Tag Archives: Responsibility

Let’s Ideate … Part II

This is Part II (apologies, but sequels never live up to the original thing). If you have no idea what I am talking about, please read the previous blog for an explanation. If after that you still have no idea, join the club.

  • Ask Angola. Repeat after me: You’re not poor, we’re not rich. You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  What to do about the (self-fulfilling) belief that certain nations are rich and should therefore fund international aid while others are too poor to worry about crises beyond their borders?  Perhaps so-called poor nations should take note of poor people, who routinely prove themselves extraordinarily generous when crisis strikes. Leaving aside all the questions of economic self-interest and geo-political soft power, why did one group of nations evolve with the belief that it should take care of others who are far away? It is a good question, and I suspect the answers lie as wrapped up in our superiority complex, graduate student surplus, “white man’s burden” and (neo) colonial guilt as they do in generosity or compassion.  The better question is why places like Ireland or Portugal have foreign aid budgets while places like Angola and Uzbekistan do not.  I say, every time there is an emergency somewhere, let’s go to the Angolan government and ask them to fund humanitarian operations.  Let’s keep doing it until they take some of that oil money and put it into a foreign aid budget.
  • Yes/No vote. An NGO finishes a year of working in a community on a project.  The NGO writes a progress report to the donor. (See Translate It, in Part I). The donor offers another year of funding.  And then comes then comes the opening of the seventh seal. Not so fast!  Accountability (power) to the people. Not some complicated mechanism of consultation – who has time for that? How about a simple yes/no vote?  A bit brutal, but then referendums and self-determination do not have to be pretty.  Majority decision.  Yes and the NGO gets the money.  No, and another organization gets a chance to do a better job. (Or, better yet, the community gets the money and they can hire themselves an NGO, but that was somebody elses idea.).
  • The smiley face / frowny face vote button thingamajig. Want customer feedback? Are you ready to admit that placing suggestion boxes in an IDP camp full of peasant IDPs may not be the most effective way to seek out customer feedback (and, judging from the emptiness of those boxes, may actually be designed to fill a different box, the one you tick so your donor will be satisfied that feedback mechanisms have been put in place)? How about one of these?

And my best (a relative term, to be sure) idea? Perhaps it is this one:

  • Corruption-buster. At the Design Theory workshop, the facilitators covered the walls with the stories of actual aid recipients, prompting our empathy. I was struck by how many of these stories contained complaints of corruption. Poverty wears you down. Injustice eats you alive. The one that boiled my blood was this story of humiliation, as aid agency staff forced refugees to sign receipts for $20, when in fact they were given only $2. You see? So on my side I will be forced to accept. So you are ripped off in front of your eyes and there is nothing you can do about it. These are things that are happening. The aid workers forge numbers. I was not born a refugee, I have to come out of this kind of life.

Take a place like New Orleans, where nothing works.  Take any city where nothing works.  What is the one exception to this golden rule of incompetence and inefficiency? Ticketing for parking violations. That works. That always works. Spend two extra minutes in the shop and there it is, fluttering under your wiper blade. Those parking meter bastards work harder than any ten civil servants because they aren’t civil servants, they work for private companies that collect a percentage of the fines collected, and each of those bastards gets to smile at the ka-ching of personal gain every time he or she slips a ticket under the wiper.  So why not do the same in the aid world? Forget some sort of hyper-bureaucratized ombudsmanship. We need unannounced visits of a private firm that is paid nothing. They get a cut (20%?) of any corruption uncovered.  Ditto for fat rewards for any refugees whose tip leads to a bust.

So, are you now feeling ready to ideate?

Let’s Ideate Our Way Out of Here

Constructive deconstruction. That is the label placed on an intriguing initiative led by HPG/ODI.  How could I even question the value of disassembling the humanitarian system?  I jumped in. The process is based on design theory, a recently-arrived savior of humanitarian action, in case innovative phone apps and cash don’t live up to their advertizing.

