Tag Archives: violence

Multilateralism and its Discontents

1.  Did you miss Antonio Donini’s “The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action,” on the IRIN website? Here it is. Donini smacks a lot of nails on the head. We live in an era of decline when it comes to the international agenda for a less violent and oppressive world. Global governance is heading the way of the polar bear, swaying in confusion on the lip of an isolated floe. Even Europe, typically much less unprincipled than my own USA, let alone Russia or South Sudan, has “become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.” The article points the finger, and then examines how the retreat of multilateralism impacts upon humanitarian action. Finally, he asks, “what is the reflecting humanitarian to do?” I have the answer.

No I don’t.  I have one way of looking at it. This retreat of multilateralism rebalances the bargain between humanitarian aid agencies and their major Western donors. It rebalances our bargains with the corporate sector as well, because we humanitarians have long accepted to represent what Donini labels “the smiley face of globalisation.”  This sector we love needs to stop smiling about globalization and it needs to strike a new respect for the principles it enshrines.

On the government side and on the corporate side, some of this is aidwashing (see Point 2 below).  Some of this is soft power. Some of this is market entry.  Some of this is product placement. Some of this is guilt…  The sum of good impact far from counterbalances the sum of those somes, let alone the sum of drone warfare, hyper consumerism and political domination. Nor can it; nor should it. No government can place international interests above self interest as a matter of policy. No corporation can place do-gooderism above profit as a strategic objective.  And no humanitarian organization can afford to ignore these equations.

In other words, no humanitarian organization should continue with the delusion that this headlong rush into ever deeper partnerships with the private sector and dependence on Western donor governments will pave a virtuous path forward for humanitarians.  Of course corporations and entrepreneurs have much to offer. Of course they do good. Of course government aid agencies have much to offer. Of course they do good. But that should begin the discussion, not end it. Faust, at least, traded his soul for knowledge.  Budget relief seems somewhat less noble of a bargaining chip.

The point, as I concluded in a recently published report, is that humanitarian actors “need to decide how far they are willing to become coherent with the policies, players and multilateralism that help produce the crises of displacement, inequality and war in the first place.” Or perhaps Peter Buffett explains it better: Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. 

2.  Earlier this week I tweeted about Boris Johnson. On most days, an easy target. “You gotta love politics” I quipped, in reference to Johnson lambasting the Saudis for bombing Yemen while seemingly oblivious to the irony of the situation given Britain’s arms sales to the Saudis. That “paradox” has been noted before. And yet perhaps we aid industry vets do Yemen a disfavor with that label. Paradox? Perhaps that is only the way we choose to (mis)understand it, as a paradox between this delivering of bombs to the Saudis and relief aid to the bombed. Perhaps the paradox is more about how humanitarians can be so world weary and yet so naively full of our own wishful thinking.

There is no paradox whatsoever. There is enabling, causation and even a coherence of action, like arriving home with flowers on the day you will tell your wife what happened at Jonathan’s bachelor party. Are we really so convinced of our goodness as to ignore how the large humanitarian expenditure in Yemen pays for the arms sales to the Saudis? That is its purpose and that forms, hence, part of the impact that should be owned by us, regardless our less bellicose intentions.

The trouble with refugee summits

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

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

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

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

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

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

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

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

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

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

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

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


Lessons From Charlie Hebdo

What do David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have in common? Well, probably lots of things. Here’s one you weren’t thinking of: All of them attended Sunday’s massive Charlie Hebdo rallies in Paris, and did not make any such powerful protest when the Taliban murdered 132 children in Peshawar. A number of articles (see here or here), comments and tweets have contrasted the West’s reaction to the murder of twelve satirists with the case of those Pakistani children, or Boko Haram’s abduction and enslavement of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls.

There is a sad futility in making such comparisons. First, it is not a comparison of like to like. Would the Charlie Hebdo attack have created such a global outpouring without the video footage of the gunmen making their escape? Are the Taliban not the old story, half as sexy as the Islamic State? Bottom line: lots of factors explain Sunday’s extraordinary political and emotional outpouring as 3.6 million people pinned Je Suis Charlie to their hearts.

