Tag Archives: UK Government

Friday Traffic Jam

1. The lesson of the traffic jam

The traffic situation in New Orleans tells us a great deal about the current state of the world, with humanitarians at the center.  I lived there in the late 90s. The peak hour jams were miserable. The wide cement lanes of I-10 reconstituted themselves as a parking lot full of people full of a demoralized rage. The solution was obvious — build another lane. So the traffic jams were then tripled for a few years as construction of another lane took place.  Traffic was eased. Hooray for the new lane.  And then it wasn’t: more people started driving, the developers built more homes so more people could move out to those homes . . .  A few years after the opening of the new lane? The same miserable jams, now 33 percent wider.  This is not my observation.  This is science. This is the problem of ‘induced demand’.

The humanitarian system functions as many things, and one is as a new lane. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism. Is it that human society will always tolerate a certain level of excess misery, of people in crisis due to poverty, pestilence and war that escapes our efforts at alleviation?  Greater and greater budgets, greater and greater resources, greater and greater effectiveness and yet needs still outstrip supply.  Getting on top of it (ending human need), in other words, will always remain at the horizon.  Or does the mechanism have more to do with the behavior of governments and armed actors? Those making a mess and those who are supposed to solve the messes (or prevent them in the first place) will not respond, will not take difficult action, and will not end their wars because humanitarianism relieves enough pain to reduce the pressure to act.

We do not like the old idea that humanitarianism prolongs war. But if we admit that powerful/western governments will rarely act until there is a crisis, then the lack of a crisis often means they will not act.  But this traffic effect is not a question of prolonging war. This is a question of allowing more war: this is the degree to which the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes not just a palliative or fig-leaf, not just an illusion of or substitute for difficult political action, but the degree to which it produces an effect of putting out fire with gasoline.

Can we learn from the traffic jam? Here is what the research proved. The answer to the paradox of why building more lanes actually makes traffic worse has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around.  More roads = more moving around. That raises a question: what does humanitarian action allow people (politicians, soldiers, refugees, donors, aid workers) to do?  Even more intriguing, here is another finding of the researcher: if you take away lanes, it doesn’t create a big snarling mess. People adjust and the amount of jam stays about the same. In humanitarian terms, that would be a very good thing.

2. You can’t make this stuff up.

There are some quotes that seem better placed in a Peter Sellers movie. Here is Philip Hammond, UK Foreign Secretary, speaking in the aftermath of the Chilcot Inquiry on whether or not the UK made too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq.  “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”

The word ‘great’ seems mildly out of place.  One could easily sub ‘monumentally misguided’. Does that ambition not seem familiar, though, to anyone in the international aid community?

3. Risk aversion or neurosis?

Has anybody ever measured the cumulative effect on our culture of entire nations singing their children to sleep with Rock-a-Bye Baby?  Hundreds of millions of admonitions pouring into the infant brain “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  Seems like a recipe for creating a nation of  neurotics. Evidence of this mass insecurity? The mass hysteria that Ebola provoked in the USA? Our collective overestimation and overreaction to the threat of terrorism? Well, here’s more evidence, in an advert I just saw.

Living Fearless

Apparently, we now reside live in a world where living fearless is thought to include that old daredevil pursuit of tasting lettuce at what appears to be a posh street market.  Be afraid. Be very afraid. Said the spider to the fly?

 

Brexit Now vs UK EU

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

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

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

eu poster pic

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

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

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

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

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

Three Songs (3)

[This blog is the third of a 3-part series.]

Part 3. Towards a New Song

Adding up the Swansong and An Old Song, here is what you get: a sterling example of oversimplification. Mea culpa. The point is to make a point: the two songs share a foundational error, one emblematic of too many similarly inspiring yet fruitless aid songs.

Both Ban Ki Moon’s compelling World Humanitarian Summit report and the international community’s push to Leave no one behind rest upon a causal logic shaped something like this: by identifying a problem and agreeing to solve it, highly skilled people plus good intentions will fix the problem. This approach works well for repairs, when something is broken, like an engine with a leaky radiator. It works less well when the system itself is flawed, when the problem is generated by the system functioning as it has evolved to function, regardless our collective intentions and commitments to the contrary.

Remember, the same people have come together over and over again to declare that the recipients of aid should participate meaningfully in the process or that humanitarian action must be accountable to local communities. Another example: ask yourself how the proposed ‘Grand Bargain’, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) solution to the woes of humanitarian financing, differs from previous attempts such as the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement.  Does it once again ask the leopard to change its spots? Or does it set forth a plan that will work in spite of the spots?