And in that previous sentence lies a clue to design theory’s promise. As a humanitarian no longer in the field, I am drawn to the ills of the sector before those of the people in CAR or Syria.  I am hardly alone in that regard.  To fix that proximity bias: design theory.  Because one doesn’t design a new sofa with the furniture sector in mind. The trick in design theory is to immerse oneself in the user experience; to empathize with them.  The other trick is to prototype, to churn out new ideas, see how they fare, adapt them, see how they fare…

In one exercise, we were asked to ideate. That involves said churning of ideas without the brakes of affordability, feasibility or desirability. I churned. My small group astutely relegated these ideations to the ‘kill’ pile. The beauty of having my own blog site is being able to re-animate them here, for you, even at the risk of generating the ideation equivalent of false news. (This blog not to be confused with a few of my legitimate ideas). In no particular order:

  • Ban innovation. That seemed like a contrarian place to start.  Remember the kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball, couldn’t shoot it, couldn’t play defense, but spent a spectacular amount of time perfecting his alley-oop slam dunk?  That’s the humanitarian system’s relationship to innovation.  As donors dump money into innovation and we all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid of gadgeting our way out of crisis – as the system devotes ever more resources and effort to innovation – it seems further away from getting the basics right.  Here’s an innovation – deliver emergency aid to people in crisis.  Here’s another innovation – engage in protection work as part of your efforts.  And another — ensure that the needs of people determine what you do.  Get those right and maybe we can start celebrating the latest phone apps.
  • Translate it. Mandatory – in the form of contractual obligations to donors, technical agreements (or regulations) with host governments — translation into local language(s) and community-level dissemination of key documents, including project proposals, budgeting and progress reports.
  • Invoice it. More than once at last month’s DRR conference (see previous post) did we hear that governments refused to invest in disaster risk reduction because that was ‘for the internationals’. Yes, that old issue – aid undermining responsibility and building dependency. But it is not just that we perform/replace the work of governments, armed groups and communities. It gets much worse. Take South Sudan, where an MSF hospital might get burned down and looted a few times over the course of a decade. Or where the government has managed to transform international goodwill, billions of dollars and the joy and hope of millions of South Sudanese into violent catastrophe.  That much destruction and squander takes dedication and it takes talent. It takes intent. So why does MSF rebuild its hospitals?  Why do humanitarians continue to provide healthcare when the government didn’t even try, but instead looted the goods? Why do we feed people who were driven into man-made famine?  Well, because that’s often what humanitarians do. That’s our job. But why don’t we do something more?  I mean, something other than shaking our finger and holding press conferences to declare that we are deeply peeved?  How many hundreds of millions has the international community spent in South Sudan due to the gross negligence and wilful misconduct and criminal behaviour of those in power? I say, send them the invoice. Hire some clever lawyers. Get a judgment. Garnish their wages.  Freeze a few bank accounts.  Invoice it even if you never get a cent back. Invoice it out of principle.
  • Context testing. Everyone working in the aid sector in a foreign country (for longer than six months) must pass a test to show that they have grasped the basic history, geography, culture, economics etc. of that country. They must take an induction course run by a local business or university. They must prove that they are capable not just of being neutral (read: completely disconnected), but of being contextual.

[To be continued in a few days]

Refugee? We need a new label.

Certain labels bother me. Labels like “smuggler” that replace “mass murderer”.  Or “paradox”, when designed to hide consistency beneath a superficial contradiction.  What got me started on all this, though, was label “refugee”.

The crisis in the Mediterranean has sparked a healthy debate on terminology. A migrant, we are reminded, is not the same thing as a refugee.  Some worry about placing too much emphasis on the legal distinction, in the process creating a class of humans who are worthy of our sympathy, assistance and open arms. For others, “choices about words do matter.” The official UNHCR viewpoint: Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require.  The debate misses a crucial point.

The discussion of refugees tends to ask whether or not the people live up to the term. Do the circumstances of the flight from home measure up to the legal definition (i.e., a well-founded fear of persecution…)? It places the label of refugee on a pedestal. But what happens when the label does not measure up to the circumstances of the flight? When it masks a different set of relationships? In terms of the Mediterranean crisis, what happens when seeking refugee status weakens the claim to enter Fortress Europe? What we need, certainly, is for the governments in Europe to honor the ideals and protections they authored. What we also need is a new claim, one that better fits the contemporary circumstances of flight.

Stripped down, here are refugees: people living in Country being persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared then flee to Safer Country, where they are not persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared.  Note the formula: Country destroys citizens (or, wantonly fails to protect them from destruction), so citizens flee to Safer Country.

