tomorrow.

Coincidentally, polio confirmation comes just as chemical weapons inspectors have declared that equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has been destroyed.  Cut to fist-pumping Western nations?  I mean, progress on CWs is relatively good news, no?

In an astute exchange on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (yesterday, around the 2:10 mark), Miliband and John Humphries aired the rather stunning conclusion that the world has breathed a sigh of relief since the chemical weapons deal has been made.  Guard down.  Attention elsewhere.  Result:  in the hoo-hah around chemical weapons – well-deserved though it may have been – Assad found a “licence to carry on what he was doing – slaughtering an awfully lot of people” (Humphries).  This analysis, shared by many others, makes for a cautionary tale.

The only law left standing in Syria today may be the law of perverse consequences.  MSF played an instrumental role in sparking attention/reaction to the chemical attacks (see my previous blog).  As if Western governments justifying potential retaliatory strikes were not enough of an unintended consequence, there is also the sidelining of a truly unprecedented humanitarian crisis.  As Christopher Stokes eloquently explainsSyrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors freely driving through areas in desperate need, while the ambulances, food and drug supplies organised by humanitarian organisations are blocked.

Absurd?  Yes.  Predictable?  Why not?  What chunk of this hindsight should not have been foresight? We all knew that U.S. or French militaries would twist the outcry against chemical weapons to suit their own ends.  We should also consider it no surprise that Western governments, desperate for a chance to demonstrate action/resolve/victory will jump on any issue that masks their protracted, utter inability to do something about the horrors of Syria.  Action is generic in that regard.  Action acts as a pressure release.  Action is solution.  No need for further attention.  Chemical weapons?  Sleep easy. Mission accomplished.  You could airlift 2 million ab-tronic exercise devices to Syria and the US public would coo in the comfort at good being done.

And it is not just governments. It is no surprise that the media needed a new angle to this Syria tale, that NGOs needed to show success, that we were all emotionally drained by trying to think of the ever-worsening big fat disaster.  In other words, did we not know enough to understand that one major risk of speaking out against chemical weapon attacks was that the international effort would be diverted away from the millions of starving, abused, sick, wounded and frightened people? Absurd = perverse, does it not?

Now: what of polio? In one breath, Miliband laments the negative impact of chemical weapons as distraction and then raises the issue of polio.  Obviously, it may turn out differently.  And obviously, dealing with polio is a good thing.  But this is Syria 2013.  We ignore the law at our peril.

In the end, it is quite sad that ten cases of polio are able to generate more attention, and perhaps more momentum for change, than massacre after massacre, month after month, million after million.  A new outcry:   Stop the killing! Humanitarian ceasefire! We need to stop the polio!

Miliband is shrewd.  He comprehends the symbolic value in a polio outbreak.  He trumpets the potential for a polio campaign to give rise to a new “humanitarian bridgehead” inside Syria.  Polio vaccinations as a silver bullet?  That makes for a nice soundbite, but it ignores the governing law of the land.  The risk is that depoliomacy produces a great campaign and an even greater distraction.

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.

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.

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].

Dog Not Eat Dog

Dog microchips to be compulsory in England.  Now there’s a headline we’ve all been waiting for.  There’s more:  the chips are made of bio-compatible glass that will not be rejected by the dog’s body.

That story triggered a memory, a tad grainy, of one of those ridiculous toy dogs eating the canine version of beef stroganoff from a porcelain bowl at what looked to be a Michelin starred restaurant.  The image is of some overly precious breed, like a Pomeranian or a miniature poodle.  At the time, I was working in rural Burkina Faso, with the Peace Corps.  It was a period of painful drought across the Sahel, and the people in my community were hurting.

The image came from a news item.  Somewhere in the south of France – one of those caviar communities like Monaco – there was a restaurant catering to the dogs of the wealthy.  Meals were served at Ritz-set tables, full of crystal water bowls and silver candleholders.  Dinner for the pooches cost a ridiculous amount, like $200.  Honestly, that’s my memory of it.

In the pre-web days of the 80s, that story went about as viral as possible in francophone West Africa.  The amount of money to feed one dog one meal equalled the Burkinabé equivalent of, I don’t know, 23 years average GDP, so I guess people were shocked enough to pass it on, like a Youtube video of a fat guy dancing funny.

Everybody seemed to know about that dog restaurant, as if they represented a standard of sorts in the West.  I think that news item alone built a truth, one I heard over and over again:  “In the West, your dogs eat better than our people.”   There was something quite jarring about that idea – personally jarring to my friends that seemed to increase the distance between us.  And something quite durable.  More than cogent political analysis.  More than economic indicators. More than I could imagine, that idea defined how people understood my world and understood themselves.  Lower than a dog.