Such idealism requires an ahistoricism, one that occludes the magnitude of previous efforts dedicated to the same ideal. In our zeal and in our need to believe, humanitarians all too regularly leap past the question of why it didn’t work before. Are we frightened the past might blunt our enthusiasm (or funding) for the future? Would history usher us towards apathy in a world so full of brutal crisis?  Or, in less psychological terms, do ideals obviate the grim need for systemic change given a sector where nobody gets fired for singing an old song?

In Moon’s own words, Leaving no one behind “is a central aspiration of most political, ethical or religious codes and has always been at the heart of the humanitarian imperative” (One Humanity, ¶ 72). Beautiful. Dead wrong for humanitarians, but beautiful. A goal to be endorsed wholeheartedly for the development community, but the humanitarian imperative instructs that we should leave people behind. It even tells us who: the principle of impartiality instructs that the most urgent of cases are the ones to receive aid first. (All the more reason to hope that development works to build capacity that can address less urgent needs.).

The problem for humanitarians today is not one of leaving people behind, it is one of leaving the wrong people behind. Reaching the most vulnerable imposes political, program and personal costs/risks that have long forced aid away from the most vulnerable (see, e.g., MSF’s Where is Everyone). To begin with, reaching the most needy costs a lot more than reaching the merely needy. Reaching the most marginalized entails far higher risks of delay, insecurity and unforeseen consequences. It requires an aid industry able to embrace the likelihood of failure, not one that must flee the risk of it.

The aid community aspires to aid the most vulnerable, the humanitarian system is largely designed (by evolution, not intelligence) to avoid them. Political pressure ensures that we will not hear USAID or DFID disavow the idea that aid must deliver ‘value for money’ or ‘bang for the buck’. There can be no press release on not building ten clinics for the needy IDPs near Goma, but instead venturing out and building two clinics for the desperate IDPs in the hinterlands (for the same amount of money and with a year of delays). NGOs cannot boast of new programming directions that might not work, complete with promises to learn from mistakes. Taking more risks cannot gain approval from boards governed by concerns for public reputation, future funding or the threat of lawsuits.

Leaving no one behind offers us a slogan to rally behind, an ideal towards which we can dedicate ourselves, a direction that taps into funding streams. Without changes to the incentives, drivers, architecture, culture and politics governing aid, Leaving no one behind also risks offering us another old song. Until we recognize and address how and why the design of the ‘system’ often forces humanitarians away from the most vulnerable and most marginalised, we will never be able to place them at the epicenter of our work. That is the lesson to be learned.

And that is all we need for a new tune. We need songs that no longer end with grand visions of what needs changing. We need songs that begin with them, with our longstanding challenges, and then go on to offer an explanation of why they didn’t work and a vision of how we are going to get there this time.

Final note for the record: if the plan boils down to calling for a new political commitment, that is an old song. World leaders possess no lack of political commitment. The problem is a surfeit of competing, contradictory commitments.

Three Songs (2)

[This blog is the second in a 3-blog series . See directly below for the the first part].

Part 2: An Old Song

The starter’s gun has fired on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will pretty much fix the entire world by 2030. Have a look. Like swansongs (see previous blog), these goals are not exactly small stuff. End poverty in all its forms everywhere is SDG goal #1. Like I said, not small stuff. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls is Goal #5. Unlike Moon’s swansong, though, the SDGs are just launching, a vision to be implemented. At least, that is their intention.

ODI recently held a panel discussion entitled ‘Leaving No One Behind’, a launch event for the march towards 2030 and the achievement of the SDGs. In keeping with my unscientific approach to blogging, I thought I might offer some criticism without having attended, listened to or even perused a summary report. My comment is a simple one, based on evidence as insubstantial as this sentence from the on-line description of the event: ‘In order to ensure no one is left behind, we firstly need to identify the most vulnerable and marginalised people’.

Leaving no one behind works fine as a slogan for much of the SDG work to come. Please forgive a statement of the obvious: delivering on the promise may prove more difficult. Take, for example, the UK government, who has itself proudly enshrined Leaving no one behind as an official promise. If it weren’t so tragic, it might seem almost a parody to the refugees and migrants stuck in the brutal mud of Calais. No one gets left behind because no one is allowed to leave? That jibe aside, the lesson is flawless. Achieving change against the tide of hard political realities requires more than a shiny new slogan and more even than a government’s promise.

Governments, though, should be excused if their actions aim to satisfy the conflicting demands of a broad electorate; and they should be predicted to serve the powerful more effectively than the powerless. Well more than one of the would-be refugees and migrants in Calais will be left behind. Faced with fierce opposition to any immigration, that is what governments are designed to do.