Note also the flaw in the formula: Safer Country acts out of discretion. Refugees have the right to flee Country and the right to seek asylum, but there is no corresponding obligation on Safer Country to grant entry/asylum. Rather, Safer Country is permitted and deemed to act out of generosity, human compassion and a host of self-congratulatory reasons (but certainly not political interests).  As so many have opined, nowadays such discretion comes with steep political costs, hence the shame of Fortress Europe.  That delineates the battleground and the political game in which we have engaged: advocacy and action aimed at getting our states to treat refugees as refugees should be treated. But what if they should be treated better than refugees?

Note the difference between the above formula and the current crisis. Waves of Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians comprise a big chunk of the refugee population crossing the Mediterranean. They clearly meet the refugee formula. But don’t they meet more than the old refugee formula? Doesn’t the modern formula also look like this: Safer Country bombs, wages war and/or fuels conflict in Country, so people flee Country, sometimes to Safer Country.

Why should the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan have to gain entry to the US or to the UK based on the codification of magnanimity into international law? Why shouldn’t they be able to claim a right to enter based on their homes and lives having been, in part, violently destroyed by Western military intervention or the conflict and nasty forces unleashed by said interventions?

The justifications of such interventions are irrelevant. Iraqi, Afghan and even Syrian refugees aren’t Jewish dissidents being persecuted by a brutal Soviet regime. They are the victims of wars that we must, in part, own. What about, for instance, a creative invocation of the tort law concept of joint and severable liability? What about seeing them as creditors, collecting on a debt? In other words, what about moving beyond a claim to asylum and an exercise of national discretion to an obligation based on compensation for our national actions? We should be calling, hence, not just for the Refugee Convention to be fulfilled, but for it to be supplemented by a different notion, one in which people whose homes and lives have been destroyed get to live in the homes and lives of those who contributed to that destruction.

*                           *                           *                           *

Addendum: I will leave it for somebody else to make the parallel argument about economic migrants.  The formula used to look like this: Poor Country is hopelessly incompetent and corrupt so people go to Richer Country to look for a better life rather than starve to death at home. Now it looks too much like this: Richer Country enacts global economic policies and houses global economic actors that render people in Poor Country…

Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

Dear United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,

Millions of people heard you. I heard you.

This is what you said before the World Humanitarian Summit.

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

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

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

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


This is what you said after the World Humanitarian Summit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely.

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

Ebola: Three Ideas (continued)

Ebola 3. A Time To Point Fingers? Yes.

We can’t dawdle on this one”. That is Barack Obama on September 16, inaugurating a litany of Very Important People sounding clarion calls that the world must act to curtail the scourge of Ebola. David Cameron followed suit. Ban Ki Moon jumped up and down, calling for urgent action, also for nations to give lots of money to the UN and for Bono to organize some sort of Live Aid rerun. To date, the action of calling has greatly dwarfed the action of acting.

There is an undeniable truth to the urgent call for action. But having dawdled for so long – allowing this outbreak to infect and kill so many more people than should have been the case – there is a fundamental deceit in the call as well. In terms of preempting the exponential spread of this disease, the time to act passed four, five, maybe six months ago. Now we must talk of action – action on the ground in West Africa (not to be confused with airport screenings, conferences full of petits fours or throwing money at the problem) – and we must talk of accountability for its opposite.

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in her recent letter to the world: It is time to stop talking and “send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves.” With all due respect, Madam President, that ship sailed. The nations of the world long ago decided that they would do exactly that. They decided to act only when it became a matter of self interest. And I note here that this self interest seems largely electoral, a question of curtailing political damage at home rather than a virus overseas.

Rather than save lives, the response of nations like the US or UK seems designed to save political ass. Through months of inaction, these governments are contributors to Ebola’s explosive spread. And yet they are the best the world has to offer right in terms of response.  We need their boots on ground.  The lone exception to self-interest seems to be Cuba, neither threatened by Ebola nor under pressure to respond, who has pledged hundreds of additional medical doctors on the ground.