Beyond that, though, is the misplaced anger of these accusations. It is OK to feel a greater kinship to those closer to us than to those far away. This form of tribalism may even be hardwired into us as human beings. We can still exercise the core humanitarian principle that we share an equal kinship with all humanity. So I can admit to feeling closer to editor Stephane Charbonnier or cartoonist Jean Cabut than to teacher Sofia Amjad or pupil Asad Aziz (even while imagining the school children to be ‘more innocent’ – apologies for that, but you get what I mean). The mistake is not in experiencing the bias of our own very human emotions. The mistake is to allow that bias to go unrecognized, so that it fails to be overruled.

The even larger mistake is in failing to see that the source of those biased feelings is not solely kinship. These biases – our different reactions to Charlie Hebdo versus Peshawar’s massacre – are produced by the same relations of power and privilege that nourish the Western NGO and produce biased approaches, strategies and activities. These prejudicial factors range widely, from the North-South bias in media coverage to the effective valuation of some human lives over others to the difference between the West’s position towards the right to free speech versus the right to an education. Sadly, recognition of these biases will remain spotty without genuinely more global decision makers at the top of our nominally-global aid agencies.

Lesson 2: The sense of senseless

Do not succumb to the reactive view that these killings are senseless, outbursts of psychotic madness, the work of a purely bloodthirsty fanaticism. On display are undoubtedly a purpose and a logic and the capacity of this attack to advance the personal and strategic interests of the murderers. There is a cruel win-win at play – do nothing and the Kouachi brothers’ actions will look heroic, having cowed the West into a fearful submission. Have a mass rally and, well, their actions will look heroic. After all, we were not the message audience. We are more likely its vector in the quest to “sharpen contradictions.”

I wish I were in France myself. I would have marched. But I would have known that the rally plays into the hands of the militants – adding glory to the deeds in the same way an arsonist purrs as his blaze nets a five-alarm response. And my concerns would have been with my colleagues around the world, because international NGOs continue to be seen by many as symbols of Western blasphemy. Targets.

Lesson 3: Who are we kidding?

Been asked to throw away a pot of yogurt by airport security lately? Plenty of brave talk. Lots of people tweeting Voltaire. But who are we trying to fool? Much of the West is particularly and increasingly risk-averse (see e.g. this blog or this one), and we have seen the degree to which even remote threats of harm have elicited ineffective or expensive overreactions. The Ebola panic comes to mind. So let us not be surprised if standing up for free speech quickly gives way to risk management, threat aversion, and a substantial chilling of the exercise of the right to say whatever the fuck one wants.

Lesson 4: The humanitarian culture of offense

The right to offend. The right to talk back to a parent, denounce a President, or criticize a government. The right to “speak truth to power” as so many have suggested. Freedom of speech is one of the core universal human rights. And it is one of the rights that runs most contrary to the common sense, laws, limits of accepted behavior or culture of many societies.

We know that many challenge this absolutist approach to freedom of speech. We need to look no further than our universities, where academics have found themselves policed for advancing unpopular ideas, or the growth of political correctness as muzzle. And that is in the West, the supposed champion of free speech. How does it play in the corners of the world that do not believe in such public airing of opinions or insults? Where maintaining ‘face’ holds enormous cultural currency? Where the values and needs of society trump those of the individual?

Nothing justifies murder. But what of the many places in the world where nothing justifies offensive speech? We fall easily into the rationale that it is a universal right. That is elsewhere a legal technicality, not a shared ideal. More specifically to humanitarian work, what of the many places where we regularly assert this right to offend through our public reports, our exposure of the violence and abuse of civilians in a place like Darfur or Congo?

I remember a Japanese MSF doctor, thoroughly opposed to our advocacy campaign. He had no disagreement with the facts of it, yet he felt ashamed by the public airing. Neither our insistence on universality, nor our conviction that public advocacy forms a necessary component of humanitarian action, obviate the offense of our speech. And causing offense will strike many as un-humanitarian, an act of aggression and an exercise of power no different from inking a blasphemous cartoon.

Does “Never Again” Mean Again and Again?

Is it possible to be indifferent to the U.S. Senate report on CIA interrogation? Critics of the report warn it will provoke anti-US attacks today. My concern is that it will engender the same sort of torture in the future.