Less easy to excuse is the international community that, knowing this, has nonetheless designed a set of goals structurally dependent on states behaving, essentially, contrary to their nature or their political capacity. Note that this is the same international community who will be charged in large part with developing and implementing the policies and programs to ensure no one is left behind. There is a persistent gap here, between rhetoric and reality.

Returning now to that line from the event’s description, this is the aid community that appears, now at least six decades deep in the enterprise of organized, institutionalized development (A) to be proclaiming to have discovered only in 2016 the need to figure out who are the most vulnerable and marginalized, or (B) to be inspiring the coming generation of work by sloganing over the fact that this is exactly what they have reported to have been doing for the past six decades, or (C) to want to convince us that ‘finding the most vulnerable and marginalized people’ somehow defines an ‘all new’ or ‘improved’ product that really will work, without explaining to us what they are going to do differently from the decades of many approaches.

Now, I know this entire blog amounts to a cheap shot, a cavalier reduction of fairly complex thinking and experience to a line in an event description. The cheapness of my opinion, though, does not so easily dismiss the sense that with the same choir and the same melody, we will get the same song. There is a superficial accuracy in A, B and C above. However, they do not explain why such a dedicated, intelligent community repeats itself with such frequency. Why are the choir and melody so old? And how do we manage to produce a different song? Answers A few thoughts in my next post.

Operation Fear, redux

Who remembers Willie Horton? You could make an argument that without Willie Horton, George Bush the senior would not have been elected president, and hence his son would not have risen to power, and so no US attack of Iraq, and so on . . .

Horton

The successful centerpiece of a Bush campaign ad attacking Michael Dukakis (the Democratic candidate), Willie Horton embodied a wild, violent and very black criminality that scared the bejesus out of mainstream (i.e., White) American voters. A first, highly mediatized use of racial fears to win an election? I don’t know. But compare this to what is being termed the “opening salvoes in Operation Fear.” The latter day attack: David Cameron employing fear of migrants to spur opposition to Britain leaving the EU, threatening that France might no longer honor the agreement by which the UK operates its border controls on French territory (which is a key reason the squalid camp lies in France, not the south coast of the UK).

The politics of fear is but one aspect of the situation: the degree to which the fear of migrants, foreigners and refugees has eroded the ideals and principles behind safe refuge and the right to seek asylum. More importantly, the degree to which it has muted many of the voices one might expect to champion these very ideals, giving them loud voice in the public sphere (rather than a reticence in defense of institutional public image).

But the more insidious problem can be found in the mechanics underlying these tactics. Willie Horton was a violent, deranged killer. As an individual, he earned our fear. The secret of the ad’s success, though, traded on his face, an archetype of the guy hiding under your childhood bed. I wonder what it would have felt like to African-Americans, not simply to be feared on account of their skin, but to be feared so pervasively and effortlessly that it makes for a useful instrument.

What does it mean to the people in Calais (or those who are not, but might as well be), if they can so easily be used to evoke fears of invasion, of a swarming terror? Cameron’s underlying logic involves trading on the dehumanized foreigner, a meme for the modern bogeyman, usefully deployed to frighten not children but British voters into good behaviour. And so, the call to the humanitarian and human rights community is not simply to defend law and policies or to deliver assistance, but to counter (the principle of) humanity under attack and the equally powerful banalization of the attack. That is where it starts. That is where it always starts.

No Time to Rejoice

Hip hip hooray? The British government has announced it will welcome thousands of Syrian refugees, an abrupt reversal of fortunes for those dreaming of barbed wire boundaries.  So much for the previous day’s logic that the UK’s generous aid / involvement ‘over there’ somehow cancelled out legal and moral obligations right here.  It would be difficult to concoct a more perfect example of abusing the purpose of aid.

There are many who will view this as a victory of politics, a democracy where the voice of the people was heard.  It is certainly a case where the shift in public opinion, not to mention the shame of having even the likes of Nigel Farage (UK’s anti-immigration demagogue) call on the government to do more for the refugees, prompted better policy. But this remains a political failing.

What do Aylan Kurdi and Thomas Eric Duncan have in common?  They are both dead.  And their deaths changed public opinion.  And so their deaths changed prime ministerial / presidential policy.  That is the problem with democracy, its inability to act against the will of the people when the will of the people is too slow to embrace what is right.  David Cameron has long known what is right – legally and morally – in terms of those seeking asylum from Syria, or places like Eritrea, Yemen and Libya.