Let me be very clear: the urgency of accountability exists because at the nation-state level this is not primarily a question of charity or even humanitarianism. This is not a question of choice or option. This is a question of human rights. This is a question of nations violating their obligation to provide international cooperation and assistance to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. See for example Physicians for Human Rights or Amnesty International. (Whose voices remain curiously muted. Where is a more strident defense of the human right to health? Where are creative R2P-inspired arguments that there is an international responsibility to protect citizens against a massive violation of their human rights when, as in West Africa, the states themselves are unable to do so?).

And then this is also a question of international security in the form of global outbreak response, which has been entrusted to the most powerful nations on Earth and the UN, who had the money, know-how and responsibility to act much earlier. Finally, there is the question of humanity. These nations, in pursuit of national interest and in a rather self-congratulatory fashion, do such a good job of talking the humanitarian talk; of talking the talk of caring and aiding and helping. But when it came to Ebola, they decided against doing the walk.

Another reason to act right now on accountability is to stop its perversion. We are in danger of accepting a simple story that the World Health Organization is to blame. Well, that is true. But there is a difference between blame for WHO shortcomings and exploiting the WHO as a scapegoat. For starters, there is the impact of WHO funding cuts by governments like Obama’s USA. Or even better, as Dr. Anne Sparrow writes in The Nation, world powers have ensured that the WHO has shifted emphasis to the diseases of the Western World. But more importantly, the WHO was only one of he firemen who sat and watched while this flame spread to a fire and then a blaze and then an outright conflagration.

Will heads roll in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone? It is a simply wrong to believe that the “basketcase” state of their health systems were either natural or inevitable, like a typhoon. They should have been in a better position to deal with this outbreak. It is true that the scale of the outbreak today, or even back in July, would have swamped all but a well-developed nation. But we must assess matters earlier in time, when the basics of good case management and information flow could have prevented the outbreak from escaping control. What shocked me the most is that so many of their own citizens so distrusted these governments that Ebola was first seen as a ploy to attract and embezzle aid. The abundant health education message of EBOLA IS REAL makes me want to cry. How to stop an outbreak if that is where you begin?

And yet I heard Sirleaf Johnson blame the miserable state of her country’s healthcare system on a war that ended eleven years ago. Perhaps I missed her explanation of what happened to the considerable aid sent to Liberia to rebuild. Ditto for Sierra Leone or Guinea. As Human Rights Watch notes: Endemic corruption, including in health services, has long plagued the governments of all three countries and contributed to years of unrest and lack of development. It is in the first instance not the rich governments of the world who decided to leave millions of West Africans without adequate healthcare or basic outbreak response.

Governmental failure is a matter foremost for civil society. West African voices can already be heard. See, for example, this blog post, questioning poverty in the face of mineral riches and offering judgment on governance: It is not good enough for the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sierra Leone Ebun Strasser – King to note that Ebola “took us by surprise and met us when we were ill prepared for it”. Or Abdul Tejan-Cole, speaking eloquently on seeing “civil society step up when government institutions have crumbled or not addressed the crisis”, not because of poverty but because of poor management.

Beyond governments, will heads roll in any aid NGO or agency aside from (presumably) WHO? What of those agencies who have spent years claiming to develop health capacity in West Africa? What of those who have raised money by declaring themselves leaders in global humanitarian emergency health? Where are their beds and nurses and doctors? And where were they when the epidemic could have been controlled? The WHO was silent and even downplayed the gravity of the situation. Did they own the only working phone in West Africa? Aside from MSF, where were the alarm bells from other agencies with health teams already on the ground? Are board members going to resign in disgust? Or is everybody too busy ramping up activities to respond to Ebola the cash cow in addition to Ebola the virus?

There are those who argue that now is the time for action, not recrimination. That is the pragmatic voice of the aid establishment. And that is sweet music for those responsible, who do not in any way fear the hand wringing and promises to do better in the future which have long served to excuse failure and defuse calls for change. To delay accountability now is to reinforce this entrenched pattern of inertia tomorrow.

As did the global political elite know and ignore brewing famine in south central Somalia a few years ago, as did they know and ignore the mounting crisis in Syria, so did they know and ignore the burgeoning Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is the new world order, in which the most powerful are either unwilling to meet their international obligations, or incapable of doing what is right and what is human until direct self-interest and fear muster the political capacity to act.