One important function of this exercise in transparency is not the unveiling of information, but the veiling of brutal, self-justified power. That function can be found in the spectacle of a country patting itself on the back for exposing its wrongdoing; for ‘coming clean’. Praise is not unworthy – it is indeed commendable for a government to declare and detail how it has offended its ideals, betrayed its people, and committed crimes against others.

At the root of revealing the truth, though, is the twofold process of re-establishing power and rebuilding the myth of exceptionalism. On the former point, President Obama is clear: these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners. By undermining its reputation and pulling a Gillooly on human rights, the U.S. lost a core component of its global power, in the process (as I have written before) eroding the very universal ideals of which it sought to be viewed as a champion. Whatever it entails, transparency of this nature must also be understood as a substantial exercise in self-interest.

Obama again: one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past. In a similar vein, Senator John McCain: we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us. In a democracy such as the USA the ability to exercise power through violence, whether legal (war), illegal (torture) or as yet undecided (drone assassinations), depends heavily on the myth that violence carried out in the name of the demos is okay.

Here is the lasting value of this report: restoring America’s faith that it is different, that it is ruled by high ideals, that it’s not really the sort of nation that commits the sort of acts that it commits. Because America’s committing such acts rests on its ability to remain, in the eyes of its people, the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known (Obama). Torture and killing by others are policy, are crimes of state, are the product of inferior systems and the action of inferior people. Torture and killing by the home team are thus aberrations, exceptional, and rendered part of history through confession. The loud proclamation of “never again” already begins the process of making “again” possible.

Beyond the case of CIA interrogations, most of the really bad stuff in the world is founded upon a perverted sense of right. Even at the level of petty criminals, people manage to convince themselves that their crimes aren’t really crimes (e.g., because they are robbing the rich, or that society “owes” them for past grievances, etc.). At the more macro level, from the U.S. government to the most ‘recognized’ heinous thugs in the world, from the Lord’s Resistance Army to the Third Reich, humans have been able to cause such astonishing levels of harm only because they have managed to successfully construct a sustainable ethical framework that justifies their behaviour to significant numbers of people.

In short, it’s people who believe they are right who end up destroying us because they believe that right – that appeal to a just cause, to honor, to patriotism, to redressing past wrongs, to religious glory – then bestows upon them the right and even responsibility to destroy the lives of others. Hugo Slim explores this idea in his excellent book Killing Civilians.

I’m not sure where the above observation leads in terms of establishing a coherent principle of action. Perhaps one can merge the Biblical edict against judging others with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, producing a principle which says that it is impossible to be right enough to judge others sufficiently to justify violent or destructive action against them. It does not mean that we cannot feel right, and/or feel right enough take action – certainly plans to bomb civilians deserve action – it is just that the limit of any action would be the line where we cross into violence against others. We should never be certain enough of either our rightness or our special nature to justify what has become, essentially, a global litany of forced rectal feeding.

The Perils of Blind Faith

It would be difficult to imagine a person who better combines passion with sanctimony than Bernard Kouchner. He is not self-effacing. Then again, it is his ego and talent that gave birth in part to MSF, and in part to the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds (“droit d’ingerence”), later more or less codified as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This entertaining interview on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head program, quite heated in parts, brings out the full Kouchner. He is insufferable and yet also bold, for instance producing an unqualified YES when asked if France should have apologized for its role in the Rwandan genocide. You don’t hear many politicians being as candid.

It’s worth watching just to see the grilling he gets, but also for his unwavering commitment to the idea of humanitarian militarism, of going in to stop the killing. Over and over, Kouchner champions the idea that when people are being killed, doing something is better than doing nothing. His belief seems unshakable, even in the face of examples like the West’s 2011 intervention in Libya, whose humanitarian cloak quickly slipped to reveal an agenda of regime change; an intervention that put Libya on the path to the unqualified violent mess of Libya today and nourished a brutal insurrection in Mali. Humanitarian? More lives lost than saved? Kouchner doesn’t just dodge that question, he seems to view it as irrelevant.