Both Cameron and Barack Obama knew that their countries needed to launch an urgent response to Ebola long before their catastrophically late (September 2014) interventions.  But they could not act because the increasingly deadly combination of the high stakes of power plus the brutal oppositionalism of domestic politics means that politicians cannot afford to act in accordance with necessity, principles, or even in line with their own moral compass.  When it comes to these sorts of foreign policy issues, it means they must wait for the public because they will not sacrifice political capital to lead the public. So they watched Syrians drown and Sierra Leoneans perish.  We all watched.

Political (and financial) dynamics thus twist the financial and proverbial logic, creating a structural preference for pounds of ‘cure’ rather than ounces of ‘prevention’. In other words, for late intervention, after the weight of a crisis has gained sufficient media attention to tip public sympathy.  The well-foreseen, slow-onset 2011 famine in south central Somalia provides a well-documented example. The humanitarian community needed those images of starving children to unblock funding, many fatal months late.  It is not a victory when doing what’s right in the face of (impending) crisis means waiting for the likes of the crumpled little boy on the beach or the feverish Liberian man in a Dallas hospital.

Tony Blair and Global NGOs: Not so strange bedfellows

The verdict arrived as furiously as in Ferguson: widespread condemnation, both public and internal, for Save the Children’s decision to present Tony Blair with a humanitarian award (see e.g., here). In an act designed to beef up my own award credentials, let me be the first to perform the selfless humanitarian act of extending a hand to STC (John McTernan defended the award, so I’m not the first, but then again he is essentially a Blair protege).

The humanitarian enterprise hardly needs a further injection of public distrust. The criticism focuses primarily on the moral offense of his track record in Iraq – not quite pro-children – or as PR frontman for dictators. Others lament the ugliness of this type of NGO self-promotion rendered naked. To those complaints, let’s add the potential impact in places like Iraq, where armed groups find yet another shining example of the proximity of global NGOs to their political enemies. So much for the perception of neutrality and independence.

Yet it is too easy to mock STC’s self-inflicted wounds. The true humanitarian does not judge the wounded and sick, nor deny assistance, even if it’s all their own bloody fault. The point here is that nobody should be shocked or even surprised that STC gave Blair a big fat and very public award.

The political world requires compromise, and major NGOs, including global aid organizations, labour to make themselves part of that same political world. They do so to be effective. What about Clinton? What about the many NGOs who accept funding from the Clinton foundation? Would it be fair to say that his blind eye to genocide in Rwanda had a negative consequence or two? Or that his almost farcical abuse of power damaged women across the world? What about Obama in the future? Will his legacy of healthcare to poor Americans (or whatever social issues he takes up post-presidency) be permanently tainted by his policy of drone terror? NGOs operate in this same arena, one where compromise is both inevitable and frequent. That is not a justification. That is an explanation.

Many global NGOs establish close relationships with governments and political parties, in order to obtain vital funding and in order to affect policy change (see this 2012 blog). They pepper their offices with the ranks of ex-political figures and their boards with the establishment’s great and the good (hence the blind spot at the top of STC, who did not seeing this coming). STC and Blair have very close ties (see e.g., here).

But even if not directly co-mingling with politicians, global NGOs resemble the Blairs and Clintons of the world – amalgams of brilliant accomplishments with closets of perverse compromises. Being among the elite powers on the planet is no place for unbowed idealism (and make no mistake about the power of the global NGO, be it as a voice of moral conscience, public accuser, or in their dominant relationship to the communities they serve). That reality is a message our publics will understand, if only we stop selling them the myth, and stop selling it to ourselves.

Crucially, the backlash against STC highlights the gulf between the reality of NGO action and the image of NGOs as noble crusaders. People want to believe in NGOs. And I have a feeling this backlash is particularly dangerous because it involves the choir throwing stones at the priest – nobody can blame the Daily Mail crowd for this storm about aid. What surprises me is the degree to which this gulf lies within the organization as well. STC staff appear to be among the most vocal critics, labeling the award as a “betrayal”. Fair enough to be pissed off at the negative consequences and the hit to trust in STC (or donations), but who did they believe they were working for? Who do any of us humanitarians believe we are working for? And how necessary is it to us to maintain this belief?

Perhaps Toby Denskus says it best, commenting matter-of-factly: We can no longer rely on political activism from large, professional charities. This may not be exactly news, but it is worth a reminder: Large NGOs, charities, ‘civil society organizations’ will not be among those organizations that will rock any domestic political boats.

That is no reason to lose faith. It is a reminder that they work through reform rather than revolution, pushing the establishment to do better, helping to create a better status quo. But to ensconced within that status quo to upend it. Which is why they are part of the world of Tony Blair. If only they wouldn’t broadcast it so brazenly.

