[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.