Kouchner accepts no responsibility for the negative outcomes of Western intervention. He deems interfering, even through military means, better than letting people get butchered. Is it good enough, as one of the panelists suggests, to dismiss bad outcomes on the grounds that the intent was pure? That everything else – the messes of the West’s failed state-building in Iraq or Afghanistan – is simply the law of unintended consequences? He seems equally impervious to arguments that the promise of R2P is chimerical, an attractive doctrine that works only in theory because in the real world it has and always will be used to justify self-interested political and military intervention by big powers into the affairs of little powers.

Much of this would be no more than thought-provoking for us humanitarians were it not for the fact of R2P and MSF sharing the same birthplace. Fraternal twins? Once fans of the idea, nowadays most humanitarians I know regard R2P with healthy skepticism. We are quick to recognize the political intent or neo-imperial posturing when the world powers decide to intervene somewhere, especially when based on a humanitarian imperative. And we are quick to note the hypocrisy of so many decisions to look the other way.

Contrast this with our less skeptical approach on calling for more humanitarian aid, as if it were unrelated to the right to interfere politically or militarily. On the level of and connection to power, the similarities of R2P to humanitarian action remain largely invisible to us, despite their sharing (literally, one could argue) the same DNA.

It seems right to me, unshakably right to me, that humans cannot allow other humans to be killed, to die, or to suffer without doing something. Am I as blind as is Kouchner on R2P? Why dismiss military intervention as mistaken given real politik while compassionate aid is necessitated because of real politik? Of course there are negative consequences. They do not shake our faith in the moral imperative to come to the aid of people in crisis; and in the heat of action are easy to ignore or dismiss.

Is it enough to press for more effective anticipation, monitoring and correction of negative consequences: better context analysis, a more piercing focus on the role of aid within the economy of war and openness about mistakes? All good. (Done poorly or half-heartedly, though, these control measures may even serve more to ease our doubts than to correct problems.). What about the deeper level, touching upon the model for humanitarian action, and the web of power relationships in which it rests? We humanitarians possess a profound need to feel good about our work, one that is well-insulated from challenge. What’s hiding in there?

The interview with Kouchner presents a vision of blind belief. For me, it brings these doubts to a head at about the 38 minute mark, leaving me to ponder an exchange between Kouchner and a member of the audience.

Question (from a young Kenyan woman): “…MSF’s actions are often followed by French troops. How would you react when people ask you is MSF just another engine [NGO? The word she uses is unclear] that protects French commercial interests?”

Kouchner: “You are partly right…”.

That is more than a casual sharing of DNA.

2013: Goodbye to an Ominous Year

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

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

Friday shorts: Syria, sixpacks and status

Today, a treat for the reader.  Instead of my meandering approach, I’ll spare you the long-winded digressions and the spectacle of my beating a dead horse.  Here, a few short(er) posts.

1.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In a land with only one horse, even a lame nag looks like Secretariat.  And so the political leadership of the world piles human hope and diplomatic muscle into a Geneva conference on Syria.  I certainly wish Kerry and Lavrov well.  In the realm of impossibility, even a half-baked solution seems like E=MC2.

The reality is that the Syrian conflict poses an existential threat.  Seems to me that the rush to self-destruction challenges the value of liberty, or freedom or democracy.  Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” makes for a great battle cry.  It sounds profoundly noble.  But at what point should either Assad or the Syrian opposition surrender?  Not militarily defeated but a recognition that the price of victory is too high.  That is not, obviously, a question for me to answer.

Yet I am reminded of King Solomon (in the Koran, Sulayman), a wise man for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  When faced with two women each claiming to be the mother of an infant, he threatened to cut the child in two.  The true mother, who loves her child, cries out that she would rather see it pass to the other than perish at the sword.

2.  A lot of magazines dealing with the NGO/charity sector cross my desk.  The recent cover of Charity Times holds the title “Measuring Impact”.  That is the not-for-profit sector’s equivalent of “Twenty Days to Sixpack Abs”.  I mean, is there even one issue of any health journal that does not include an article about how to get better abs?  Is it really possible that there are literally thousands of ways to say exercise regularly and eat less?  Apparently, there are.  I vote for a new research agenda:  Measuring the impact of articles on measuring impact.