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.

The Illusions of Political Will

“I didn’t rape because I am angry, but because it gave us a lot of pleasure,” a 22-year-old Congolese soldier told the Guardian.  He admits to having raped 53 women, including children of five or six years old.  There is something acutely disturbing about the precision of his count. If I didn’t want to see him medievaled, I’d cry for his lost soul.

How demoralized would you have to be not to appreciate the Hague/Jolie media-grabbing joint jaunt to DRC and subsequent press conference at the Summit of G8 Foreign Ministers?  The storyline portrays a decisive moment.  Pick your pet phrase.

The tide has turned. William Hague: “Governments finally confront this problem . . .  historic agreement . . . pledging to work together to end sexual violence in conflict.”

Nowhere to hide. Zainab Hawa Bangura:  “sexual violence will not be tolerated . . . pursued by any and all means at our collective disposal.”

We’ve turned a corner. Angelina Jolie: “many individuals and NGOs who have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years, but the international political will has been sorely lacking”

The obvious question is this:  Why now?  It all sounds fine, laudable even.  Like progress.  Like an important change.  Like the powerful nations who control the world are finally going to end this pox.  But this is not a new issue.  So why now?  What does it really mean that the world is supposedly finally getting serious about rape in war?

The cynical answer is that the power relationships underpinning massive rape and massive impunity are pretty much identical to the power relationships underpinning the gender breakdown of the G8 meeting of foreign ministers.  Put bluntly, if men’s fundamental human dignity, let alone genitalia, were being regularly violated on account of their gender, it wouldn’t require Brad Pitt’s wife to bring it to your attention.

Implication 1:  If you don’t change the determinants of the gender imbalance in the G8 summit, you won’t stop conflict rape.

Implication 2:  It takes the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers to affect actual change.  Which implies what for the myriad of other causes that do not blip loudly on their radar?

OK.  #1 is a cheap shot, though probably true (perhaps a blog topic?).  But #2?

Another answer is that Jolie has it wrong when she laments the lack of political will.  At least since the war in Bosnia almost two decades ago, the world has done everything it knows how to do, if judged by how we typically address this sort of issue.  There has been no shortage of reports, symposiums, declarations, news coverage, NGOs, celebrities etc etc.  Even a few prosecutions. Rape in war was elevated to the status of a crime against humanity.  Aside from not being the issue du jour of the G8 foreign ministers, what level of attention/action has rape in war not garnered?

How have years of effort been any different from attempts, say, to end modern slavery, protect the rhino, stop child labour or end poverty?  Seems to me that this rather typical approach to ending conflict rape well resembles the work (and results) of Western-led efforts on any number of ills, especially those that tend to occur outside of the West.  Seems to me we’ve been serious about stopping rape in war for a while now, it’s just that the champagne toasts of success have yet to materialize.  Hence Hague and Jolie’s implying that it actually takes the G8.

Implication 3 (deduced from Implication 2):  Then what the hell is the worth of all those individuals and groups working tirelessly?  Our work (“our”: because I personally and my organization have been busy on this issue for years), one would have to conclude, has been rather ineffective.

Implication 2, reversed:  Jolie and Hague have it wrong.  Maybe the collective foot stamping “enough is enough” of the G8 Summit of Foreign Ministers will prove exactly as effective as the work of the foot stamping of the rest of us.  Maybe all our professional hoopla is simply one more illusory exclamation of action to come, one more delusional expression of hope.  Maybe, stripped bare, we are looking at the model for (Western) do-gooderism.

1. Talk about it.

2. Do a bunch of stuff.

3. Observe that actions do not live up to either our hopes or our publicity.

4. Praise the effort and proclaim to have learned valuable lessons.

5. Start over again at Step 1, with a ratcheted up version of the same recipe.

That may sound somewhat depressing.  The truth may be worse.  Maybe the Hague-Joliesque occasional trumpeting of All New! and Improved Efforts, Strategies & Conviction to Actfunctions as its own failure guarantee.  Maybe it is the very act of the G8 press conference that takes the wind out of the sails of political urgency.  We feel good that the horrible matter is being addressed.  The fig-leaf of activity will hide the ineffectiveness of the model.  When it comes to conflict rape, perhaps Jolie’s quote could be rewritten:  “the international political will has been sorely lacking because so many individuals and NGOs have worked tirelessly to address these crimes for years”.

And that, my friends, is why I prefer the simple aspirations of humanitarian action.

The Ugly Marriage of Moral Responsibility and National Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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