World Update: It’s Big and Small

[Originally posted September 12 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]

Monday marked six months since I stopped working in the humanitarian field – I left the insulation and employ of MSF and headed off to parts unknown. Actually, I headed off to parts known, the USA, and spent most of the half year with my wife, immersed in the day to day. Road trip. Chilling out. Taking a break. I recommend it.

We passed through spectacular natural scenery, ate sublime meals at diners whose steady disappearance is as tragic as DRC, and interrupted my 15 years living abroad to spend a full month with my aging parents. Even without its day to day excitement, the trip would have been wonderful simply for the fact of spending so many months off the grid. The phone didn’t ring. The email didn’t stack up. Stress seeped into the ether and sleep came in deep doses.

Did I find myself? Discover the meaning of life? Nope and nope. I did manage to attain nirvana in the tiny town of Webb, Mississippi. This perfection came in the unlikely form of neckbone stew at Vera’s café, with sides of cornbread, mac & cheese, and okra. That’s it? The secret of life is high-cholesterol Southern cooking? It may well be. Beyond that, this is the most I can say. First, the world is a really big place. Second, the world is a really small place.

The world got bigger the moment I left MSF. The adrenaline rush of emergency aid causes a narrowing of vision. Aid agencies churn limited ground. Outside, the world is full of joys and marvels and realities like the miserable, inexplicable poverty of many Native American communities. Or take Syria. At the time of my departure it was a daily point of focus. During my first few months in the States I never once heard somebody mention it in conversation.

The fact of the world seeming suddenly so much larger says something about the worlds in which we live. The world became quite small as well, at one point not much larger than our campervan. That is partly a function of snugness, the age old feeling of comfort or refuge in our own world. In one way, I had replaced MSF’s porthole with another, but at least stress did not fix my gaze. It felt easy at first to join the big world again.

But beyond my road-tripping, the smallness of the world is partly a new phenomenon, as internet information and social networking shrink rather than expand our understanding of issues, and solidify polarized points of view. See this fascinating piece on data visualization of Twitter action during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We’re most likely to only talk to people like us”.

Since coming back on the grid, the news portrays a world in even worse shape than only a short time before. 2013 was bad enough (see my New Year’s Day send off in Huffington Post). Now add Putin’s Ukraine invasion, Ebola, the atrocities of the Islamic State, Israel’s recent attempt to rubble-ize Gaza, Libyan strife, etc.

The twinned trends of a world getting larger and a world getting smaller are not unrelated to this horrific state of affairs. For example, the more misery that piles up in the world, the more (for example) Sudan, CAR and Haiti gather into a white noise of faceless crisis, meaning these specific realities are rendered invisible from our small worlds. Or this phenomenon: in the face of all that bigness – in the face of seemingly inexorable economic and cultural massification on a global scale — there is a retreat into the local. Self-determination at the atomic level, whether it be the selfie, the slow food movement, or Scottish desire for independence. The discourse of nationalism is on the rise. That can be a good thing – ethnic pride. And that can be the success of the Islamic State or Boko Haram.

This self-determination is not only a longing for freedom or power. It is not only political in nature. It is also the self-determination of right and wrong itself. Reversing 500 years of trending enlightenment, “truth” in the form of political conviction is becoming more localized; naked self-interest more shielded as opposing views no longer enter the fortresses of small world opinion. The internet promised the globe and has in many ways delivered the (isolated) village. Safe in those narrow confines, POW slaughter is justified by religious edict and drone assassinations by self-defense.

Contrary to my hopes, 2014 suggests that 2013 was no aberration (again, see link). Of specific concern to humanitarians should be international law, human rights, and humanitarian action. These have all formed part of the world getting bigger – a concerted effort to globalize respect for certain norms and standards. Now, their meaning and hence their potency has been drained by the steady erosive forces of self-interest, exceptionalism, and realpolitik of the flag bearers.

In the aforementioned Huffington Post piece I wrote there were 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.” My primary concern is not the upsurge of bad actors – there will always be bad actors – it’s the very public destruction of these laws and standards by the good actors, or at least of those who typically advertise themselves as good. In the long game of establishing rules against summary executions or slavery, the act of a jihadi beheading a journalist is a call for strengthening international law; the act of the US government torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib is a knee-capping of it. What is good for the goose is good (easily justified by) for the gander.