3.  NGO. It is as much a title as an acronym; as much a declaration as a status.  What does it mean in a world where those bearing the NGO label are massively funded by governments?  And where governments  dictate so many of the terms of engagement?  I mean, if 75% of your field expenditure is financed by the likes of DFID, ECHO and USAID, the label of NGO seems deceptive.  Ditto where half of your management team used to work for the government.

NGO is an anachronism, a mark of distinction from days gone by, created by the UN to distinguish state actors/bodies from citizen groups.  Those distinctions are now hopelessly blurred.

Defining oneself through negation is a tricky business.  (If I had paid better attention at university, I might even remember what Sartre had to say about it).  Lots of organizations are non-governmental.  Technically, the Mara gangs and the International Fan Club of Rihanna would qualify as NGOs (probably more NG than CARE or even MSF).  But for many organizations that are not governmental there is no necessity or identity to be found in distinction from government.  No confusion between the Mara Salvatrucha and a delegation of foreign ministers (I know, I know, between the Mara and typical governments there is an identical imposition of a monopoly of violence to further economic interests, but that’s another blog, one which includes digressions).  So it raises the question of whether times have changed.  Do we now need additional acronymed credentials?

In honor of the tectonic shift towards social entrepreneurship – the transformation of the development NGO into a patron of the free market system – and marking the recently well-promoted “collaboration” between Glaxo SmithKline and Save the Children, I hereby initiate NCO.  Non-corporate organization.  To create distinction from organizations promoting corporate interests.  And for places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and (soon enough) Syria, how about NMO?  Non-military organizations.  To create distinction from organizations that are directed via belligerent funding to achieve “soft” military targets (talk about a gap re measuring impact!).  A bit clunky on the tongue — “As an NGO/NCO/NMO, we believe…”  — but the distinctions are vital.

Risk Transfer

Apologies for the long gap since the last post.  Apparently, there is a general opinion that blogging about ideas should not displace my real work, which involves processing 3-sentence emails.

Aside from not keeping up this blog, busy people like me become addicted to the flatteringly-named ‘executive summary’.  In fact, I’d venture to say that you can define the rise towards leadership by the ability to take decisions based on a greater and greater abstraction (i.e., ignorance of the actual situation).  Anyway, someone recently sent me a report from Insecurity Insight.  They crunch data on the kidnapping and death of humanitarian workers.  Kudos: most of their analysis seems like actual science. Meaning: it reads like a foreign language to me. I’m more at home in a world of authoritatively-delivered opinion dressed as fact.

Knowing I don’t read, the friend who sent me the article copied out the key conclusions.  A surprise:  their analysis questioned “risk transfer”.  This term refers to a vitally important discussion, one we humanitarian organizations need to get right, and one which will require far greater data and analysis than currently available.  In short, there is concern that the rising numbers of national staff victims in security incidents may indicate a risk transfer; that we agencies are disproportionately pulling expat staff out of harm’s way, leaving national staff to run programs in situations.

Risk transfer is far from my area of expertise, so allow me to rush forward with a few unsubstantiated opinions.  First, this is sensitive stuff.  The pressure to keep projects running and the pressure of insecurity upon those projects have never been greater.  Second, it is uncomfortable for Western agencies to think of themselves as engaging in a strategy which passes risk from one party who does not wish to shoulder the risk to another party who takes it on.  If you don’t recognize that arrangement in another guise, it’s called insurance.   In the insurance biz, of course, the insured party pays a premium to the insurer to take on the burden.  Insurers do so willingly and knowingly and to great profit.  So we good Samaritans squirm at the prospect that the salaries we dispense, so vital to our staff and local partners, may equate to an involuntary premium to absorb risk; a deal they don’t feel empowered to challenge or refuse.

(Clever folk that we are, rationalization allows us to justify risk transfer: we do it for the beneficiaries (of course).  Compared to national staff, the impact on programs of the death or kidnapping of an expat is more serious.  Western agencies are forced to make greater changes.  Perhaps programs will close or scale down across an entire region, and not just with the affected NGO.  Or, an even more fishy driver of NGO decisions – funders may pull the plug.  And that doesn’t even broach the increasingly likely threat of litigation back home.  So it is clear, isn’t it, we need to protect expats in order to save the beneficiaries?).