Historical anachronism?  A bygone era?  Ten days ago, as my wife and I turned from the main road into the Luxor Airport, a billboard caught our eye.  First of all, there aren’t many billboards in that part of Egypt.  Second of all, there aren’t that many billboards that we could read, anywhere in Egypt. Third, it wasn’t trying to sell us a product.  Rather, it had a picture of a horse and brought me back to my employment.  This was a charity appeal.  Brooke Animal Hospital (they are an international charity, and have been in Egypt since 1934).

The billboard was aimed, literally and directly, at wealthy foreign tourists.  After the airport itself, it may constitute their very first impression of Egypt, or of Africa.  It was about horses and donkeys.  I wonder what Egyptians think.  No shortage of human needs there.  I wonder if Peter Singer would applaud this as progress.

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?

The Bad Colonel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jubilation in the Streets

Back in youger days (not exactly youth, but pre gray hair) I decided to escape the tedium of law school by volunteering for the American Red Cross.  I ended up spending Wednesday nights driving around New York, providing coupons for assistance (temporary shelter, replacement clothes and furniture, food, etc.) to people affected by house fires.  A little known program: the ARC visited almost every fire in town almost right after the firetrucks left.  The acrid smell of wet, burned furniture used to hang in my nose for a day or two.

Fires practiced an active discrimination along class lines, so we spent the wee hours of the morning driving to high rise projects in the Bronx, crack den infested row homes in Bed-Stuy, or a part of the Rockaways nicknamed “Dodge City” by my colleague.  These were parts of town I’d never seen, and would not feel safe to visit even in the afternoon.  Streets pulsing with drugs, dereliction and anger; teeming with people right off the grid of basic citizenship.

To my disbelief, the ARC logo on our jackets and car provided the sort of shield humanitarians can only dream of (not to mention a license to park on the sidewalk).  It took a little while to get used to this freedom of access where my eyes delivered pant-peeing images. Once inside the building, we would visit the site of the fire and then the neighbors, including two or three floors above, to assess smoke damage, and three or four floors below, to gauge water damage (I’d never thought of what happens when you blast thousands of gallons of water into a 15th floor apartment). 

In those visits came the revelation; the clarity of my misjudgment of the local reality.  Leaving the mayhem and violence on the street, knocking on doors, resident after resident after resident opened a minimum of three locks to reveal small neat homes crowded with religious icons and proud photos of high school graduations.  These were the quiet poor, by far the majority population of those neighborhoods, who seemingly bunkered themselves to survive the night.

That’s more or less where I came to believe in the 5-95 principle for urban neighborhoods, where the density of people meant that a mere 5 percent rate of dysfunctionality reflected close to 100 percent of the visible inhabitants at night.  I guess it’s another variant on the “tip of the iceberg” problem, except that the ice below the surface probably looks pretty much like the ice on the top.

Cut to Tripoli yesterday, where we watched or read about scene after scene of jubilant crowds, rejoicing in the departure of Colonel Gadaffi.  Some of these (mostly under-30 male) celebrants were also feting the arrest of Gadaffi’s third son, Saif al-Islam, except that he showed up to later in the day, and apparently had addressed his own jubilant crowds.  Aside from the war, then, Libya seems awash in jubilant crowds.  What I wonder about is the invisible majority we don’t see.  Where are they and what do they think?

There’s nothing new in the way TV images can distort reality on the ground, whether it’s an impression of overwhelming contempt for Gadaffi, or the way in which a focus on 200 protesters becomes the prevailing image in a perfectly calm metropolis the size of Luxemburg, or how the media-and-NGO-selected starving baby show generates a public who expect all African children to be severely wasted.  No, nothing new there, and a fairly duh blog if I stop here. 

What interests me more is, first, the way in which we seem to accept these distortions when they conform to our world view.  I’m not talking about the public here, I’m talking about us insiders, sunburned aid workers, savvy diplomats, and perhaps even the media themselves.  We are quick to accept the truth of the jubilant anti-Gadaffi crowds and suspect foul play – a propaganda exercise of paid supporters! – when the scene is reversed.  There’s a lot of cultural bias in our filtering of info!  Hence, what interests me even more is the degree to which we base our program decisions on an understanding of the world that is shaped by our penchant for misperception, for believing our eyes even though we know that we’re seeing only the 5 percent (and that’s if we’re really really lucky).  I’m worried about the way a manager based in London might impose a curfew on a field team having watched a news report showing images of rioters in the center of the city, but even more about the way we seem convinced that Gadaffi is so universally despised within Libya that we’ve taken sides and are hungrily expecting peace and harmony to follow the “mission accomplished” moment of his demise.