(Diversion alert) The US government should take a lesson from Charles Barkley, who understood there are insidious consequences when the public anchors their beliefs and aspirations in the wrong place (see clip): “I am not a role model”. Sadly, such public self-awareness is not the stuff of nations. Here is Samantha Power a few days ago, banging the drum of international order against Mr. Putin’s Ukraine transgressions: “These rules and principles that have taken generations to build, with unparalleled investment – countless lives have been lost to establish and defend these principles.” Ouch. There falls another brick in the house of international law, crumbled as the world’s biggest pot calls Putin’s (pretty big) kettle black. (Diversion ended)

I do not know what happens to humanitarianism in the face of the world getting bigger and the world getting smaller. Aside from shrill press releases, what course of action to take if we believe that our access to people in crisis (Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Congo…) depends in part upon a strong respect for international law and norms? Where it concerns us, I know that we aid agencies have trumpeted ourselves as flag bearers in the international order. We are the goose too. So I know that we who define the humanitarian project must break from our own growing trends of self-interest and living in too small a world.


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.

The “New” Humanitarian Fig Leaf

You can’t stop a genocide with pills, food and blankets.  That simple truth can, however, become camouflaged by those very same pills, food and blankets.  In short, that old humanitarian bugbear, the fig leaf problem:  governments toss the hustle and bustle of relief efforts at a situation as a mask for political inaction.  In the churn of that virtuous activity, we all sleep in the comfort of our well-publicized “doing something about it”.  In the face of complex issues and hard decisions, politicians find an easy out.

It’s not a useless “out”, of course, but helps only in a limited way because the real problem isn’t displacement, hunger or illness, those are the symptoms.  Remember, humanitarians aren’t supposed to fix war or poverty, but we should cut the fig leaf effect by being loud about the need for a fix by those with the power to do so.

But is that the end of our fig leafiness?  In terms of its goodness, when you think of Switzerland, what do you think of?  I think of it as one of those relatively congenial nations, mostly full of fairness, benevolence and good chocolate.  The political neutrality of the Swiss probably goes a long way to this relatively benign impression of a state.  Thinking harder, the role of Swiss banking darkens the picture – wealth on the back of drug cartel and dictator loot.  But somehow an image of peace and tranquillity – literally, of bucolic mountain vistas – prevails.

A recent editorial in The Guardian commented on the seedy side, even of Swiss chocolate.  Child labor, dirty dealings in commodities like oil and sugar, and even noting that Darth Vader’s helmet has Swiss origins.  Then again, there’s always the Red Cross, one of the great, good things in the world.  The picture brightens.

I am used to the idea that our organizational activities might act as a fig leaf, veiling the real story behind staggering inaction to such diverse crises as the genocide in Rwanda, the earthquake in Haiti and AIDS (yes, even there, throwing medicines at a socio-political disease).  I am not as used to or comfortable with the notion that we agencies ourselves function as a fig leaf for the venal politics of nations.  It’s a fig leaf not so much as mask but as counterweight; PEPFAR funding as a balance against drone assassinations.  Does the former enable the latter, the way a mafia boss buys acceptance through a host of charitable donations?

Now we have China, Kuwait, Turkey and India all trying to join the humanitarian system.  I thought such “Western-style” charity functioned as a Louis Vuitton bag of statehood and success.  Conspicuous consumption of “have” status.  Now I wonder if they coveted something more than arrivée cred.  Now I wonder if they seek to be humanitarians as ballast for dirty deeds and bloody hands that come with BRIC power.

So now I wonder about we agencies, proud emissaries and flagbearers for the generosity of our patron states.  Who in this business thinks of Oxfam and Save as the Swiss chocolate of the British?  Ditto for CARE and World vision in the US and MSF in France or Belgium.  Who knew that humanitarian action wasn’t simply a fig leaf for the inaction of politicians – it’s a fig leaf for action as well.

[So much for originality.  I already published a paper by more or less the same title as this blog, looking at how “humanitarian protection” acts as a fig leaf.]

Ready for some viewing?  Here are two humorous (and old) takes on aid, plus two links to some great work by BBC Four that aired last week.