As I said, murky waters.  So you can well imagine the collective sigh of relief at Insecurity Insight’s bold-printed announcement that our guilty fretting over risk transfer may not be necessary at all.  Their research announces that the phenomenon is questionable.  Busy, I almost stopped reading there.  Very glad I didn’t.

Here is the actual quote:

However, it is questionable whether this reflects a conscious decision to transfer risk from one category to another. Rather, this pattern more likely reflects an increasing reluctance to place international staff (who may be more exposed than local staff) in danger, as well as considerations regarding the cost and effectiveness of national staff who receive lower salaries and are assumed to have greater local acceptance.

Read it a few times.  In the annals of reporting across the sector, that may be the top piece of sophistry I’ve ever spotted.  Let me get this straight.  Their analysis is that there is no conscious decision to transfer risk to national staff because that is a mere by-product of being reluctant to place expats in danger.  Isn’t Insecurity Insight confusing the absence of intention with a get-out-of-jail-free card?  Their report suggests a complete abdication of responsibility for the direct and predictable consequences of decisions.  Let’s paraphrase:  “It is questionable whether Biff’s driving reflects a conscious decision to run over baby prams.  Rather, his accidents more likely reflect Biff’s increasing reluctance to drive at slow speed.”

Apocalypse Now (and Again)

The world did not end yesterday.  At least, not for you.  Not for me.  Yet in places like Syria, Pakistan, and South Africa, individual worlds = came to an end.  The culprits?  Not the dreaded riders of the Apocalypse, but well familiar stalwarts like hatred, greed and violence.

Earlier this week the United Nations launched its largest appeal ever, for nearly £1 billion, to address the crisis caused by the war in Syria. The months of fighting have provoked supply shortages, mass migrations and huge numbers of wounded against a background of intensifying cold, grief and devastation. And what will the UN do with that money?  The multi-billion dollar international humanitarian industry is virtually locked out of Syria.  It simply does possess the skills and capacity to work effectively in what can only be described as a very modern humanitarian crisis:  security risks, lack of authorisation from the government, and an insufficient ability to negotiate and maintain access in such circumstances.

Even MSF has struggled enormously to open hospitals inside Syria, vitally important to those reached and yet insignificant compared to the larger needs. Put simply, in the midst of such epic crisis, and despite Herculean efforts of Syrian doctors and nurses, ordinary Syrians have preciously poor access to drugs or medical care.

It’s not the obvious cases of civilians in war – old people, women, children, and even babies –wounded in bombings and shrapnel injuries. Or the psychological trauma.  It’s the slow fade that shocks me, the banality of chronic conditions: diabetics who run out of medication, children with asthma, and women who need caesareans.  Where would I get my resupply of statins in a place like that?  I’d have to give up sausages.

Earlier this week in Pakistan, polio immunisation campaigners were assassinated in a series of targeted attacks. No medical work can be carried out effectively in the atmosphere of mistrust caused by years of deliberate misinformation, rumours, or such a blatant abuse of the medical act as having spies pose as doctors (see my earlier blog on the good doctor Afridi or humanitarians as spies).

Humanitarians can’t shoot their way into town.  If you headed an NGO, would you be able to ask people to go out and vaccinate?  Where a nurse “armed” with nothing more than a syringe might end up between the crosshairs of a weapon? The pursuit of political and military objectives erodes trust in healthcare itself, and children fall ill and die of diseases – diseases for which prevention is simple in theory, but dangerous in practice.

And far from the week’s headlines, in places like Uzbekistan, Swaziland and South Africa, highly virulent strains of tuberculosis (TB) spread. Increasingly resistant to treatment, TB causes people pain, suffering and debilitation until death liberates them. Those who are “lucky” enough to access treatment are administered a highly toxic drug regimen that lags on for years – and given an only per cent chance of cure.

Syria, Pakistan and South Africa lie far apart on the map.  The common denominator of much suffering in these nations, as in so many others, is the space between people who need care and people who can provide it.  This lack of access – and the deaths that result – is as preventable as polio; it is not the doing of cosmic forces beyond human control.  No, I’m afraid the world does not end in one big bang – it blinks out in the bits and pieces of human lives.

[I drafted the original version of this blog as a letter to the editor but it didn’t get picked up.  P and S from the office contributed a great deal to the editing.  Thanks]

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.