1.  The Onion’s send off of the Save Darfur movement.

2. Ricky Gervais’ Africa appeal. Hilarious.

3.  The Trouble With Aid.   Piercing documentary by BBC Four on the limits of aid in a messy world.  And then the panel dabate featuring yours truly afterwards.  For now, unfortunately, they’re s only available if you’re in the UK.

What’s a Little Aid Between Friends?

[Apologies for the gap!  Been too busy.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bugged Out Over Haiti Cholera

Somewhere, somebody should start a blog on how to make yourself unpopular in humanitarian NGO circles.  Here’s one sure-fire formula:  praise the UN.  Or don’t even praise them, just defend the UN.  Or don’t even go that far.  Just mention the UN without also blaming them for everything that’s wrong in humanitarian action (there is an exception to UN-bashing if, at the time, blame is being heaped on government donors in an effort to obtain funding).  So I am wary of violating the NGO ethic of cool, as well as damaging my self-image promotion, by saying what could be construed in some quarters as a sycophantic devotion to the aid world’s paragon of bureaucratic inertia.

Yesterday I came across this posting on the cholera situation in Haiti.  Voilà the House of Representatives of the United States of America, that tireless defender of the downtrodden, harvesting political hay from the fact that UN peacekeepers introduced the cholera bug into the water system of Haiti (or did they?).  Haiti was, of course, a country that effortlessly fit into one of those overused “perfect storm” analogies looking at factors conducive to cholera killing a shitload of people (estimates are 4500 – 7000).  Low population awareness?  Check.  Zero natural immunity?  Check.  Poor to zero emergency healthcare capacity?  Check.  Widespread mingling of drinking water with bodily effluent?  Double check.  Voodoo.  Check.

America’s top politicians have made their bold call:  because UN troops introduced cholera into Haiti, they are the “proximate cause” of the epidemic.  Read the letter.  Strong stuff!  You’d think they were condemning North Korea or one of those single-named dictators like Mugabe, Gadddafy, or the newly anointed (to the single-name club) Assad.  Congress continues:  “As cholera was brought to Haiti due to the actions of the UN, we believe that it is imperative” for the UN to deal with it.  Put simply:  you are the cause of this mess, so you have clean it up.

Is there one person paid to run the US possessing even a small appreciation of irony?  Let’s look at that accusation on causality for two secs.  OK.  One sec.  Because it is quite remarkable, isn’t it, when the US government endorses the idea that a powerful global actor has to clean up the messes it makes on foreign soil.  Forget Iraq.  Forget Afghanistan.  Forget Viet Nam, Cambodia or Laos.  Forget the Arctic ice pack melting away like all those pledges to build a better Haiti.  Forget, even, a drone missile or two being an uninvited guest at a Pakistani wedding.  Forget all the messes where the US govt wears the label of proximate cause like Gilligan wears a cap.

Forget them and focus on Haiti.   After four decades or so of propping up a series of Olympic medalists in the decathlon of brutal, corrupt, incompetent, venal (but anti-communist!) political leadership – not to mention that sordid little CIA relationship with local paramilitary butchers and other political interference – you would think the USG might shy away from the promoting an idea that proximate cause engenders political and moral responsibility in the poorest place in the Western hemisphere.

In the end, though, perhaps the bigger danger comes not from the US’s lack of introspection, but from peddling the idea that bacteria can be the cause of so much destruction.  (More on that next post). The cholera disaster in Haiti is caused by the interaction of vibrio cholera with a dysfunctional sanitation system, with paradigmatic urban slums, with an almost unprecedented level of abject poverty.

And on the proximate causes of that mess, both US and Haitian politicians seem unsurprisingly silent.  Ditto for the Center for Disease Control, who managed to predict that the risk of cholera introduction into Haiti was low, presumably because they naively assumed the thousands and thousands of people making up the relief armada were well-wiped westerners who did their business in the plush Hotel Karibe.  Ditto for most of the relief effort, who seem uninterested in answerability for Haiti’s mess despite its longstanding moniker as the “Republic of NGOs”.

Special kudos, though, for the lawyers suing the UN over cholera.  Such a nice example of the little guy taking a pop at power.  But if you want to introduce some accountability for the woes of Haiti, maybe the brave lawyers should leave blue-helmeted Nepalese peasants alone and go after those champions of justice on Capitol Hill.